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The Olympic dream
Norcross teacher has sights set on Beijing

NORCROSS - It's a cool and dark afternoon in early April and the Norcross track and field team is nearly an hour into its practice. As soon as Stephen Harris walks through the gate he's greeted by members of the team.

"How's it going, Coach Harris?"

"What are you working on today?"

Those are just some of the questions. Harris politely replies with a big smile. Discus throws, sprints, hurdles and pole vault are on the agenda for the next two and a half hours.

In between sprints and jumps, the track athletes take time out from their own workouts to sneak a peek at Harris. They marvel at how easily he launches a discus and how effortlessly he clears a hurdle.

"It's amazing he can do all of these events and he's good at all of them," Logan Rhea, a freshman, said. "But I guess that's what you have to do if you want to be in the Olympics."

It's not the ideal training situation for a potential Olympic athlete. Teenagers crowd the track, coaches are yelling in the background and some of the equipment could be in better condition. But nothing about Harris' quest to qualify for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing is normal.

He doesn't train at a fancy track and field facility.

He doesn't have a coach to inspire or correct him.

He doesn't have a sponsor providing money for equipment and travel expenses.

And he works a full-time job as a world history teacher at Norcross High School.

But that's all fine with Harris. He's living in his hometown of Norcross and training to fulfill his dream - to be an Olympic decathalete.

"I'm happy to be here and I'm very glad to be back at home at Norcross," Harris said. "It's a good situation."

Honeymoon in Beijing

This isn't Harris' first shot at trying to qualify for the Olympics. After winning an NCAA title at Tennessee in 2003, he trained the following year for the Olympics.

After the first day of the trials he was in fifth place, but an injured right knee bothered him the second day. By the time he got to the pole vault he pulled out of the competition.

"That's where I called it quits," Harris said. "I said, 'You know what, it hurts too much.' So I just went home.

"I felt like I was pretty close to qualifying. If I had been 100 percent, then who knows what would have happened."

Coming so close to his goal four years ago drives Harris' desire to make the Olympic team this year. He feels healthy enough to compete at a high level, but there will be several tough competitors for him to battle with.

Bryan Clay won the silver medal in the 2004 Olympic games, and he will be back ,along with Tom Pappas, a two-time Olympic qualifier. The top three finishers at the Olympic trials June 29 and 30 in Oregon qualify if they meet the Olympic standard of 8,100 points.

Harris could be that third guy. There will be close to 20 competitors in the decathlon, which includes the 100-meter dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400, 110 hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin and 1,500.

If he qualifies for the Olympics, Harris would join an elite group of former Gwinnett athletes who have achieved that honor. Swimmer Amanda Weir, a Brookwood grad, won silver at the 2004 Olympic games, and Parkview grad Josh Wolff played on the U.S. soccer team.

If Harris does qualify, it will be a very special trip indeed. He hopes to spend his honeymoon in Beijing; three weeks after the trials he will marry his fiance, Anna Jurschek, on July 20.

Going into training

hibernation

On Oct. 4, 2007, Stephen Harris began his 10-month training program to prepare for the 2008 trials. Since that time, many of his friends and family have not heard from him, much less seen him.

"I started letting people know I'm not going to be around after 9 o'clock to talk to you or hang out," Harris said.

Unless you want to get up in the middle of the night.

Harris' toughest training days began at 3 a.m. By the time many teachers and students were arriving at Norcross, he had already completed a two-and-a-half-hour workout and was ready for school.

After an eight-hour day at school, it was back to the track for another workout. If the weather was bad he attended a yoga class, went to an indoor swimming pool or played basketball.

If things went well, Harris was in bed by 6:30 p.m., ready to do it all over again the next day. He did that six days a week, with Wednesday as his only day off.

With such a strict schedule and no free time, Harris doesn't have much of a social life. He's not up on the latest TV shows or movies, there are no guys nights out on the town and he barely has time to keep up with his friends and family.

"I think the sacrifice is worth it. Everyone understands it," Harris said. "My friends understand and are always encouraging me. It's worth the sacrifice I think."

The toughest part of the training is Harris has no coach to help him. He trades ideas and asks for advice from Ron Green (his former Norcross track coach), along with Peachtree Ridge track coach Tomy Sitton and Norcross coach John Williams, but no one is there to push him on a daily basis.

If it's cold outside or raining, there's no one there to make sure he completes his workout. If he's tired or not feeling well, he has to push himself to finish all of his repetitions and make sure he does them the correct way.

"It's a mental game. I think my training is on par with anybody in the world, but it's the mental ups and downs that take you for a loop," Harris said. "I could be out there by myself training and not have any idea how well I'm doing."

Building a foundation

Stephen Harris didn't grow up on the track. He spent his time in a gym playing basketball. He was also a musician. Harris played the baritone and tuba in the school's marching band, and when that conflicted with summer basketball, he chose music.

Green, his coach at Norcross, was aware of that choice. So when he noticed Harris' athletic ability in P.E. class, he made it so Harris could run track and still participate in the band.

"The only thing I can take credit for is talking him into coming out for track," Green said.

By the time Harris graduated in 1999 he was part of 18 of the school's 24 track records. He still holds school records in the high jump (clearing 6 feet, 9 inches), 400 (48.96 seconds), 300 hurdles (38.36) and as a member of the 1,600 relay team (3:22.84).

Harris won six Gwinnett County titles from 1998-99, was a two-time region champion in the 400 and a two-time state qualifier in the 300 hurdles and the high jump. Despite his success at county and state, Harris never won a state championship. His best finish at the state meet was fifth in the high jump.

"I think my high school career was good laying a foundation as far as work ethic and understanding the events and understanding how good I could be at it," Harris said.

Because Harris was never great at one event, but really good at a lot of them, the decathlon seemed like a good fit for him. He had college interest from Georgia and Georgia Tech, but neither offered the decathlon.

"No one really looked at him coming out of high school," Green said.

Green was good friends with Tennessee track and field coach Bill Webb. The Volunteers have one of the premier track programs in the country and were willing to give Harris a chance. They gave him a 20 percent scholarship and the move to sign him paid off.

Harris never really knew how good of an athlete he was until he got to Tennessee. He took fourth at nationals in the decathlon to earn All-American honors as a freshman. He was also named the SEC's Co-Freshman of the Year.

"I was just doing it because I was good at it and I enjoyed it and it was something I could do. It wasn't until I got to college that I said hey, I could be pretty good at this. I could be pretty good at the decathlon."

By the time Harris left Knoxville he was a four-time All-American in the decathlon, winning a national title as a senior in 2003 and earned a full scholarship.

Career decision

After winning a national title his senior year, Harris knew he couldn't give up competing in the decathlon. His career in track and field was just beginning to take off.

With the Olympics around the corner, there was a buzz to help Olympic hopefuls and Harris got a small sponsorship from a decathlon group. After the last Olympic trials, when Harris had to back out because of his injury, the interest ended and he was cut from his contract.

By the end of the 2005 season Harris was ranked No. 4 in the country in the decathlon and the top 20 in the world. But he was working two or three part-time jobs in Tennessee so he could stay committed to training and still pay forhis equipment and travel expenses.

With a degree in history, he began teaching and coaching at a middle school in Cleveland, Tenn., while also trying to train. Eventually it became too much. He had to make a decision.

"You have to train and you have to work. That's my dilemma," Harris said. "I could stay in Knoxville where there was a good place to train, but (I'd have to) work two or three part-time jobs. I chose to come back home where I could get a good job and an adequate training facility."

In the fall of 2006, Harris began teaching history at Norcross High while continuing his training for the decathlon. He uses his Web site (www.supportstephenharris2008.com) as a source for financial contributions so he can pay for equipment and travel expenses to meets around the Southeast.

Trying to work a full-time job and train means Harris has little time to do other things. But he found a way to help out with Norcross' track team. On Wednesday, his off day from training, he coaches several different events for the Blue Devils.

"He's a great teacher of the sport and that's half the battle with track and field," Williams, Norcross' track coach, said. "He only gives us one day, but his day is so much. He does pole vault, long and triple jump, high jump. Having his experience is important, it's invaluable. I can't even pay for that kind of coaching."

Inspiration to others

On that cool, dark day in April, it is Harris' training day. But he still finds time to give pointers. Members of the boys track team are working on the high jump.

"Don't jump like that, jump like this," Harris says, demonstrating how to clear the bar.

One of those high jumpers is Taylor Killian, a senior who never competed in track until this year. He took third at the county meet with help from Harris.

"When I see somebody like him working as hard as he does, it inspires me to work hard," Killian said "It lets us know if he can do it, we can do it."

Harris finishes his discus throws and moves to the sprints and hurdles. He sees one of his students and chats with him during a quick break.

"Have you been studying for World War I?" he asks.

Track practice is over now and it's quiet as Harris finishes his workout. He works on his pole vault start and then hits the weight room.

It's another long day for Harris at his alma mater.

The former member of the marching band, a guy who never won a state championship in track, is now months away from achieving a dream few can even imagine.

"With the athletes we have in the school right now, the Division I athletes like Al-Farouq Aminu, Brice Butler, Devonta Bolton, those great athletes, the best athlete (in the school) is teaching social studies," Norcross athletic director Kirk Barton said. "It's something everybody here takes pride in. It's great for the school. It's best for him, but the school really takes pride in it."