Olympics: Bailey ready for Rio
Chances are good that Tavis Bailey is the only Rio-bound athlete who closed on a house this week, but life goes on, and Bailey is keeping things as normal as possible before his trip to Brazil and the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.
“I don’t know that the magnitude of making the Olympic team has completely sunk in yet, but I do know that I throw the discus better when I’ve got other things going on in my life,” Bailey said. “I got into a slump my senior year at Tennessee when I was focused exclusively on the discus. If you have a bad day at the track, it’s nice to be able to have a good day in another area. Now I’ve got the house. It’s nothing extravagant, but it’s a much better investment than paying rent.”
Bailey bought his home in Knoxville, Tenn. That’s his adopted city, although people in Kannapolis, where he was raised and played on the offensive line for the A.L. Brown High football team, are equally enthusiastic about him.
Bailey traveled an unusual path to his second-place finish at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., and his berth on Team USA. His workouts and his weightlifting came at night because he works full-time — a 9-to 5 white-collar sales job.
He works for a sign company, selling the large ones that loom out front at hotels and restaurant chains, and he’s good at it.
“Best Westerns and Marriotts mostly,” Bailey said. “I worked at a fitness center for a while, folding towels, doing a little personal training, but my boss there is one of the people who has really looked after me. He sort of fired me and moved me over to his wife and an internship in sales. Then it became a full-time job. I enjoy it. It’s a career I can see myself doing for the next 20 years.”
Some of Bailey’s success in Eugene is due to his coach (Tennessee throws coach John Newell). Some can be credited to a unique workout partner, Steven Mozia, who was born in the United States to parents who had emigrated from Nigeria. Mozia was educated at Cornell. One of the world’s top shot putters, he’ll represent Nigeria in Rio.
“I’ve known Steven for a while from meets,” Bailey said. “He’s an engineer and he had some great job offers and some cool cities that he could’ve gone to, but I sold him on taking a job in Knoxville and working out with me.”
Bailey and Mozia were powered by the same fuel. Both had finished second in NCAA championships. They called themselves the “Runner-up Club.” Newell pushed them, and they drove each other.
Still, if you’d asked Bailey in mid-May if he was going to make the Olympic team, he would’ve shooks his head. He’d given up the shot put to focus all his energy on the discus, but there were more bad days than good. He hadn’t improved his personal record in nearly two years.
But then there was a meet on May 21, the Tucson Elite Throws Classic. He won it, throwing 64.94 meters.
The Olympic qualifying standard is 65 meters (213 feet, 3 inches), so he was just 6 centimeters short.
“The magic number for the discus is 65,” Bailey said.
Bailey’s next event, on May 29, a week after Tucson, was the breakthrough. He decided to compete in the Pat Young Throwers Classic in Salinas, Calif. That’s a venue noted for perfect conditions for throwers, and that proved to be the case for Bailey.
He threw 65.82 meters — that’s 215 feet, 11 inches. He not only won the meet, it was the finest throw of his life and he achieved the Olympic standard.
His last competition before the Olympic Trials was a meet against an international field in Jamaica. He arrived in Jamaica last-minute after some miscommunications, but he won that meet as well. He threw 63.93 meters.
“That was wild,” Bailey said. “My mother was driving to Knoxville to see me, and I’m on a flight to Jamaica. I had to explain that to her. But she did a lot of the house-shopping for me.”
After winning three straight major meets and achieving the all-important Olympic standard, Bailey was getting offers to sign deals with shoe and apparel companies, but his agent advised him against making a premature commitment.
“There was more to lose than to gain if I’d signed with a company before the Trials,” Bailey said. “We knew if I made the Olympic team my value as an athlete was going to go up tremendously. And by the time I left for the Trials I knew I had a real shot to make the team. There were 24 guys competing, but only seven of the 24 had thrown the Olympic standard.”
For the Olympic Trials in Oregon, Bailey was one of the last to arrive. He flew out on a Tuesday, with competition starting that Thursday. He doesn’t like to sit around for a week, waiting to throw. He prefers to stay active with his other pursuits until it’s time to get on the plane.
The discus men made three throws on the first day, as the field was whittled from 24 to 12. Bailey advanced easily, but that first day didn’t change the odds. The 12 who advanced included all seven who had met the Olympic standard.
Three more throws narrowed the field to eight for the finals. Six of those eight had achieved the standard.
Sunshine was giving way to dark clouds as the finalists prepared for their six throws.
“Everyone knew bad weather was coming,” Bailey said. “Everyone knew they were going to have to dig deep on their first few throws because conditions were likely to deteriorate.
That’s exactly what happened. Bailey’s first throw was modest by his standards — 61.57 meters (202 feet), but it was enough. That mark held up as the volume of rain increased.
“I’d had some special rain shoes made 10 days before the competition, just in case,” Bailey said. “I was glad I had them. It was pouring. It’s tough to throw when conditions in the ring aren’t great, your hands are wet and the discus is wet. That can really throw you off. People were chasing me, but they never caught me. There were a lot of fouls.”
Bailey finished second for a silver medal, but this time his runner-up finish was sweet.
“It all hit me at once when I was jogging a victory lap and high-fiving fans,” Bailey said. “It hit me that all those late-night workouts were worthwhile.”
Oregon track fans are different, and 22,366 of them, soaked but noisy, cheered Bailey, and the other discus men, Mason Finley and Andrew Evans, as they waved American flags and slowly circled the track.
“We got those USA team jackets,” Bailey said. “And when you’ve got that USA jacket, everyone wants your autograph.”
The every-four-years Olympic experience is unique. There’s a global television audience for track and field, and there’s a chance that 8-year-olds in Minnesota and Maine will know who Tavis Bailey is before the closing ceremonies on Aug. 21.
Bailey, 24, has had an amazing ride. This is a guy who headed to Lenoir-Rhyne to play Division II football in the fall of 2010.
For a short period, Bailey will return to training, selling signs and enjoying his new home. Then it will be time for Rio and a new life.
“It’s a glorious feeling that I have because this is something I wanted so bad and prayed for so hard,” Bailey said. “It’s hard to believe it’s happening, but it’s happening right now. I made the Olympic team.”
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