Of all of the places to store a gold medal, two-time Olympic pole vaulter Stacy Dragila keeps hers safely tucked away in a sock drawer.

Every so often, she pulls the medal out when people drop by or when she visits schools for an over-the-top version of show-and-tell.

“Yes, that’s a real Olympic gold medal,” Dragila often says to those who doubt the authenticity. “Mine’s dinged up and tarnished from all the people who’ve touched it. It’s OK. It has a lot of character.”

Dragila, who captured her gold for the U.S. at the 2000 Sydney Games, was one of five past Olympians on hand Friday for the annual North American Pole Vaulting Association Championships in Old Town Clovis.

And though she didn’t have her medal on her Friday, Dragila forever carries the memories of her Olympic journey and enthusiastically shares her stories of what it took to reach the pinnacle of pole vaulting.

Many fans lined up closely along Pollasky Avenue to watch these ex-Olympians soar in the air once more. Then again, the event is highly attended every summer as fans fill the streets to see pole vaulters ranging from teens to pros, male and female.

This year’s turnout was estimated at about 10,000-plus, and they loudly cheered when each Olympian was introduced.

Dragila was coaching Friday, but 2000 gold medalist Nick Hysong and 2008 Olympian April Steiner-Bennett competed. Erica Bartolina, another 2008 Olympian, also was coaching, while 1964 silver medalist Ron Morris acted as an ambassador.

The level of the applause seemed to hint that this year’s championships were more highly attended than years past, some said. Perhaps it didn’t hurt that it is an Olympic year, with track and field events also beginning Friday at the London Games.

“You know what you Olympians do?” asked Bob Fraley, the event’s organizer and a former Fresno State track and field coach. “You inspire people.”

The Olympic medals offer additional proof.

Hysong said he usually keeps his gold medal in a case at his house in Arizona, rather than mounting it on a wall.

“It wouldn’t be practical to have it hang over the fireplace and friends get to see it only when they come over to my house,” Hysong said. “The purpose of the medal isn’t just to honor your accomplishment. It’s to share the journey and experience with others. And maybe it’ll motivate them — not just with their track and field performance, but their lives.”

Hysong said winning the gold medal didn’t change him, except that more track and field enthusiasts knew of him. And now when he speaks, people are more inclined to listen.

So Hysong got into coaching once his international traveling career started to slow in 2009. Hysong knows he’s far from the form he had 12 years ago, when he cleared a personal-best 19 feet, 41/2 inches to win the gold. But he still hasn’t officially retired and likes to compete every so often.

Dragila sat out Friday’s elite-level competition to coach a few of her high school athletes who were competing. Family life and other interests eventually persuaded Dragila to retire from pole vaulting in 2009.

She said she gets as much fulfillment when her young protégés reach new heights but admits her desire to compete always comes back to life in Olympic years.

“Every time I see the Olympics Opening Ceremonies, it takes me back to the 2000 Olympics,” Dragila said. “Being around all the great athletes in the world, it was so exciting and really fun to be there. Then, when you watch it on TV, it makes you want to be there in person as an athlete and as a fan.”

by: Bryant-Jon Anteola

from: http://www.fresnobee.com/2012/08/03/2936728/over-the-top-champions-vie-in.html

Gary Kazanjian
Gary Kazanjian

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