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Race-Walker Found Dead After Olympic Bid Fails

Times Staff Writer

The Olympic dream is a siren. Many hear its call. But only a privileged few get to live the dream.

And when the dream seems to be dashed, then what?

Al Heppner, a 29-year-old who had excelled in long-distance race-walking, a sport that punishes the body and soul, finished fifth Sunday at the U.S. Olympic trials in Chula Vista in the 50-kilometer (30-mile) race. He had led the race until about the 35-kilometer mark, when he tired.

Late Wednesday evening, Heppner pulled off Interstate 8 in eastern San Diego County and parked by the Pine Valley Bridge. The bridge spans a gorge. The drop is about 200 feet.

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Heppner’s body was found about 3 a.m. Thursday in the brush underneath the bridge, according to the California Highway Patrol. The CHP said it suspected his death was a suicide.

Officers had been alerted after inspecting the vehicle parked by the bridge, a 2002 white Ford SUV, and tracing it to Heppner, then doing interviews and learning that he was, according to the CHP, “despondent” over his performance Sunday in the Olympic trials.

As Thursday dawned, friends and those in the race-walking subculture wondered how this could have happened.

“I don’t know,” said John Nunn, 26, of Evansville, Ind., a 20-kilometer walker and one of Heppner’s closest friends. “When someone gets sad and you work so hard for something and, I don’t know. Four more years is a long time sometimes.”

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Vince Peters, 50, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA Track & Field race-walk committee chairman and referee of Sunday’s event, said, “Al is emotional.” Nonetheless, Peters said, “I never would have dreamed he would have jumped off a bridge.”

What seemed so bewildering to so many Thursday was that Heppner seemed to have everything going for him, including a chance to make the U.S. team heading for Athens and the 2004 Summer Games -- despite Sunday’s result.

Heppner was a member of the U.S. Army’s World Class Athlete Program. He was, according to USATF, a graduate student at San Diego State and an aspiring journalist.

In recent months, Heppner had done most of his prep work at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. There, Nunn said, “He knew anyone and everyone coming through there.”

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Born April 24, 1974, in Columbia, Md., Heppner graduated in 1992 from Howard High in Ellicott City, Md., then went to college at the University of Wisconsin Parkside, in Kenosha, graduating in 1997 after training under coach Mike DeWitt.

“Al and I got along great,” DeWitt said. “He’s a great sports fan. Most [walkers] are walking geeks. We would touche back and forth, him about the [Washington] Wizards and, me, I’m a Chicago Bulls fan. He was a Chris Webber fan; that was his favorite guy.”

The 50K is the longest foot-race on the Olympic program. By comparison, the marathon, 26.2 miles, is 42 kilometers. Race-walking is also highly technical; competitors must keep at least one foot in contact with the ground at all times. An Olympic-caliber time is 4 hours; the winner of the 50K at the 2000 Sydney Games, Poland’s Robert Korzeniowski, finished in 3 hours 42 minutes 22 seconds.

In 1999, Heppner finished a 50K in 3:58.45. He placed second in the 50K at the 1999 U.S. championships and seemed a good bet for the 2000 U.S. team.

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The 2000 trials, in Sacramento, were bedeviled by horrible weather -- cold, wet, windy. Heppner failed to finish; Nunn said Heppner developed hypothermia.

The result devastated Heppner. But only, Nunn and others said, temporarily -- at least so it seemed. Heppner stopped training. At one point, he moved east to live with Nunn. For a while, he didn’t do much at all.

“He was depressed to the point where he would stay in bed for three days,” DeWitt said.

“He obviously needed some relaxation time,” Nunn said. “We hung out. I was dating a girl, who is now my wife, at the time. We took him as a third person everywhere we went. Just got him out of the house and doing things. He was doing fine, just needed a little break.”

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By 2001 Heppner was racing again. And again he was one of the best in the United States.

The weather Sunday in Chula Vista was bright and sunny, temperatures in the high 40s at the start of the race. At 8 kilometers, Heppner broke for the lead. At 30 kilometers, he held a 1:51 lead. But at 34 kilometers, the lead was down to 1:07. And at 36 kilometers, he trailed Curt Clausen and Philip Dunn by 40 yards.

Clausen, 36, a two-time Olympian and the 1999 world bronze medalist, won the race in 3:58.24. Tim Seaman, winner of the 20K at the 2000 trials, finished a distant second, in 4:08.06. Dunn, the 2001 U.S. 50K champ, came in third, in 4:10.37.

Sean Albert, who like many U.S. walkers trains in Chula Vista, finished fourth, in 4:18.33. Heppner was next, in 4:23.52.

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Under Olympic qualifying rules, Clausen is now in for the Athens Games, with a time under 4 hours. But two spots on the U.S. team are still waiting -- for the two highest finishers in Sunday’s race who by Aug. 9 can beat that Olympic qualifying standard of 4 hours.

A U.S. team is due to compete in May at a 50K in Germany; Heppner would have been part of that team.

Seaman had already indicated he was likely to concentrate on the 20K, Peters said. Albert’s best time, he said, is 4:09. Heppner’s 3:58.45 in 1999 did not count toward qualifying for the 2004 Games but, like Heppner, Dunn has previously gone under 4 hours and, Peters said, “Realistically, those two were the two everybody was expecting to make the team.”

Instead, Nunn said, early Thursday morning, the phone rang. It was Clausen. The police had found the white Ford on the Pine Valley Bridge.

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Clausen, Seaman and Nunn drove to the bridge. They went to a trailhead and scampered down the hill, looking for Heppner.

“Honestly, we had no clue,” Nunn said. “Going into the situation you were hoping for the best, assuming the worst.”

Then the Border Patrol agents arrived, with the spotlights, and the worst was confirmed.

In Wisconsin, DeWitt, hearing the news, remembering Al Heppner, said, “He was pretty much all or nothing.”

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He also said, “My feeling would be he was so intent that he just forgot about everything else except for making the Olympics. Nothing else mattered.”


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