- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

GEORGIOUPOLI, Greece — Al Heppner’s body was found at the base of a bridge three days after he finished fifth in the 50-kilometer walk at the U.S. Olympic trials.

His apparent suicide leap stunned the tight-knit race-walking community of Chula Vista, Calif., which struggled with the death of one of its most outgoing and popular members.

His teammates knew only one way to try to move on: get back on the road, with hips swiveling, sweat dripping and Athens on their minds.

“It brought normalcy back into our lives,” John Nunn said. “It was something that was such a shock to us that the one thing we definitely knew how to do was to train and walk, so we might as well show up and do that.”

Those long walks have brought some of them to Crete for the U.S. pre-Olympic training camp, then on to Athens and the Games Heppner so coveted. There remains a vacant berth on the 50-kilometer team. Only two walkers made the Olympic qualifying standard. Heppner could have been the third.

Curt Clausen, a 37-year-old three-time Olympian, was the only one to qualify for the Olympics at the trials in the 50k, a 31-mile, nearly four-hour test of mental toughness and physical endurance.

Philip Dunn was third at the trials but didn’t earn a spot in Athens until three weeks later, when he met the Olympic qualifying standard at a race in Tijuana, Mexico. Heppner could have done that, too. He had one, maybe two more opportunities to get a qualifying time.

Those who talked to him after his last race say he looked to the future despite his disappointment.

“To me, it was just a total impression that his will was returning,” Nunn said. “Now had he been like ‘John, I lost it, it’s over, it’s done,’ then, of course, now we’ve got a separate issue. But he certainly sidestepped everyone in a way.”

There must have been something else that led him to park his car atop one of San Diego County’s tallest bridges — 450 feet — and apparently jump to the rocky gorge below.

“I’d like to think it was a whole lot more complex than just, ‘I didn’t make the team. Gosh that’s it,’” Dunn said. “You meet him and you might not think that he’s that complex, but I honestly think there was something more going on than just being disappointed over a race.”

Clausen and Dunn were among those who formed the race-walking group at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista seven years ago. Heppner came later.

“He was our PR man — self-proclaimed and self-promoting — but he did a good job promoting all of us and the sport as a whole,” Clausen said. “I had a bunch of people say, ‘I don’t get those nice race reports anymore.’ Well, if you ever talked to him, you were on his mailing list. He had like 8,000 people on his mailing list.”

Walkers are fiercely proud of what they do, and they offer an impassioned defense when their sport is derided as silly or contrived.

“To anyone who says walking’s stupid, I say so is throwing a stick, so is jumping three times and seeing how far you can go, so is running in a circle once or twice,” Clausen said. “Any event is contrived. Walking is perhaps more natural than anything. It’s a birthright to walk. We’re just seeing how fast we can do it.”

Their training is as intense as that for any of the more glamorous track events. There is no money in it for them, only the joy that comes from performing well.

Nunn, who will compete in the 20-kilometer walk in Athens, thinks often about Heppner, his friend and fellow member of the Army World Class Athlete Program.

“But as far as everything that happened that night, I hardly ever think of that,” he said.

Heppner’s friends prefer to remember the good times — and what might have happened when they entered the stadium for the opening ceremony.

“Walking in next to the basketball players, Al would have been hounding them,” Clausen said, “and jumping up and down trying to get on TV.”

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