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Rain, ribbons and running

Chelsea Shapard’s journey to Drake University in Iowa for the NCAA Track and Field Championships included a lot more than running races.

The record-setting University of Utah hurdler earned her ticket to the national finals with high hopes of getting to the final round of competition this year after only going as far as the quarterfinals last season. But when Shapard, a native of Park City, got there, she was met head on by other things besides running.

When Shapard, her coach, Burke Bockman, Utah hammer thrower Josefin Berg and other team coaches rolled into town, rain was pouring throughout the state. Tuesday provided a brief reprieve, but the rain returned Wednesday, postponing early events at the national championships. The weather was even worse in western Iowa, where Bockman is from. Both he and Utah head coach Kyle Kepler are from Iowa and coached at the University of Northern Iowa. They endured a very stressful week as family and friends battled against the epic storms. Luckily, though, the Utah contingent avoided being one of the many teams that had to be evacuated from Des Moines hotels. And somehow, the sun came out each day before Shapard was scheduled to run.

Rain wasn’t the only thing that defined Shapard’s trip. A week earlier, Brigham Young University (BYU) freshman heptathlete Chelsi Peterson was killed in a car accident. The funeral was scheduled during the NCAA finals, and so the nine Cougars that qualified missed paying their final respects to their fallen teammate.

Shapard and Berg were devastated by the team’s loss and as a team from Utah, wanted to do something to show solidarity and pay their respects. Shapard had the idea to wear a blue ribbon on her running jersey in memory of Peterson. She first went to the BYU team to make sure they approved of the ribbon and then offered similar ones for their entire team to wear. That action garnered lots of press and recognition for Shapard during the championships, but she says it was never meant to bring attention to her.

"That wasn’t my intention," Shapard said. "I felt horrible. We wanted to show them that we were there for them."

Even though the two schools are bitter rivals, Shapard said that those things are put aside in times like this.

"I have fun with the rivalry, but I’m friendly," Shapard said. "If that happened to us "

Her gestures also garnered a call from BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe to University of Utah Athletic Director Chris Hill thanking Shapard and the entire university for their actions.

Back on the track, Shapard was facing other challenges. On Wednesday, at the quarterfinals, she said that she ran her 400-meter hurdles race more slowly than usual, but luckily the rest of the field was also having a slow day. The race had been switched last-minute with another event meaning that the hurdlers had warmed up and then had to wait 40 minutes to actually run their race. Still, Shapard ran fast enough to qualify for the semifinals the next day.

At Thursday’s semifinals, Shapard encountered more problems. She stutter-stepped before the first hurdle and hit the fourth hurdle, knocking her off-balance. A frustrated Shapard knew that the mistakes had cost her a ticket to the finals.

"That easily would have been my personal record, because I made up so much ground," Shapard said. "I would have been top 10."

Those that qualified ran a 57.5-second race or better seconds, which Shapard said would have been tough. She felt bad for disappointing her coaches but they discussed the race with her afterwards and offered encouragement.

Shapard said she was even more disappointed the next day when some of the hurdlers in the finals turned in times in the 58-second range, something she said she could have easily done had she qualified.

"I’m thinking ‘I am there,’" Shapard said, incredulously.

Shapard said she received plenty of support from her parents as well after she failed to qualify for the finals in the form of some "armchair quarterbacking" from her dad who immediately broke down the mistakes in the race and her mother, who told her how beautiful she looked running on the track.

Now that Shapard is safely back on the dry ground, she says she is still a little bit sad, but optimistic about the future. Next year, she said, she will have a lot more experience, be able to fine tune her technique more and will hopefully continue to be physically healthy.

She was also encouraged when she found out that she was just three places out of qualifying for a spot in the Olympic trials.

"It’s really sweet, because it’s really close," she said.

She laughs as she thinks of how far she’s come from actually quitting track her sophomore year at Park City High School to almost making it to the Olympic trials.

"It kind of cracks me up," Shapard said. "This is the last sport I ever pictured doing."

Now, she has aspirations to make the 2012 team and then become a professional runner.

But for now, she is settling for a few weeks of rest and relaxation before embarking on her final quest for the NCAA finals before she graduates. She plans to travel to Europe to visit friends in July and will resume her training there. After that, it’s back to Salt Lake where she will fully focus on the task ahead.


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