Wearing the gold


Correction: This article originally stated that 17 athletes who were competing in the Olympics had UW ties; there were 19 athletes.

While much of the world prepares to tune into the Summer Olympics next week, a select group of elite athletes prepares to compete. UW alumna Aretha Thurmond is one of them.

After a successful performance throwing the discus at the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials on June 24, Thurmond qualified for her fourth Olympic Games. She is among 19 athletes with UW ties participating in this year’s games.

“It feels really awesome. It’s been a great journey and a dream come true, and I’m just kind of enjoying the ride right now,” said Thurmond, a native of Renton, Wash.

The ride began for Thurmond more than 20 years ago, when she was a freshman in high school. After losing a bet to her physical education teacher which required her to go out for track and field, she picked up the discus and went on to win three-consecutive state titles between her sophomore and senior years.

She carried that success to the UW, and her Olympic career took off from there. Under the coaching of former UW track-and-field head coach and throw-coach Ken Shannon, Thurmond qualified for her first U.S. Olympic team in 1996, during her sophomore year.

“She was a coach’s dream … because [of] what she improved, what she did, what she accomplished,” Shannon said. “She had a great attitude. You know, things that happened that weren’t good, she didn’t dwell on, and she went on to make it better.”

Thurmond said that being at the UW while qualifying for the Olympics made it even more significant.

“Making my first Olympic team while there at the UW made it even more of an experience, because I was experiencing college life and the Olympic life at the same time,” she said.

After her Olympic debut, she said she trained too hard in 1997, perhaps a reason she went on to miss the qualifying mark in the discus during the 2000 Olympic Trials. But she then went on to take first place at the next two Olympic Trials.

Now, following a second-place finish at this year’s Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., Thurmond is off to London for a fourth appearance at the Olympic Games.

UW track-and-field and cross-country head coach Greg Metcalf, who was an assistant coach during Thurmond’s time at the UW, was present to congratulate Thurmond during her victory lap at the Trials.

“Watching people that you know making the Olympic Team, and watching someone like Aretha make the Olympic Team, this is what we do, this is the gold standard in our sport,” Metcalf said. “Knowing everything that she is and has been, as a coach at the University of Washington, I was bursting with pride.”

Thurmond, who graduated from the UW in 1998, credits her coaches and the UW network for helping her achieve all her success and shaping her into the athlete she is today.

“I had a great support network, you know, family and friends, coaching staff,” she said. “[My throw coach] Ken Shannon … was phenomenal. I mean, he really instilled a lot of important fundamentals into my mental game plan, my physical game plans, and really helped me learn how to be a better competitor while I was there.”

Although Thurmond has won three U.S. championships and two gold medals at the Pan American Games, she is still hoping for a coveted spot on the podium at this year’s Olympics. She has high hopes that this is her year.

“I’ve grown each season, I’ve learned each season, I’ve learned [at] each Olympic games I’ve experienced,” she said. “I kind of know what it takes … so I’m really excited about my chances.”

Whatever the outcome of her Olympic performance this year, Thurmond said she plans to continue throwing the discus afterward.

“I definitely think after this year, I for sure have at least one more season in me,” she said. “I always tell people, ‘I’ll go ‘til the wheels fall off,’ so we’ll see if that holds true.”

Reach reporter Shirley Qiu at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @callmeshirleyq

Please read our Comment policy.