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Small-town girl will try to qualify for Olympics in heptathlon

Her hometown – Laclede, Idaho – couldn’t be more obscure, but in a way it’s Missy Vanek’s claim to fame.

“When I help out at clinics and camps down here,” said Vanek, who lives in Lafayette, Calif., with her husband Paul and trains at her alma mater, the University of California, “they’ll tell kids I’m from a town of less than 300 people and everybody’s eyes get pretty wide.”

But big Olympic dreams can be sown in small towns, and from some humble high school beginnings – when she was Missy Ennis – at Priest River and a slew of collegiate injuries, Vanek has blossomed into one of the nation’s top heptathletes. Her best of 5,754 points ranks her 11th in the field of 24 for the two-day event beginning Friday at the U.S. Trials in Sacramento, Calif.

Vanek hasn’t actually done a heptathlon this year – qualifying marks could be set anytime after Jan. 1, 2003 – but feels she’s gained more from fine tuning her individual events and training through what normally would have been recovery periods after a full competition.

It’s also kept her in one piece. Since she transferred from Boise State to Cal in 2000 (when she was Pac-10 champion), Vanek’s progress in her demanding specialty has come despite an endless cycle of injuries – tears in elbow and knee ligaments and a quadriceps muscle, a separated shoulder, a fractured vertebra, countless pulled hamstrings and ruptured bursa sacs and a broken big toe.

One of those was suffered in the 2000 Olympic Trials, when Vanek blasted the sixth hurdle in her opening race and crashed to the track, unable to finish.

“It was tough to get over,” she admitted. “I’d never been in a position like that – my first elite level competition – and I was hoping it would be a positive step. It definitely humbled me, but I also realized you’re supposed to be out there having fun – it’s the whole point of doing what we’re doing.”

Vanek, 24, fell in love with the heptathlon in high school, where she was mostly a quarter-miler and high jumper. But she’s gone from a 17.6-second hurdler to 13.93, to go along with improvements to 5-foot-10 in the high jump, 140-10 in the javelin and 18-51/2 in the long jump.

“I can compete on the international level, but I’m not at the top rank yet,” she said. “Most heptathletes tend to peak when they’re 28 or 29, so that’s four or five years off.

“I think I have a great shot at making the team, but if I don’t, it’s not going to break me. I’m looking four years down the road because when I do go, I’m looking to vie for a medal.”

Which would play pretty big in tiny Laclede.

– John Blanchette


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