Plymouth’s hometown hero returns
PLYMOUTH — From a Plymouth girl and onetime Blueberry Festival-goer to 2012 U.S. 1500-meter champion and Olympian, Morgan Uceny came full circle over the weekend.
The 2003 Plymouth High School grad returned home Saturday, this time as the conquering hero to a host of adoring fans at the Plymouth Amphitheater.
She recounted her Olympic journey during an open air interview with WNDU 16’s Angelo Di Carlo and signed autographs for fans who braved the rain to come out and see their hometown hero.
“This has been amazing. I have not been home very long and just driving through town and seeing billboards with my name and my face and just going to the grocery store and to have all these people staring at me, I’m like ‘Is something in my teeth?’” she joked. “It’s very different, and it’s awesome that people recognize me and are excited to have been on this journey with me. I just can’t thank all of you enough.”
She also gave some words of encouragement to aspiring young Olympic hopefuls.
“I remember watching the Olympics when I was young. You love to watch the Olympics no matter what your favorite sport is, and you don’t really think you can do that,” she said. “There wasn’t really that connection, and to be able now to think that I’m that person to bring all these kids out here today is just tremendous. I hope that all the kids out there realize that I’m the real thing: I was just watching people on TV excited, and now I’m where I always wanted to be. As long as you work hard, it’s possible.”
Uceny was presented with a “Run, Mo, Run” poster signed by members of the Marshall County Commissioner’s Office and treated to some complimentary blueberry doughnuts by a representative from the county sheriff’s office.
“It’s pretty amazing because when I’m in season I’m pretty strict with my diet — I don’t eat any dairy, I don’t eat any grains, and I’m a lean, mean fighting machine — and then in the last four days a little belly’s coming on already from all the doughnuts I’ve been eating,” said Uceny, patting her stomach with a laugh, adding “It’s the best gift.”
During her interview with Di Carlo, Uceny recalled her days as a PHS athlete, when she started running as a way to keep fit for basketball season. After placing third at the state cross country finals as a freshman and setting five records for the Lady Pilgrims track team on her way to the 800-meter state championship as a junior in 2002, Uceny was given a scholarship to Cornell, where she briefly dropped off the map when she failed to make the varsity team as a freshman.
Uceny rededicated herself to her sport, however, earning All-American honors as a sophomore. After graduating from Cornell in 2007, she was given a professional sponsorship from Adidas. Initially an 800-meter specialist, she competed at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials where she finished sixth in the 800 and just missed the top three cut to the Beijing Games in the 1500. The experience was an eye-opener for Uceny, and she eventually made the switch to running the 1500 full time, a decision that began to pay big dividends for her last year when she won the Diamond League championship in the event.
She went on to earn the Olympic berth she just missed out on in 2008, claiming the U.S. 1500-meter championship with a 4:04.59 finish at the Olympic Trials June 30. At the head of one of the strongest U.S. women’s 1500-meter teams in recent history, Uceny was predicted by many to earn a top three finish in London, but a heartbreaking fall on the bell lap of the final derailed her hopes of an Olympic medal — an echo of an earlier tumble at the IAAF World Track & Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea in 2011.
It’s an experience that is still raw for Uceny, and she fought back tears as she described it.
“The race was pretty slow, and I could hear other people behind me kind of yelling; there was a lot of pushing and shoving going on, but I was running wide because I knew that I needed to stay clear of that. And then I get to the bell lap and in my head I thought ‘I’m getting a medal’ because I felt so good. I just felt like this is it, this is going to happen, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground,” she said.
“When I think about it I’m like ‘Oh, I’m over it,’ and then I start crying all of the sudden. It’s going to be hard, but it really is getting easier, and I know that I have so many good races in front of me.”
The fall not only left her emotionally bruised but also physically injured, and she announced recently that she would withdraw from competition for the remainder of the 2012 season.
She hopes to get back on the horse in 2013, when a gold medal at the World Track and Field Championships in Moscow could go a long way toward easing the pain of her Olympic tumble. She was also asked about the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and while a world championship remains her goal, she was cautious about making any hard predictions for either the IAAF championships or the Rio Games.
“You just never know. Each year is so difficult,” she said during a press conference Sunday.
“Coming into next year it’s going to be all the same stuff. I’m going to have to work on staying healthy. I’m going to have to even make the team. So there’s still all those steps that I have to worry about. You can’t just overlook them. Yeah, I would love to win a medal, but I’ve got to make the team first and make it through the rounds. I just try not to even look that far ahead, I guess.”
A dirty Games?
Many insiders were skeptical about the success of women’s Olympic 1500 champion Asli Çakir Alptekin of Turkey, who was suspended from track and field for two years after she was caught doping at the 2004 world junior championships and at one point in the 2012 season recorded an improvement of six seconds between races two months ago, a suspicious drop in such a short span.
Her countrywoman Gamze Bulut also raised red flags with her silver medal finish after entering the games as a relative unknown whose best finish in a big race had been an eighth-place result in a preliminary heat of the steeplechase at the 2009 world youth championships and who recorded massive drops in her times in the steeple and 1500 of 39 seconds and 17 seconds, respectively, this year en route to the silver.
In fact, headed into London, Morocco’s Mariem Alaoui Selsouli owned the fastest time in the world this year and was a favorite to win the gold but was instead ousted from the Olympics after testing positive for a banned diuretic, the second failed drug test of her career.
Uceny addressed the specter of cheating in her sport during Sunday’s press conference.
“I try not to judge people until they’re proven guilty, but it’s hard because in our race the winner had been on a previous drug ban,” said Uceny. “You definitely don’t feel like you’re on an even playing field. I know that she had come out and said that it was her coaches that kind of forced her to take what she did and now she’s got a new coach, but it’s just hard to trust people that, if they were willing to use controlled substances then, what’s to stop them from doing it again?
“Her countrywoman, the other Turkish woman, her previous PR was like 4:18 and then she ran sub-4. You just don’t do that in a year. That does not happen so it’s hard not to be a little suspicious. But at the end of the day I can’t control other people, I can only worry about myself and focus on my own training.”
2013 and beyond
Uceny has acknowledged the shelf life of a professional runner is a relatively short one, and while another Olympic berth in the 1500 at the 2016 Olympics is certainly not out of the question, she may soon begin experimenting with some longer races during the 2013 indoor track season to keep her training dynamic and possibly keep her options open in the long term.
Such an uptick wouldn’t be a completely too surprising a turn of events for the 800 runner-turned-1500 specialist.
“Last year I ran a lot of 800s, but this year I think I’m going to try and run some 3Ks,” she said Sunday.
“I can see myself bumping up in distance eventually, whether it’s four years from now or longer. I like doing the longer distance.”
So what might she like to do when her running career is over?
“My ideal job would be a professional photographer for National Geographic,” she said. “I’m getting into photography a little bit as a hobby. I’ve also worked as a personal trainer a little bit, and I love that.”