Friday, June 15, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Twelve years ago, UNLV track assistant coach Khadevis Robinson ran the 800 meters at the Olympic Trials and finished a devastating fourth, one spot shy of making the team. The disappointment nearly derailed his track career before it really began.
Three weeks ago, UNLV senior Brett Zorich was winding down what would have been a solid, if unspectacular, running career for the Rebels. She had recently completed her undergraduate degree and planned to take a year off to travel, content with running for fun from then on.
In eight days, if everything goes right, both of them will be on Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., competing at the Olympic Trials in the 800 for spots on the United States track and field team at the London Olympics.
“This was kind of a shock, honestly,” Zorich said.
The pair make up two-thirds of UNLV’s expected contingent at the trials. The other is hammer thrower Amanda Bingson, who recently finished third at the NCAA Outdoor Championships and as of Wednesday night had the third-best qualifying throw (71.04 meters) in the country.
Robinson and Zorich have taken drastically different routes to this year’s Olympic Trials. For Robinson, it’s trip No. 4, which includes earning a spot on the 2004 team in the Athens Olympics. He didn’t run his first open event this year until the Pre Classic at Hayward Field on June 2, yet he finished fourth in a stacked field.
“I’ve gotten to a point where I know where I’m at, I know what it takes to get in to the right type of shape,” said Robinson, 35, whose accolades include a combined eight USA outdoor and indoor titles in the 800.
For Zorich, it’s an opportunity she never planned for, one that may change how she attempts to make a living in the next few years.
Entering her senior season, Zorich’s best 800 time was 2 minutes, 11.77 seconds, which doesn’t resonate on the national stage. At the Mountain West Outdoor Championships on May 12, it was teammate Kelsey Williamson who won the crown. Zorich finished ninth.
But Robinson, who came to UNLV in January 2011, has always tried to treat his athletes the same, whether they finish first or last. Zorich got the same training and faced the same expectations. Two weeks later at the NCAA preliminary meet, she surprised everyone except Robinson with a personal-best 2:05.39, earning a place at nationals.
For most of the season, Zorich wasn’t even the best 800 runner on her own team, then suddenly she went to the NCAA Championships and ran a 2:04.54. That time put her inside the bubble of provisional qualifiers for the Olympic Trials, which requires at least a 2:05.9 to be considered.
There will be 30-32 women competing in the 800 at the Olympic Trials, and as of Wednesday night, Zorich had the 29th best time. The cutoff for entries is Tuesday, June 19, an agonizing stretch of days for bubble athletes who have been building toward this for years. Zorich, though, is taking it all in stride, just like Robinson taught her.
“All I can do is plan like I’m going, train like I’m going and hope for the best,” Zorich said Wednesday, just minutes before beginning a training session with Robinson.
The chance to compete in the same meet as your coach and vice versa is a rare opportunity that both parties hope comes to fruition. But whether it does or not, and no matter how either runner finishes, they will enjoy the moment and then move on, which is perhaps the most important lesson Robinson has learned in his 14-year career.
After finishing fourth and missing the team in 2000, Robinson went back to his apartment in Santa Monica, Calif., “and I’m thinking, ‘This is really sad.’ I’m really leading the (professional) life, but because I didn’t make the team, I felt like I was lost,” Robinson said. “And I thought, ‘This is not how things are supposed to be. I want to make the team, but if I don’t, life goes on.’”
So, Robinson, who won the 1998 USA Outdoor 800 title at TCU, went to grad school at Cal State Los Angeles, earning his degree in public administration just a few weeks before he returned to the trials in 2004 and placed second for a spot on the team. In Athens, Greece, Robinson posted the best time (1:46.14) that failed to make it out of the first round. No Americans made the finals.
That experience taught him to appreciate the moment and enjoy all of his surroundings, something Robinson said is very difficult for athletes who attempt to get in a zone and block out everything else.
The sentiment was further hammered into him in 2008 when Robinson, who weeks before that year’s trials was in the best shape of his life, trained too hard and again finished fourth. This time his wife and infant son were in attendance, so he wouldn’t need an epiphany in an apartment. He had already found his life outside of track and he encourages all of his athletes to do the same.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to win. As of Wednesday night, Robinson’s 1:44.03 from the 2011 season was the second-best qualifying time in the country.
Everything is here for a reason, Robinson often tells people, whether it’s his athletes, recruits or a group of people who’ve brought him in as a motivational speaker. After that fourth-place finish in 2008, Robinson said he found that his reason for being an athlete was to give himself a vehicle for motivating and inspiring others. Making a second Olympic team would only give his words a larger platform.
And as far as inspiration goes, the Rebels boast two stories that would rival any you will hear at the trials:
1. A 35-year-old husband, father of two and full-time coach finds time in his schedule to drop in and prove he’s still one of the best in the country, if not the world.
Or 2. A recent college grad whose track career showed no outward signs of national greatness rattles off the best times of her life at just the right time, giving her a chance to run alongside the legends she looks up to.
Pick either one. They’re both winners.