Sam Donnellon: Hitting too close to home

HARD TO WATCH NEIGHBORHOOD ATHLETE FALL SHORT OF DREAM

BEIJING - The problem with knowing the athlete you're covering is that you know the athlete you're covering. The idea is to record the emotion of the moment without feeling it, but if you've watched someone run all around your small town since she was in grade school, if you've seen firsthand the sweat and toil that went into just getting her to National Stadium last night, well, I'm not sure it's possible.

So there was Haddonfield's Erin Donohue, running third in a pack of nine as they all came around the bend for the final stretch of her 1,500 semifinal race. And there you were, feeling every stride, every bang of the arm, as the pack pushed ahead of her one by one, each heightening the anguish on her face until the final 10 meters seemed an act of utter despair.

20080822_dn_z1donn22s
Erin Donohue reacts after finishing her heat of the 1,500 meters yesterday.

"I just couldn't close," she said after finishing eighth in her semifinal heat with a time of 4 minutes, 16.05 seconds, failing to make tomorrow's final. "Off a slow pace like that, you can't be surprised when these girls come up on you. You have to be ready to go. And I didn't have it to go."

Donohue was more than 11 seconds off her personal best, but less than 3 seconds behind heat winner Iryna Lishchynska, of Ukraine. Hers was by far the slowest of the three heats run, Lishchynska's time slower than 10 runners from the two other races who did not make it.

Which meant, in Donohue's first Olympic race ever, that her dream of making the Olympic final was as close as the runners who crowded her. She knew it, too, spurting forward at times as she lapped the track, trying to bust free from the wedge that had her pinned along the rail.

"Coming off the curve I was actually in a pretty good position,'' she said. "It actually really opened up. That's what's so disappointing. I saw daylight and really went backwards instead of staying up and staying loose. I got tight and that was it.''

This is the ugly side of the Olympic dream. Once the games really get going, heartache rules the day. Far more people leave here with sad stories than happy ones. By yesterday, the 13th day of competition, you develop a certain callousness to it.

But this was different. You felt this one, right down there in the bottom of your stomach. You know how much proving she had to do to get here, how she trained late night in the Oregon rain because that's the only time her coach, John Cook, was available. You have read or heard the dismissive things written about her 5-7, 143-pound frame. A New York Times story this week referred to her as "chunky."

Honest.

You were around for some of those teen moments, too. The big victories, sure, but the ones that produced that anguished look as well. After a tough basketball loss to Sterling as a 14-year-old varsity guard. After a big high school cross country race that went about as well for her as yesterday's race.

"I really wanted to perform well here,'' she said. "The Olympics, in front of thousands. I wanted it really bad.''

Too bad, maybe, she said. She was smiling now, 15 minutes after the race, a tough-it-out smile rather than a happy one. There were about a dozen reporters waiting to find out what happened, from the stops along her journey here - North Carolina, where she went to college, Portland, Ore., where she trained, and Philly, of course. As she spoke, she was a mix of anger and welling tears, but she stayed and talked, beating herself up all the while.

"Maybe I'm just not as fit as I thought I was,'' she said. "Whatever."

You knew she didn't believe it. It was therapy, really, her smile growing more relaxed as she hammered away at herself. Someone asked her if she would try for the London Olympics in 2012, and she said, "Yeah. I got nothing else going on, so why not?"

A joke. A small one, but a start. There would be more angst for sure, questions from her coach about what happened out there, questions from the other runners - the call back home to her mother and father in Haddonfield that would likely boil up her frustration again.

But as she walked away, talking about seeing other races in the next few days, talking about seeing the sights, you realized the pit in your stomach was gone.

There will be another day, she promised.

And the pattern of her life says it will be a much better one. *

Send e-mail to

donnels@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/donnellon.