Mike Barnett '83 remembers the moment as if it were yesterday. A member of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team competing in the finals of the javelin throw, Barnett paused mid-throw, joining nearly 64,000 spectators witnessing history. All eyes focused on Fermin Cacho, the Spanish native son who sprinted by the waiting Barnett on the final turn toward an unexpected gold medal for Spain in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona.
I thought to myself, ‘How cool is this?’” said Barnett. “I’ll never forget the roar of the stadium.” Nor will he forget what followed. Turning his attention back to his own event, Barnett resumed his competition and finished with a javelin throw that is still the best Olympic showing by an American in more than 30 years.
One of 10 elite Azusa Pacific alumni who can call themselves Olympians, Barnett now coaches the Azusa Pacific women’s track and field team. Once again, he finds himself preparing for the summer Olympics, only this time as a coach for a new generation of Cougars seeking Olympic glory.
From 1980-96, a banner represented APU in five straight Olympiads. However, it has been eight years since a Cougar has competed on the Olympic stage. Back in the game this year, three Cougars, all rookies to the Olympic experience, have their sights, and perhaps more importantly their hearts, set on the home of the modern olympic games, Athens, Greece, where the 2004 summer games will be held August 13-29.
Like so many successful athletes, Stephanie McCann ’00 dreamed of Olympic competition since she was seven years old. Though her first love was gymnastics, a back injury, suffered when she was 12, seemingly forced her dreams to fade. Reviving the vision five years later, she picked up track and field. And in another three, she left her childhood home of British Columbia, Canada, to compete in the pole vault at Azusa Pacific.
“Coming to Azusa Pacific completely changed my direction in life and track,” said McCann, who admits she was looking for a warm-weather school and instead found so much more. “Growing up in a Christian-based home, I knew the importance of family, but I never realized I could have a family in a track and field team as well. The camaraderie was amazing.”
A seven-time NAIA All-American, McCann blossomed in the pole vault during her two years at Azusa Pacific. As her strength and skill increased, so too did her marks, earning her gold and bronze medals at the Canadian national championships and the Commonwealth Games. In 2001, she qualified for the World Track and Field Championships held in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
“That’s where my Olympic dreams began to turn toward something real and tangible,” McCann reflected. “Though I was just going from collegiate competition to international competition, I jumped well at the World Championships and realized afterwards that there is no reason to think I couldn’t make the Olympic team.”
Currently, McCann holds the Canadian national pole vault record at 14’ 5”. However, holding the record and ranking number one in her country does not guarantee an Olympic berth. The Canadian Olympic Committee steers financial resources towards the Winter Games, where Canadians are more likely to experience success. As a result, track and field athletes face stiffer qualifying standards for the Summer Games, and McCann will have to clear at least 14’ 5” twice before Canada will place her on the team.
As a child in Nigeria, Vivian Chukwuemeka ’06 heard a lot about Azusa Pacific. Through the years, fellow Nigerians who competed at Azusa Pacific experienced enormous success, and five went on to the Olympics. Like her predecessors, Chukwuemeka, who is the first Nigerian to compete for Azusa Pacific in nearly a decade, possesses Olympic-caliber talent. A nine-time NAIA champion in the throws, Chukwuemeka holds the current African and Commonwealth record in the shot put at 60’ 4”. Though she has reached the qualifying standard, her Olympic dream still depends on a less-than-objective selection committee, which in 1984 turned a blind eye on Christian Okoye’s qualification mark in the discus and denied him the opportunity to compete in the Los Angeles Games (an act that eventually led to his entry into football).
In the late 1990s, Bryan Clay ’02 made his first collegiate visit to Azusa Pacific to satisfy his parents’ request that he look at a Christian university, but in his mind he was headed to a major state university. The one visit, however, changed his thinking.
“For some reason I was drawn here,” said Clay, who still trains everyday at Azusa Pacific and is coached by Cougar men’s head coach Kevin Reid ’88. “It may have been the family atmosphere, but God drew me to Azusa Pacific. I went home and cancelled all my visits to the major NCAA Division I universities.”
In the course of his four-year Azusa Pacific career, Clay garnered an NAIA record 23 All-America honors in seven events, including his specialty, the decathlon. He guided the Cougars to the four NAIA championships and was named the Most Outstanding Performer of the 2002 Outdoor Championship Meet.
Two years after his graduation from Azusa Pacific, Hawaii-native Clay ranks fourth in the world as a decathlete and has burst on the international track and field scene more quickly than anticipated. Just 24, most expect Clay to gain Olympic experience in Athens, then make a run at the gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games when he would be in his athletic prime. Yet, there may be no holding him back this year. He tallied a career-best 8,432 points in the decathlon, third best in the world last year.
On the international level, last February he finished second at the World Championships in the heptathlon, track and field’s indoor version of the decathlon, thus setting the stage for him to compete for Olympic gold in Athens.
“By nature, I’m not the most optimistic person,” said Clay, who at 5’ 10”, 190 pounds is relatively small for a world-class decathlete. “I usually see the road ahead of me as the most difficult one. Yet, all of a sudden, some very good things have happened to me, and now my dreams have a chance to become reality.”
“People say, ‘You’re too young,’” said Clay with a smile. “I’m just beginning to see myself as one of the elite decathletes in the world and realize that the other guys out there are human just like me.”
Understanding of his own humanness came as part of his journey at APU. “God got a hold of me and taught me some lessons that I needed to learn in order to get my priorities straight,” said Clay. “I had to learn from some hardships that have prepared me for what this year may present.”
And what it may present for Clay and his fellow Cougars, McCann and Chukwuemeka, is an opportunity to fulfill a lifetime dream.
“Their individual outcomes are all part of God’s big picture,” said Barnett as he reflected again on his time as an Olympian. “There is no need for any of them to worry. God is in control.”