Jon Gugala joins David Hunter, Elliott Denman, Justin Lagat and myself in our coverage of the 2012 London Olympics. (James Dunaway will soon join us).
Today, his piece is a thoughtful piece on Desi Davila and the challenges she has had since she made the Olympic marathon team for the U.S. in January 2012.
To be the best, one must challenge the body, the heart, the soul, and the feet, to do things, miles and more miles, that many would never do. That is how one becomes an Olympian at the marathon. Desi ran the old fashioned way,
and she earned her berth.
A hip flexor injury has challenged her, and Jon Gugala considers that and other signs, from her twitter chatter to her reading list, to see how Desi will possibly gather herself on August 5, for the Women's Olympic marathon.
We hope that you like Jon's piece. He writes about the road not travelled by many of us, and as fans, enthusiasts and readers, we are better for seeing a clearer view of the athlete and the person.
Desi Davila, 2010 USA Outdoor, photo by PhotoRun.net
by Jon Gugala
In a phone interview dated June 12, Desiree Davila, calling from her Chula Vista cell phone number in her Rochester Hills, Mich., home, speaks with me for 18 minutes. Never once do we talk about running. For a conversation with Davila, this is not unusual.
Instead of running, we're talking about books and at what point you just give up on a book you're not into, and I say that I've always felt guilty about it.
Davila says, "No, I really, really try, and I'll keep it on the shelf, and then maybe start something else and work on that for awhile, and then go back to it. And most of the time I can go back and pick it back up.
"If it's that far along, and it's really not grabbing my attention, I don't feel too bad giving it up. But I usually stick it out."
Davila, 29, has been a marathoner for the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project since 2005 after a so-so collegiate running career concluded at Arizona State. We met in the summer of 2009 when I was a lowly college student working as an intern-writer for HBDP. It was also the summer that Davila had been selected for the U.S.'s IAAF World Championships marathon team, where she would break 2 hours, 30 minutes, for the first time, running 2:27:53 for 10th and second American.
It was her second place finish in the 2011 Boston Marathon--arguably the defining race of her career--that the U.S. was confronted her talent (though not without some initial confusion: announcers were so shocked to see her battling in the last 10K that they repeatedly and without irony call her "De Silva" for most of it). Her PR of 2 hours, 22 minutes, and 38 seconds made her the third-fastest American ever at the distance. After a runner-up finish to Shalane Flanagan at the 2012 Olympic team trials marathon in January, Davila secured her spot on her first Olympic team.
But in July, Runner's World's Peter Gambaccini broke the story that Davila had been struggling with a hip flexor injury, necessitating her spending an awful lot of time on the AlterG treadmill, a rehab aid which uses air pressure to reduce the impact forces during running, in her preparation for the Olympic marathon on August 5. On the possibility of pulling out of the race, coach Kevin Hanson said, "We haven't gotten to that point yet," adding, "If she opts not to [race], it will not happen until she's on hard surfaces in London."
That point was seemingly reached on Sunday when the Detroit Free Press, whom Hanson was writing "postcards" from the Olympic experience, reported Davila was officially withdrawn. The news cancered its way through news agencies and social media alike.
The only problem was that it wasn't true.
"Wow, news to me!" Davila tweeted that day. "Just finished with team doctor, taking it day by day. Will do everything I can to get to the start."
Later that day, after a formal apology from Hanson, more of the story came to light in an interview with the Wall Street Journal's Sara Germano. Apparently Davila had decided to withdraw and informed USA Track and Field, but was then talked back into it by USATF coaches who recommended more therapy before a final verdict.
Regardless of how well or unwell Davila is, in June she didn't mention any injury, maybe because I didn't ask it, maybe because it didn't exist. Our interview was part of a brilliant but un-realized idea I had for a crossover story for a literary friend's blog ("The world will know how interesting processional runners can be!"), and we were talking about everything except running. Maybe, even then, her hip flexor injury was the grub that's been underground for 13 years and then suddenly emerges in its own little-understood timing. I don't know.
Davila says, "And that's the thing if you're reading on the iPad: it's so easy to get distracted. Oh, someone tweeted at you, and you want flip over because everything's right there.
"I try to have the actual book and not have things on and not have anything with me and just sit down and read the book and pay attention to the book. It's getting harder and harder to do that. There's so many distractions that people don't give themselves time to relax and take that in. So I try to do that."
In London Davila is on lockdown, and she and her coaches are off-limits. And it's understandable: there's been enough attention with the black eyes to Hanson and USATF, and if she is to run, now's not the time to be fooling around with journalists and their probing questions.
So I'm left to speculate, as are the other journalists who ponder what this means to American medal chances and if someone can live up to Deena Kastor's bronzed Olympic legacy from 2004. I listen to a conversation well before the announcement of her injury, reading in to seemingly unrelated statements for clues. I don't know how Davila is and if she'll start, and I don't know if she'll finish and if she'll be competitive in that finish.
Here's what I do know, because Davila said it about travel:
"You always see the news, everything's bad news, and people that haven't traveled think everything's frightening and everyone's out to get you and everything's always bad, because that's all you see. If more people traveled, there'd be less problems in the world because they would see that everyone's in the same boat."
I read that back and I replace the word "travel" with the word "run," and I think that's pretty true when speculating about Davila's marathon chances: if we'd all remember back to a race where we approached the starting line injured, we could understand the dilemma she finds herself in a little better.
Finally I flip over to her Twitter account and look back on her posts from the last week, and see if I can find one more clue to finish the story. And I do. It's a little one, and it's something she quotes from Joseph Campbell, who she tells me back in June supplanted Bonfire of the Vanities (I do not know if she ever returned to Tom Wolfe, but I suspect she did):
"Opportunities to find deeper powers within ourselves come," Campbell says, "when life seems most challenging."