Stephens Makes U.S. Olympic Team as a Throw-In
Javelin thrower Dave Stephens of Herndon, Va., added another chapter to his surprising comeback story Monday when he was named to the U.S. Olympic team for the second time.
Until last December, the 1984 NCAA Division II champion from Cal State Northridge and 1988 Olympian had not thrown a javelin since finishing ninth in the 1992 Olympic trials.
But Stephens, 34, will represent the U.S. in Atlanta because Breaux Greer, who finished one spot ahead of fourth-place Stephens in the Olympic trials last month, failed to reach the Olympic qualifying standard of 80 meters, or 262 feet 5 inches.
Greer’s 79.98-meter throw at the trials converts to a distance of 262-5, but the metric distance is the one that counts, and the Northeast Louisiana sophomore failed to improve on that since the trials.
“We knew that Breaux was going to have a hard time getting a qualifier,” said Robb Sexton, a friend of Stephens who inadvertently started his comeback. "[Greer] had [broken his personal best by 20 feet] at the trials and we knew it was going to be hard to top that performance.”
Stephens, who has a career-best 275-2 from 1991, also lacked a qualifying mark after the trials, but he threw 269-4 in a meet at Mt. San Antonio College on July 6.
“There was just a big sigh of relief,” Stephens said. “I remember when I threw it that the javelin just snapped out of my hand. It was a good-feeling throw, but I wasn’t sure if it was long enough until they measured it.”
Stephens had been confident of exceeding the 80-meter mark at the trials based on prior workouts, but said he felt “flat.”
A similar feeling led to his poor showing in the 1992 trials, which he entered as a favorite but left in retirement.
“We had a plan going into 1992 that if I threw well at the trials and made the team, I’d keep going for a while,” Stephens said. “But when I didn’t, it was very disappointing.”
Two days after the trials, Stephens went to work for Sexton’s business that specializes in computer storage systems.
Sexton eventually sold his interest in the company and Stephens has since become a regional sales representative for another company in Virginia, but the two have remained close friends.
They frequently play basketball and lift weights together and it was during one of their lifting sessions last winter that Sexton asked Stephens about the javelins hanging on the walls of his garage.
“I told him about them and he asked if we could take them outside and throw them in the yard,” Stephens said. “I told him we needed an area a little bit bigger than that. So we went over to the local high school.”
Although Stephens intended to show Sexton only the basics, he noticed that it felt good to hold and throw the javelin again.
“It was like a breath of fresh air,” he said.
Thoughts of a comeback followed minutes later when Stephens, wearing basketball shoes and throwing off grass, uncorked a throw measuring close to 70 meters.
“I kind of thought, ‘Hey, what the heck,’ ” Stephens said. “ ‘Let’s see what we can do with this.’ ”
Five months later, on May 4, Stephens threw 249-1 to win the Gatorade Classic at the University of Tennessee and qualify for the Olympic trials.
The trials did not start well for the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Stephens.
One of his four-year-old javelin boots literally fell apart on his first throw of the preliminaries and he wasn’t sure how he was going to continue. Luckily, fellow competitor and recent American-record setter Tom Pukstys let him borrow one of his boots.
Since then, Pukstys has been instrumental in getting a shoe company to send Stephens new boots.
Pukstys’ generosity is one of Stephens’ best memories from the trials. Another is the sight of Tennessee Coach Bill Webb, who was at Northridge from 1979-85, bowing to Stephens after his fourth-place finish and saying, “I’m not worthy.”
The Games are next up for Stephens and though he is not regarded among the world’s elite, he knows that an 80-meter throw in the preliminaries Aug. 2 will automatically qualify him for the next day’s final. He also remembers 1988 when he won the Olympic trials, but failed to qualify for the finals in Seoul.
“I just want to get out there and throw 80 meters on my first qualifying attempt,” he said. “Then I’ll start thinking about the finals. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself like I did in ’88.
“I’m just going to go down there and have a good time. I’m just going to let it happen. Just being relaxed is half the battle.”