Olkowski sheds rust, gets in running for decathlon

Calvert Hall track alum pumps up his field events



March 28, 2004|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Ryan Olkowski is four years and a few pounds from making a serious push at an Olympic berth in the decathlon. Considering his track and field roots, that quest doesn't seem daunting at all.

Six years ago, Olkowski was a 148-pound senior at Calvert Hall. Yesterday, he was racing at Stanford University, handling a relay baton on a foursome that was to include Dan O'Brien. Being teamed with the 1996 Olympic gold medalist, even if he is taking his first exploratory steps out of retirement, speaks volumes about Olkowski's potential.

Current world champion and Olympic favorite Tom Pappas is the biggest name on its roster, but when the World's Greatest Athletic Decathlon Club (WGADC) was formed, its mission included identifying prospects with "raw potential." Olkowski certainly filled that bill.

His father, Chuck, played basketball for the University of Baltimore in the late 1960s and early '70s. At Calvert Hall, Ryan played soccer and basketball, but his hops were most evident in the spring.

Olkowski high-jumped 6 feet 10 inches in high school, went to Penn State and cleared 7-3 as a freshman, then showed his versatility. A solid long jumper, he entered a 200-meter dash on a whim and grew into the Big Ten champion. Representing the United States, he placed second in an under-25 meet with athletes from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

That was in August 2002, around when the WGADC was being formed. Olkowski had a Penn State degree, but no idea what to do with it. He stayed in Happy Valley, worked odd jobs and showed enough in his first multi-event test a year ago to gain the backing of the WGADC. Olkowski still trains at Penn State, where he's a volunteer assistant coach, but he'll spend the next few weeks at one of the club's training centers in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Decathletes must balance agility, speed and strength, and Olkowski displayed little of the last element 11 months ago. He put the shot all of 35 feet and couldn't break 100 feet in the discus, deficiencies that kept him under 7,000 points in his decathlon debut.

Now it's conceivable that, come July in Sacramento, Calif., at the U.S. Olympic trials, Olkowski could break 8,000 points, a total reached by only five Americans in 2003. Earlier this month, at the indoor nationals, Olkowski was fifth among 18 men in the heptathlon, a seven-event test.

In less than a year, Olkowski has added nearly 5 feet to his shot put and more than 20 in the discus, and improved his pole vault from 12-9 to 14-5 3/4 . The hurdles and javelin don't seem quite as foreign. Olkowski still has 10.46 speed in the 100 and those gaudy jumping credentials, which include a 25-3 in the long jump.

"I used to weight train with the sprinters and jumpers here," he said last week, from Penn State. "Last year, I switched my program so that it's more in tune with what the throwers do. I've got to put on mass, and build my explosiveness."

Olkowski, 23, has grown to 6 feet 4 and 190 pounds, roughly the same measurements as Pappas, who's 28. While Pappas centers on 2004 and Athens, Olkowski centers on the long haul, 2008 and Beijing.

Both sides

Baltimore's best female runners offer an interesting contrast.

Devon Williams would love to race in Sacramento this summer.

Having been there and done that, Lee DiPietro will pass on the Olympic trials.

The U.S. marathon trials will be held Saturday in St. Louis, and DiPietro, 46, qualified in 2 hours, 47 minutes, 16 seconds last summer. The Ruxton resident experienced the trials hoopla four years ago, when she was 59th, and she's centered her winter and early spring training on a shot at next month's Boston Marathon.

Williams, 14, is one of the best middle-distance prospects the nation has seen. Two weeks ago, the Towson Catholic freshman won a national scholastic indoor championship in the 800, in 2:06.48. Her focus this year will be a berth in the world junior championships, but Dion Hylton, Williams' coach, said "the U.S. trials are big on our radar."

The Olympic trials field for the 800 will be capped at 30, and runners must break 2:04.90 to be considered. Only 20 American women met that standard last year, and Williams is ready to go that fast now under the right conditions. According to Track & Field News, no girl has gone faster than 2:04.55 in a race that included only high schoolers, and Williams figures to notch her bests when she's racing collegians and post-grads.


Joanna Zeiger was second in the Acapulco International Triathlon on March 20 and will be a huge factor at the U.S. trials April 18 in Hawaii. Zeiger was doing doctoral work at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health when she finished fourth at the 2000 Olympics.

Games at a glance

When: Aug. 13-29

Where: Athens, Greece

Sports: 28

Countries: 202

Athletes: 10,500

Events: 296


Web site: www.athens2004.com

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