Olympic dreams end in death

Columbia native Heppner judged `very depressed'

Olympics

February 20, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Twice in his short life, Albert Heppner nearly caught up to his Olympic dreams. Twice, they sped away.

The athlete, who started race walking on a $1 bet at Howard High School and battled injuries and doubts throughout his career, apparently took his life Wednesday night in California after he failed to make the U.S. Olympic team Sunday.

He was 29.

Heppner's body was found by his teammates and police officers under some brush below a 250-foot-high highway bridge in a mountainous area of San Diego County.

California Highway Patrol officers saw his unoccupied sport utility vehicle on the shoulder of Interstate 8, just west of the bridge, about 7:40 p.m. Wednesday, said a police spokesman.

Friends had reported to the local sheriff's department that Heppner "was very depressed," the spokesman said. When the SUV was traced to Heppner, a search began below the bridge near Pine Valley Creek. Searchers were hampered by the dark and fog, but found his body at 3 a.m. yesterday.

"Al was a great athlete and a great advocate for the entire sport of track and field, most particularly the race walk," said Craig Masback, chief executive officer of USA Track and Field. "The entire track and field community mourns his passing and will miss him."

A spokeswoman at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., said crisis counselors were available to Heppner's teammates.

"There's a dark cloud hanging over everybody's heads," said Diana Kersbergen. "It's a major shock. Al was a good guy."

Heppner, a Columbia native and one of the nation's most accomplished race walkers, had a scrapbook of near-perfect moments and heart-breaking defeats.

On Sunday, after stepping out to a huge lead at the U.S. Olympic Trials 50-kilometer (31.1 miles) race in Chula Vista, he faded in the final 20 kilometers and was passed by four other competitors.

After the race, he required medical attention and said he had "never crashed like I did today."

Elliott Denman, a veteran Olympic sportswriter who covered the race for The Sun, said he saw no indication Heppner was depressed.

"He was always resilient. He expressed optimism. He said he was going to take a few days off ... " Denman said.

Although he still had a chance to make the U.S. squad at the IAAF World Race Walking Cup in Naumburg, Germany, the first weekend in May, he became despondent, friends told police.

Heppner's depression was similar to the emotional tumble he took after failing to make the 2000 squad at the trials in Sacramento, Calif. Fighting heavy rain, gusting winds and temperatures below 50 that forced spectators to run for cover, he became hypothermic and had to quit the race.

The man who was so physically tough apparently was unable to deal mentally with the pain of defeat.

Reflecting on the loss in an August 2000 interview with Carol Gralia of the Columbia Flier, he said: "I am extremely competitive, and I always have been competitive to the point where it is probably not healthy. Good for an elite athlete, but makes it even more devastating to me when it does not work out."

After failing to make the 2000 team, Heppner had to move out of the Olympic Training Center. He returned to Columbia for a time but seemed lost.

"I realized how elusive an Olympic berth can be," he told Gralia.

But he quickly regained his focus and joined the Army in August 2000. Heppner was in the Army's World Class Athlete Program by the end of the year. He was an active member of the program at the time of his death.

In 2002, he was ranked second in the United States in the 20-kilometer and fifth in the 50K by Track and Field News.

By the time he got to last November, he was in the right frame of mind for the Olympic year: "Training is going really well," he e-mailed Gralia. "Our Olympic Trials are here in Feb. Things are looking up again."

In January, he won a silver medal in USA Track and Field's 30-kilometer race walk championships in Chula Vista, setting the stage for the trials.

Heppner was introduced to race walking as a high school freshman in 1989, when one of his track teammates dared him to enter a 3-kilometer race and put a $1 bet on it.

He discovered he liked the event, with its peculiar gait, and found he was good at it. He won two AAU Junior Olympic championships and earned a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where he was a four-time NAIA All-American before graduating in 1997.

Heppner aspired to a career in journalism and was a writer for the North American Race Walking Foundation.

"Al really wanted to write," Gralia said. "He wrote some funny things about his meets in Spain."

One piece poked fun at an athlete's plight of being unable to perform for track drug testers, concluding: "I have a new strategy now. Forget hydrating for the race. I'm hydrating for drug testing. After every lap, I'm downing an entire bottle of Sobe. Yes, my time in the race may be slower, but that will be offset when I break the world record for the fastest mark out of drug testing."

Kersbergen said all family members had not yet arrived at the Olympic Center, so funeral arrangements were pending. His mother, Evelyn Heppner, expressed interest in having a celebration of his life at the center for the athletes.

Said Gralia: "He was a nice guy who wanted to finish first."

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