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Heptathlon Champion’s Personal Quest

July 10, 2008, 10:16 a.m. (ET)

When Hyleas Fountain won the heptathlon at the 2008 US Olympic Trails last week in Eugene, Oregon, the 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O'Brien called her victory, "gold medal stuff."

The P.A. announcer at Hayward Field compared her to Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the only American ever to win an Olympic heptathlon medal.

Three-time Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers came up to congratulate her at the athletes' hotel.

Yet the one person Fountain has not received encouragement from - and would really like to find - is her father, Anthony Fountain.

"If he would just Google me, he could find me easily," she said.

In January 1981, Fountain was born on the Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia. Her father was a sergeant and her parents divorced when she was 2 or 3. Her mother raised her and her two older sisters in Harrisburg, Penn., where Hyleas became a self-described "track junkie" at age 7.

"I got into every meet I could," Fountain said. She would enter all-comers' races where the $5 fee enabled her to enter as many events as she wanted. 

At Central Dauphin High School, heptathlon wasn't offered so Fountain played basketball, ran cross country, and was a hurdler, jumper, and did relays in track. After graduating in 2000, she picked up heptathlon and spent two years competing for Barton County Community College in Kansas under coach Lance Brauman (who also coached sprinter Tyson Gay). Fountain later won the 2003 NCAA heptathlon title for the University of Georgia while majoring in child and family development. She also won the 2004 NCAA long jump title and graduated in 2006.

As far as Fountain knows, all this would be news to her father.

"I haven't talked to him in 20 years," she said. "I forget what he looks like. I have his Army badge number. Every chance I get, I try to find him. I sometimes look up his name in phone books. Sometimes, I end up calling a fax.

"I just want to find him," she said. "I just want to know if he's followed me. I've been running track for 20 years now."

At the 2004 US Olympic Trials, Fountain narrowly missed making the team for Athens when she placed fourth in heptathlon (one spot shy of making the squad). A year later, Fountain won her first US National heptathlon title but in 2007, she pulled two hamstrings and had surgery on her left knee. 

She showed up for the 2007 US Nationals with only two weeks of track training and surprised everyone - including herself - by winning her second national title. She realized, "I don't have to wear myself out to the nub to be good. I'm already good. Just be smart."

 "This year, I think she really let all her demons go," said her coach Lynn Smith. "I kept telling her, ‘Just stick to the plan,' which was to go to [Trials] healthy. She finally bought into it. And she matured quite a bit. It was huge for her to take a day off. Now when she's tired, she'll say, ‘See you tomorrow.'"

So on June 28, at the Olympic Trials, Fountain earned a trip to Beijing with a decisive 6,667-point victory in the two-day event that comprises the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m run, long jump, javelin, and 800m run. She won five of the discipline's seven events with personal best marks. She turned in the world-leading performance this year. She also broke Joyner-Kersee's 20-year-old American record in the heptathlon's 100m hurdle portion - prompting Devers to encourage her to enter the regular 100m hurdles event four days later.

"Girl, you'd better go for that opportunity," Devers told her.

But first, Fountain wanted to earn a spot in the long jump, attempting to duplicate Joyner-Kersee's double that produced seven Olympic medals in four Games. Two days after Fountain clinched her heptathlon spot for Beijing, she made the long jump final. In the final, however, Fountain came up two centimeters short of an Olympic berth, placing fourth.  

Next, Fountain took Devers' advice and entered the 100m hurdles but the effort was short-lived. She scratched from her qualifying heat, saying she was tired after a "really full week."

Fountain and Smith returned to Kettering, Ohio.  They know there is room for improvement in Beijing, where Fountain's primary challengers will come from Russia and Ukraine.

Kettering, Ohio, is not a heptathlon hotbed, and Fountain is Smith's only professional athlete. Fountain moved to the suburb of Dayton in 2006, knowing no one but her coach. It was a leap of faith that exemplified the fearless way that the gregarious Fountain has learned to live.

She had no family in Eugene watching her at Trials.

She said that her mother does not know she's looking for her father.

But on August 15-16 in Beijing, if Fountain can put together a performance like she did in Eugene where her point total would have won a medal at all but one Olympics since the seven-event discipline made its 1984 debut, the world may start to recognize the name Hyleas (pronounced hi-LEECE) which Fountain said means "ambitious one."

And maybe her father will recognize it too.


Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.