photo by Bob Burns
On the Road to Rio: Stephanie Brown Trafton – Discus
By Bob Burns
Stephanie Brown Trafton figured the road to Rio would be different from the ones she traveled to Athens, Beijing and London.
For starters, she’d be juggling her training with the rigorous demands of motherhood. She’d also be 36 years old. Finally, to have any hope of qualifying for her fourth Olympic team, she’d need to throw the 2.2-pound women’s discus farther than she had thrown it in four years.
The first two of the potential roadblocks – maternity and age – didn’t faze the 2008 Olympic champion. Her two-year-old daughter, Juliana, is accustomed to accompanying her mother to workouts. And it’s not uncommon for discus throwers to remain world class into their late thirties and even early forties.
Plus, Olympic years bring out the best in the Galt resident, who in 2008 became the first U.S. woman in 76 years to win an Olympic discus title.
“In other years, work happens, life happens,” she explained. “Every fourth year, I get super-committed.”
But with the U.S. Olympic Trials less than two months away, Brown Trafton still hadn’t reached the Olympic qualifying distance of 61 meters, or 200 feet, 1 inch. She hadn’t thrown that far since 2012, when she finished seventh in her third Olympic appearance. Brown Trafton’s post-maternity bests were 194-8 (2014) and 192-10 (2015).
After placing fifth at the 2015 U.S. Championships, she took a shorter-than-usual break before beginning her Olympic preparations. With her strength levels back up to par, Brown Trafton threw 199-6 at the Cal Poly Invitational in late March. She followed that up with a 197-3 throw in Salinas. Still, the Olympic qualifying standard proved elusive.
Brown Trafton finally exceeded the Olympic standard at a test event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On May 15, in the ring that will be used three months later for the Olympic women’s discus final, Brown Trafton defeated a field of South American throwers with a throw of 200-10.
The road to Rio suddenly felt a whole lot smoother. Two weeks later, much closer to home, Brown Trafton improved further, throwing 207-0 at a meet in Salinas.
“I’m really relaxed now that I have the standard,” Brown Trafton said recently following a training session at Sacramento State. “Now all I have to worry about is finishing in the top three at the (Olympic) Trials. I don’t have to worry about chasing the standard.”
Joining Brown Trafton in the discus cage next to Sac State’s baseball stadium were Juliana and Rob Budke, her longtime coach. Juliana occupied herself by munching on snacks and playing with a couple of toys her mother packed for the trip. Budke watched the video of each throw on his phone and offered Brown Trafton technical advice. Stephanie carried Juliana in her arms as she returned from retrieving the tools of her trade.
“She’s a great kid,” Brown Trafton said of Juliana. “My husband (Jerry) and I are afraid to have more kids, thinking we’ve used up all the great genes on this one.”
Budke began coaching Trafton Brown when she attended Arroyo Grande High School in the late 1990s. They picked up where they left off in 2005 after her graduation from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where she played basketball and earned All-America honors in the discus.
Her big breakthrough came at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento, where her opening throw of 203-1 – the first 200-footer of her career – held up for second place and a berth in the Athens Olympics.
She failed to quality for the Olympic final in Athens, and that 2004 throw in Sacramento remained her personal best until 2008. After finishing third in the 2008 U.S. Trials, Brown Trafton shocked the sports world by winning the Olympic gold medal in Beijing. Her first-round round throw of 212-5 held up as 48 throws by the 11 challengers fell short, one by one.
“A blessing from God,” Brown Trafton calls her golden achievement, eight years later.
While that was the singular accomplishment of her career, Brown Trafton had a better overall season in 2012. She broke the American record with a throw of 222-3 in Hawaii and won her third national title at the Olympic Trials. The only real blemish came at the London Olympics, where she finished eighth with a best throw of 206-8. (Her official placing improved to seventh following the disqualification of silver medalist Darya Pishchalnikova of Russia for a doping violation.)
“In London, Stephanie’s first throw was a sector foul of about 217 feet,” Budke said. “That’s always been her M.0. – one good throw. Unfortunately, it was a foul.”
Assuming they’ve all met the Olympic qualifying standard, the top three finishers at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Eugene will represent the United States in Rio de Janeiro. With Gia Lewis-Smallwood, Brown Trafton’s successor as the U.S. record-holder, off to a slow start this spring, the women’s discus appears to be wide open.
photo by Bob Burns
“It seems like the top tier will be crowded,” said Brown Trafton, whose 207-0 throw in Salinas on May 29 moved her to second on the yearly U.S. list behind Whitney Ashley (212-0). “I hope I can get a huge one early and have everyone chase it.””
At the Olympic test event in Rio de Janeiro, Brown Trafton paid close attention to the transportation and security procedures and took copious photos of the facilities.
“It helps me visualize,” she said, clearly confident that she’ll be returning for the main event in August.
Budke is on the same page, judging by his response when asked how he thinks Brown Trafton will fare at the Olympic Trials.
“I’m more concerned about her making the final at the Olympic Games,” he said. “She’s primed and ready. She trained really hard. She’s ready.”
As Brown Trafton packs up after practice, Juliana plays on what her mother calls “the mountain” – a pile of dirt behind the discus cage at Sac State. Brown Trafton talks excitedly of the work she’s done to her fan site facebook.com/sbtfansite. Mom’s having so much fun, in fact, that she says she wants to compete a few more seasons beyond 2016.
With that they set off across College Town Drive to her car, parked on the other side of the railroad tracks bordering the campus. Trailing the 6-foot-4 Olympian in a red wagon is Juliana.
Maybe the roles will be reversed someday, judging from a post on Brown Trafton’s fan site.
“Juliana likes to play catch with daddy when she’s not playing with her doll house or train set. We have decided that throwing in the house is not allowed anymore. She is not only bigger and stronger than most 2- year-olds but she also thinks throwing requires a full 360-degree spin. I guess she is really paying attention when she comes to practice with me. Where can I get a toddler size discus?”
L to R: Brown Trafton, Juliana, Coach Budke (photo by Bob Burns)