It was a banner year for the University of Arkansas Athletic Department as a record 11 current and former student-athletes represented the Razorbacks at the Games of the XXIX Olympiad in Beijing, China, this past August. Seven women and four men representing five countries coached and competed in the track and field and swimming venues, and two former student-athletes received the honor and distinction of carrying their country’s flag during the opening ceremonies.
Track and field was the most populated sport as 10 of Arkansas’ 11 student-athletes either coached or stood on the “Bird Nest’s” track in Beijing. Representing the Razorback women’s track team were seven of its former student-athletes: Nicole Teter (USA, 800 meters), Christin Wurth-Thomas (USA, 1,500 meters), Amy Yoder Begley (USA, 10,000 meters), Deena Kastor (USA, marathon), April Steiner Bennett (USA, pole vault), LaShaunte’a Moore (USA, 4×100-meter relay pool) and Veronica Campbell-Brown (Jamaica, 200 meters, 4×100-meter relay). Among the men’s representatives were Jerome Romain (Dominica, head track coach), Wallace Spearmon Jr. (USA, 200 meters), Tyson Gay (USA, 100 meters) and Alistair Cragg (Ireland, 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters).
Campbell-Brown, the first Razorback women’s Olympic gold medalist in school history at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, won the gold medal in the 200 meters with a personal-best time of 21.74 seconds. Her new medal was the fifth in her collection and she became only the second woman is history to successfully defend the Olympic 200-meter title. Her time, 21.74, is eighth on the all-time list.
Bennett was a long shot to make the finals but finished eighth in the women’s pole vault competition, clearing a personal-best 14 feet, 11 inches. It was her first Olympic competition, and she couldn’t help but feel the emotion.
"I walked out of the tunnel and onto the track and I started to cry,” Steiner Bennett said. “It was just so overwhelming."
Fayetteville native Spearmon breezed through his preliminary rounds of the 200-meter dash in preparation for what was sure to be a fast final heat. After what appeared to be a third-place finish and the first Olympic medal of his career, Spearmon was disqualified for leaving his lane on the curve. Jamaica’s Usain Bolt won in dominating fashion, and after the added disqualification of initial second-place finisher Churandy Martina of Netherlands Antilles, USA’s Shawn Crawford and Walter Dix rounded out the top three.
Kastor was also after another Olympic medal in Beijing after having won bronze in the marathon in 2004. In her third Olympic competition, Kastor failed to finish the marathon after experiencing discomfort in her right foot five kilometers into the race, the discomfort was the result of a broken bone she suffered less than three miles into the 26-mile race. Constantina Tomescu-Dita of Romania, the same athlete Kastor had to hold off in the final stretch her 2005 Chicago Marathon victory, won gold.
Teter, another multi-time Olympian for the Razorback women, competed in her second Olympic Games. A leg injury kept Teter from even completing a lap, as she stepped off the track 100 meters into the race with tears streaming down her face.
“I really thought I could just step on the track and get through it," Teter said. "This is the Olympics. I had to go for it. My first stride, I just couldn’t get on my toes. I went as far as I could and I just couldn’t do it."
Wurth-Thomas posted an eighth-place finish in her heat of the 1500 meters. She posted a time of 4:09.70 in her first dose of competition at the Olympic Games.
Begley, the most decorated women’s track athlete in Razorback history, also saw her first dose of action in Olympic competition when she competed in the 10,000-meter final. Her road to Beijing was one of uncertainty then joy.
Immediately after finishing third at the US trials in Eugene, Ore., Begley was still uncertain as to whether or not she had made the time standard required to make the Olympic team. Needing to meet the Olympic A standard of 31:45.0, Begley cut it close and initially thought she was over the standard. As it turned out, she was credited with a time of 31:43.60, 1.4 seconds under the standard.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Begley said. “I went from this incredible low to this incredible high instantaneously.”
Sprinter Gay, the 2007 world champion at both 100- and 200-meter distances, had a tough go in Beijing after injuring his hamstring during the 200-meter event at the U.S. Olympic Trials one month prior. He was able to advance to the semifinal round of the 100-meter dash, but finished fifth, one spot shy of advancing to the final.
Distance star Cragg was slated to compete at both 1,500 and 5,000 meters in Beijing. After using the preliminary rounds of the 1,500 meters to grow accustomed to track and climate conditions, Cragg was ready to go at 5,000 meters. He clocked 13:38.57 and finished sixth in his opening heat of the event and was able to advance to the finals based on time. Battling an Achilles injury, Cragg stepped off the track during the 5,000-meter final. Although the second-time Olympian was distressed about his finish, he wasn’t making any excuses.
“(The injury) definitely didn’t affect the way I ran,” Cragg said. “When you are fighting an injury it just gets worse, but I got it quite loose and felt okay going into the race.”
At the Water Cube, Beijing’s state-of-the-art swimming facility, Razorback swimmer Yi Ting Siow competed in her third Olympic games for her native Malaysia. Siow was in the pool for the 200 individual medley and 200 breaststroke, and became the first Malaysian swimmer to compete in three consecutive Olympics. Siow crushed the Malaysian national record in the 200 breaststroke when she swam 2:27.80 in the heats of the competition. She missed the semifinals by five-tenths of a second. She wrapped up her Olympic experience with a time of 2:17.11 in the medley.