Relaxed and confident, Brad Walker accepted the congratulations of his fellow athletes after winning the pole vault in the U.S. Olympic trials. Walker was going to London for his second try at a medal.
He hopes this trip will be nothing like Beijing.
For this trip to the Olympics, Walker decided to adopt a new philosophy, a slightly unusual one for an athlete who excels at one of track and field's most technical events: try and be just a little bit less perfect.
"I made the Beijing team, I had the highest jump in the world that year, and I walked home empty handed," Walker said about the 2008 Summer Olympics. Favored to win a medal, Walker failed to clear even a qualifying height and never made it to the final.
"I had been to five world championships and have five medals," he said. "The Olympics was the first major meet that I didn't take a medal home, and I'm obviously really disappointed about it."
Four years later, that disappointment still haunts Walker. But it also has fueled his determination.
"One of the things I learned from that experience is I'm a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my preparation and training," Walker said. "I tried to prep everything perfectly going into Beijing."
It didn't take long for Walker to realize there were some things he simply couldn't plan for.
Walker placed third at the Olympic trials in 2008 with a qualifying jump of 18-4 after setting the American record (19-93/4) one month earlier at the Prefontaine Classic.
Focused on staying in control, Walker went to Beijing prepared for everything except the unexpected.
"One of the things I learned is that the Olympics are everything but perfect or perfectly run," Walker said.
On the first night of competition, weather caused delays Walker hadn't counted on. After that, it didn't take long for the resulting disorganization to disrupt Walker's carefully planned routine.
"We had a qualifying round at 8 p.m., and I took my last jump past midnight," Walker recalled. "You don't train for something like that."
The delays spelled disaster for Walker, who left Beijing stunned. Eventually, disappointment, then anger, set in.
Building his career
A South Dakota native raised in Spokane, Wash., Walker was a football player and track athlete in high school. He attended the University of Washington, where he became a two-time NCAA indoor champion and a two-time conference champion.
Walker won silver at his first World Championship meet in 2005, followed by gold in 2006. He also earned medals in 2007, 2008 and 2012.
At this year's Olympic trials, Walker had the opportunity to put his philosophy in practice, when chilly rain in Eugene presented a huge obstacle.
During the qualifying rounds, jumpers waited inside a tent, hoping for the rain to subside.
"A headwind one trip and a crosswind the next, and you can't really build from jump to jump," Walker said. "That's exactly what is scary in an Olympic trials system where it's the top three in one meet."
Walker has said he will be seeking to atone for his missteps in 2008.
"I definitely wasn't happy after Beijing. This time, it's going to be different," Walker said. "Basically, I'm not disappointed with the way I performed, but I got angry during the meet, and you can't have those kind of emotions trying to do something really technical.
"I can put it behind me now, I think in a very healthy way, but also use it as motivation. That's not something that I guess I want to forget. But it is motivating, and I do know what to expect — the unexpected."
This time, regardless of the outcome, Walker pledges he will keep his anger, and any other volatile emotions that surface, out of the way.
The qualifying jumps in the pole vault will be held Wednesday. The final is Friday.
"This time," Walker said, "I'm just going to go with it. I'm just going to roll with it, and I feel like I'm going to come back with some hardware."
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