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Erica McLain still has sand and bone debris in the muscle tissue in her ankle, the remnants of a career-threatening injury she suffered while training in March 2011 for the 2012 Olympics.
Some days, when the ankle flares up, McLain is a mere shadow of the triple jumper who won three NCAA titles at Stanford before competing in the 2008 Beijing Games. But other times, you would never know she was in the hospital for five days, in a boot for three weeks and went more than six months without jumping.
“Some days, it’s absolutely terrible; she believes she’s the worst jumper in the world,” Stanford track and field coach Edrick Floreal said. “Some days, it looks like she could break the American record — you just don’t know what you’re going to get.”
McLain is hoping for the latter when she lines up for qualifiers at the U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., on Saturday. A strong outing will likely propel her on to London, but if she falls short, it’ll put an end to her lifelong dream of bringing home an Olympic medal.
“It’s frustrating, I’ve never been in a position like this,” McLain said. “I mentally just have to stay tough, stay strong and understand it’s going to come down to the day of.”
McLain was a favorite to medal in London until her right foot landed on the edge between the track’s runway and sandpit while she was training at Stanford on March 7, 2011. Her ankle twisted 90 degrees and her tibia and fibula were exposed. The doctor told her she’d never compete again.
“I had to decide, ‘Do I stop? Do I move on and just focus on my desire to go to business school?’” McLain said. “I’m like, ‘No, I have to just commit to it all the way.’”
Within a couple months, McLain was jogging lightly; then, last October, she took her first jump. But McLain wasn’t used to taking things slowly. As an elite athlete, she is wired to push the limits of her abilities.
“I’d never taken a year off,” she said. “I was losing my mind.”
But then Kirk Flatow, the track and field coach at Cupertino’s Monta Vista High School, asked McLain to speak with his students about confronting adversity.
“By the end, she’s crying, the kids are crying and I’m crying,” Flatow said.
Her speech was so impactful, Flatow brought her on as the team’s jumps coach in the spring and, suddenly, 20 kids came out to jump.
“Coaching those kids from the ground up really helped me,” McLain said.
It also gave her a greater appreciation for life after athletics. But first, she’ll follow her own advice on managing adversity when she lines up to jump with everything on the line at the Olympic trials.
“I’ve got to be real, if I don’t make the team — there’s reason. But I don’t want it to be because I didn’t give it my all,” she said.