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Arvia: Magnuson heads list of area Olympics hopefuls

Tinley Park native Christine Magnus(left). AP file photo

Tinley Park native Christine Magnuson (left). AP file photo

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Southland to London?

These athletes with local ties could make news during the Olympics, which take place in London from July 27 to Aug. 12.

Delilah DiCrescenzo: The Queen of Peace graduate and Burbank native will run in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Olympic Trials on June 29 in Eugene, Ore. There are three spots on the Olympic team, and the 29-year-old was ranked third in the U.S. in 2011 by Track & Field News.

Jeneva McCall: The Thornridge and Southern Illinois graduate and daughter of boxer Oliver McCall will try for London in three disciplines — the hammer, the discus and the shot. Ranked third in the U.S. in 2011 and the 2012 NCAA champ in the hammer, McCall will try that event first at the trials, competing on Thursday’s opening day. The discus is June 24 and the shot June 29. McCall, 22, told USA Track & Field, “The schedule of the meet is set up perfect. I can do the hammer and disc, reenergize and come back for the shot. If I were to focus on one or two it’s almost like I’m cheating myself.”

Tom Pukstys: His competitive days behind him, Pukstys, 44, will be in London as a throws coach. The javelin coordinator for USA Track & Field, Pukstys won six national javelin titles after graduating from Stagg High School in 1986. He lives in Palos Heights and works in sports performance instruction out of Bo Jackson’s Elite Sports Dome in Lockport.

Wallace Spearmon Jr.: Not technically a local, Spearmon’s father and aunt, Dora, were decorated sprinters at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island. Spearmon, who grew up in Arkansas, finished third in the 200 meters in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but was disqualified for stepping out of his lane. A three-time medalist in the event at the World Championships, Spearmon, 27, has two of the five fastest 200 times in the world this year.

Dwyane Wade: If he emerges healthy from the ongoing NBA Finals, the Richards graduate has said he’d say yes to an invitation to play again for Team USA. At 30, Wade, a star of 2008’s Redeem Team, recognizes this is probably his last Olympics shot.

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Updated: July 18, 2012 6:31AM



The words alone suggest something entirely apart from the meaning brought home by the face of the person speaking:

“I would retire.”

Christine Magnuson, across the table of a Wicker Park sandwich shop, is possessed of a centeredness, a surety, that says her retirement from competitive swimming is planned. But it is not part of the plan.

Yes, if Magnuson fails to earn a return engagement with the U.S. Olympic Team when she pursues berths in three events at the U.S. Trials beginning June 25 in Omaha, Neb., she would retire. No, the Tinley Park native hasn’t spent a lot of time thinking about that.

“I think that it’s comforting that no matter what happens, I will have to show up to school next semester, and I have a plan for the rest of my life, and I will not go in a hole and die, and, you know, life goes on — and life goes on in a positive manner,” she said. “Having the dream of being an Olympian is a great thing. It inspires you to do things more than what you think you could have done.

“To be an Olympian again would be amazing. Obviously, that’s what I’ve worked for the past four years. But no matter what happens this summer, I will always be an Olympian, and I will always have the experience I had in ’08, and whether I make the team or not I’m still going to be the same person and have the same values and still have the same skill set as I would if I did.

“You have to go for it. But at some level, you have to know that in the big gist of your life, it’s going to be OK either way.”

For the better part of two hours, Magnuson talks this way — before, after and through a beef tenderloin sandwich, mac and cheese, and fruit salad. Great, looping and thoughtful answers to questions not always deserving of such patient enthusiasm.

But the big gist of it is this: Being an Olympian once was pretty cool, Magnuson likes her chances of being one again, and if she’s not, she’ll be OK.

Let’s take the middle part of that first.

Magnuson won silver medals in the 100-meter butterfly and the 4x100 medley relay at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She’s a two-time national champion (2009 and ’10) in the 100 fly. She had a lousy 2011, finishing seventh at the nationals and 12th at the worlds.

“I had sinus surgery in February that took me out for a month and a half, basically, between being sick and recovering from the surgery,” she said. “That doesn’t make for a very good summer, when you’re out of shape in March. ... I wasn’t at my race weight. Those are elements that lead to a bad swim.”

Race weight is 160 pounds for the 6-foot-1 Magnuson. She swam last year’s worlds at 173. She’s 160 again, and posting the sorts of times that make her think she’ll be in the hunt not only in the 100 fly, but in the 100 free and 50 free.

A self-described “end-of-season” swimmer — nationals are usually in July — Magnuson set a personal record in the 50 free in a Grand Prix meet in March.

“I made the (trials) finals last time, in 2008,” Magnuson said. “But I kind of had felt that I was more at the bottom of the top eight instead of the top. I wasn’t really breaking into being competitive with Jessica Hardy and Dara Torres. I kind of felt like I was more 6 to 8. But with this breakthrough of an in-season swim like this, I think I have the potential to really be in the mix.”

Also in the mix in Magnuson’s freestyle events will be 16-year-old phenom Missy Franklin. But it’s the 100 fly, where Magnuson has seen the most success, that has seen perhaps the most change in terms of competiton.

Dana Vollmer, the 2011 world champion, is the favorite at the trials. Natalie Coughlin, an 11-time Olympic medalist, is attempting to swim the 100 fly in an Olympics for the first time and in 2007 set an American record in the event.

“It’s a very different field. It’s a much deeper field than it was in ’08,” Magnuson said. “And the time is going to be much faster to win it.”

Isn’t that part of the Olympic motto? Citius. Altius. Fortius. Faster. Higher. Stronger.

Magnuson seems to embrace the philosophy. Like she said, even having the dream of being an Olympian inspired her to feats she didn’t believe she could accomplish.

And having been there? The magnificent and the mundane get equal billing.

“The podium’s pretty awesome, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “That’s what we all aspire to. But ... it’s fun to sit in the cafeteria with some of your teammates and guess what sport everybody is and what country they’re from. And you all feel on the same level, you feel a connection.

“It doesn’t matter whether they’re a runner from Kenya or a basketball player from the United States. If I’m sitting next to Kobe Bryant in the Olympic Village, yeah, he might be more famous than I am, but we’re on the same level at some point. We’re both Olympians.”

Olympians who solve each others’ problems.

“The basketball players came to a prelim session of swimming,” Magnuson said, relating one of her favorite Beijing tales. “We were like, ‘Guys, it’s really cool that y’all are here to support us, but finals is really where the action’s at. What are you doing here during a prelim session?’ They were like, ‘We couldn’t get tickets.’ The basketball team couldn’t get tickets. All the swimmers were like, ‘You know what guys? We’ll hook you up.’”

Of course, all problems athletes face aren’t so easily solved. Magnuson, in the University of Arizona’s Master’s program in Public Administration, aims for a career in athletic governance that would address some of those issues.

Even during her undergrad studies at Tennessee, she formed a class to help athletes transition from their competitive days. Speaking with a psychiatrist as part of that work, she said, “really clarified for me what it means to be blessed with the time as an athlete, and also what it means when it’s over.”

The psychiatrist advised, “You have to identify yourself once you retire as not being a swimmer, but being a person that swam.”

To that end, Magnuson has a plan. If she makes the Olympics, her contract with Speedo kicks in for another year, so she’ll swim through the 2013 worlds. If not, it’s back to school, and an internship. She’s ready either way.

“I think I started that transition very early,” Magnuson said. “I know I am a great swimmer, and I’ve done amazing things, but it’s not really who I am. My friends aren’t friends with me because I have medals. My parents don’t love me because I’m a good swimmer. ... It’s part of me, but it doesn’t define me.”

So, who is she?

“I’m a collection of things — isn’t everybody?” she said. “Sometimes I’m a student. Sometimes I’m a swimmer. Sometimes I’m a very amateur chef. ... I cook for a group of friends and we haven’t had to order pizza yet. Sometimes I’m a family person. Sometimes I’m a teacher ... I don’t know. Who are you?”

At the moment, a big fan of a certain swimmer from Tinley Park.



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