Three women, three unusual sports: Sacramento-area athletes excel at discus, triple jump and steeplechase
USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships’ more obscure competitions test a combination of skills
As a middle school athlete in Pismo Beach, Stephanie Brown learned how to jump over a high bar, clear hurdles, toss a shot put and throw a discus. Enamored with a boy teammate skilled at heaving the heavy disc across the field, she soon made the discus her priority.
Twenty-five years later, Brown Trafton, of Galt, is the 2008 Olympic discus gold medalist. She’s married to Jerry Trafton and has a 3-year-old daughter, but is still participating. She twirls in a tight ring for a few seconds, then hurls a 2.2-pound saucer. She’s launched it as far as 222 feet, 3 inches.
Along with many Sacramento-area junior, collegiate and professional athletes, Brown Trafton will compete in the four-day USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships beginning today at Sacramento State. The junior outdoor championships will be held simultaneously.
Steeplechaser Leah O’Connor, of Sacramento, and triple jumper Danyelle Kurywchak, born in Sacramento and a Ponderosa High School graduate, will also be among competitors with unique and unusual specialties.
The three athletes’ events are complex, often underappreciated and rarely in the spotlight. They also don’t include the financial rewards available to sprinters and middle-distance runners.
Brown Trafton, 37, is in the self-described “twilight of her career and competing for fun.” Throwing the discus used to be her job. She traveled to far-flung countries to compete in a niche discipline within a niche sport.
“We don’t have the ability to use track and field as our full-time job,” says Brown Trafton, who recently completed her first season as assistant track and field coach at Galt High School. “I was working in a part-time job through 2010, two years after I was a gold medalist.
“After that, I was fortunate to train full-time because my husband was working full-time. He was paying the bills, and the money I received just allowed me to train. I’m not saying it was pennies. It was pretty decent. But I wouldn’t have been able to support myself.”
A shy youngster who often hunched as the tallest kid in school, Brown Trafton has learned to appreciate her 6-foot-4 stature. She wasn’t immediately comfortable as a gold medalist because she had previously competed in only a few international meets. But she was suddenly in the limelight in a discipline where the lights still aren’t particularly bright.
“After winning the gold medal I was basically on the [competitive] circuit full-time in the summertime,” says Brown Trafton, who played one year of basketball at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo before focusing on track and field. “I always kind of got the best hotel rooms and kind of like the star treatment.
“I feel like I didn’t get the full experience of having to sleep [with teammates] in one hotel room, then compete and then drive while on a bus filled with chickens.”
Brown Trafton learned to embrace her height, realizing she couldn’t fool anyone. Now, she wants to be the tallest person in the room, male or female. “People should pay attention what athletes do between throws or in between attempts,” she says of her athletic skill that combines split-second grace and power. “Everything happens for a reason. The few seconds in which an athlete is doing what they do in a throwing event, that’s the culmination of years and years of practice.
“Watch the athletes when they are warming up or when they are cooling down. It’s all rehearsed, and it should be intentional. That’s the work I have to do to make an attempt look like it was flawless.”
The women’s discus has been an Olympic sport since 1928, but the women’s triple jump and steeplechase are in their infancies. The men’s triple jump was part of the original modern Olympics in 1896; the women’s event was added in 1996 in Atlanta. The women’s Olympic steeplechase debuted in 2008 in Beijing, nearly nine decades after the men’s steeplechase became an Olympic sport.
Once better known as “hop, skip and jump,” the triple jump begins like the long jump with a sprint toward the end goal—a leap as a far as possible into a sand pit. But the hop and skip components are required first.
“It’s a very unnatural movement; the body is just not designed for that naturally,” says Kurywchak, 22, who lives with her parents in Cameron Park. “When you first do the triple, it’s just wrapping your mind around the concept. Then it becomes more of a fluid motion as you mentally get into it. Physically, you just get numb to the pain.”
After graduating from Baylor University last December, Kurywchak works at home as a telemedicine project manager. She primarily trains alone at Ponderosa High School and recently improved her best more than 2 feet to 44 feet, 6 1/4 inches.
“I still come across tons of people who don’t even know what the triple jump is,” Kurywchak says. “I didn’t come out of the womb saying, ’I want to be a triple jumper.’ I first tried the long jump when I was in eighth grade and said, ’This could be cool.’ So the triple jump was a rite of passage. They try you out in the long jump and then the triple.”
Kurywchak considers herself fortunate to mix her training with home-based employment. She laughs when she repeats her favorite saying, “People don’t usually pay you too much to play in the sand.”
O’Connor, 25, moved to Midtown Sacramento from Michigan last September to compete for the elite NorCal Distance Project. A two-time national champion at Michigan State, she thrives on running with obstacles in her path and is acutely aware of her sport’s uniqueness.
The women’s steeplechase is 7 1/2 laps around a 400-meter track and includes clearing 28 stationary barriers 30 inches high and seven water jumps. “When I tell people I run track, they comprehend that well,” explains O’Connor. “And then when they ask what I do and I tell them steeplechase, most of the time the response I get is kind of like a blank stare.
“It’s all based on rhythm. The first time I ran the steeple, I remember it was such a foreign feeling. I had run track for most of my life at that point. I had never had that much discomfort in an event in my life. The first time, you might hate it and never want to do it again. But if you’re crazy enough to do it and say it was fun, you kind of stick with it.”
O’Connor was encouraged by a former coach to try the steeplechase because of her running versatility. She signed a professional contract with Adidas two years ago and has the third-fastest all-time American women’s performance—9 minutes, 18.85 seconds.
“It was something new; it made track exciting for me again,” O’Connor says. “When you’re running the hurdles race and hit one, it falls. When you hit a barrier in the steeplechase, you fall.
“That adds suspense when you’re watching the event. You can watch it and know that every time an athlete approaches a barrier, they’re exhausted. We have to be careful. You could end your race every time you hit a barrier. With the water jump, the goal is to clear the barrier and the water without missing a beat and losing your stride.”