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Athlete Prepares for Third Olympics

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

For many of the country's best track and field athletes, the biggest competition of the year is not the Olympic Games; it's the trials to get into the Olympic Games. And those trials begin tomorrow in Eugene, Oregon. The top three finishers in each event qualify for China. And whether you're a world record holder or an unknown, the trials are your only ticket to Beijing.

Mr. ADAM NELSON (Shot-Putter): There's no real tolerance for a bad day, you know. You either perform or you don't.

SIEGEL: That's veteran shot putter Adam Nelson. He's going to his fourth Olympic trials. While experience helps, Nelson says he's feeling the pressure.

NPR's Tom Goldman continues our series on Nelson and his bid for Beijing.

TOM GOLDMAN: The U.S. track and field Olympic trials are tough, some say brutal. Consider the case of former decathlete Dan O'Brien.

(Soundbite of Reebok TV ad)

Unidentified Man: Dan won the decathlon in the world track and field championship. Dave won the decathlon at the Goodwill Games. This summer, they'll battle it out in Barcelona for the title of world's greatest athlete.

GOLDMAN: In 1992, a Reebok ad campaign had Dan O'Brien and his countryman Dave Johnson, slotted for a decathlon showdown at the Barcelona Olympics. One problem, O'Brien blew it at the Olympic trials and didn't qualify for Spain. Track and field athletes in other countries can get a buy to the Olympics based on great past performances. Two-time Olympic silver medalist Adam Nelson would benefit from a system like that.

Mr. NELSON: Sure, it would be great if they would have a favorite and protect a favorite and allow that person a buy. But how do you do that in an objective manner?

GOLDMAN: You do it the way it's done, says Nelson, who won the trial's competition in 2000 and 2004. He says he's ready for the pressure cooker again, although he's going in with a veteran's attitude.

Mr. NELSON: Actually, I had an interesting conversation with another track athlete at the airport the other day and he was asking if I was, you know, really fired up and ready to go. And I said, well, yeah, I'm fired up and ready to go but I'm not really obsessing about it yet. The obsessions, and really, the real excitement will start on Friday. And that's something that's changed over the last 10 years.

(Soundbite of cheers and applause)

GOLDMAN: The trials take place at Eugene's Hayward Field. A little over two weeks ago, Nelson took a victory lap there after winning a competition with a huge throw of 72 feet, seven inches. Reese Hoffa finished second. Hoffa, Nelson and Christian Cantwell are the three pillars of what's called the golden age of U.S. men's shot put.

In recent years, they've alternately won major championships and traded places in the top three in world rankings. Hoffa said in Eugene that day, it makes the trials as competitive as the Olympics.

Mr. REESE HOFFA (Shot Putter): I think it's very unique. I don't think - I can't think of another country that has this kind of consistency in terms of having these many throwers that could take over the, more of the world. It's just whoever gets hot at the right time, basically.

GOLDMAN: At the trials, that could be someone other than Nelson, Hoffa and Cantwell. Nelson recalls how he came out of nowhere to win the 2000 trials. It's the beauty of the system and, for the favorites who get knocked out, the pain.

Tomorrow night, it begins with a preliminary round where throwers have to reach a set distance - 67 feet, seven inches - in order to qualify for Saturday's final. Normally, 12 make it to the finals, then a cut down to eight, and finally, three. At the end, if he's one of those still standing, only then will Adam Nelson start dreaming about China.

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.