Fans often treat athletes as if they are superhuman. But sometimes understanding the athletes’ struggles — both professional and personal — make their accomplishments that much more impressive.
For Brian Chaput, a 2004 Penn graduate and javelin thrower making a bid for the 2012 United States Olympic team, the journey to greatness has had several hurdles along the way.
Brian grew up in East Haven, Conn., and was always a gifted athlete. But his sports of choice were baseball and basketball. In fact, Brian admits he “grew up never really knowing what a javelin was.”
That changed the summer prior to his junior year of high school. He was messing around with a cross-country teammate who had the key to the track shed and pulled out the javelin.
“The first time I tried it, it went really far,” Brian said. But by the end of the day, he was already throwing far enough to qualify for states.
“It’s amazing what throwing something like a spear can do for a person’s life,” said John Taylor, who first coached Brian as a volunteer assistant at Penn.
At the time, Penn was a “mecca” for top throwers.
“We created this environment at Penn … that turned out javelin thrower after javelin thrower,” Taylor said.
Before Brian came along, Taylor had set almost every Penn record in the javelin. But Taylor could sense that Brian’s talent was special.
“You could put anything in his hands and he could throw it far,” Taylor said.
However, Brian’s career didn’t start the way he had hoped. His freshman year, he had Tommy John surgery — the first of three he would have in his lifetime — to reconstruct his elbow. He missed the entire season during his 15-month recovery.
Brian recalls this first serious injury as one of the most important moments of his career.
“After my first surgery, I realized there were a lot of changes I needed to make technically,” he said. “It was almost fortunate because you have no choice but to take a big step back and start from step one and rebuild your technique.”
During his rehabilitation, he spent countless hours watching film, not only of himself, but also of top javelin throwers. He worked with Taylor to better implement power from his legs and hips into his throw.
Brian attributes his successful recovery to the support he received from his family and teammates and coaches at Penn.
“You’re only as good as the support team you have, the people you surround yourself with,” Brian said. “I was very fortunate to be around a lot of great people during my time at Penn.”
In particular, he singled out Taylor, who threw tennis balls with him while he recovered and taught him new techniques.
Taylor quickly realized that his protege was special, and not just because of his talent.
“You’ll never see someone with more perseverance or determination to succeed,” Taylor said.
- * *
It was not until 2003 that it became clear how special Brian’s talent truly was. That season, his junior year, he won the outdoor NCAA championship. By that time, he had erased most of his coach’s records.
But Taylor could not have been prouder.
“When he won the NCAA title, I was in tears.”
The next season, Brian was the NCAA runner-up. Following graduation, he began training for the 2004 Olympic trials with Taylor, who would compete for the last time in his career.
While the top three finishers at trials typically earn a spot in the Olympics, a complex rule usually requires throwers to meet the ‘A’ standard, a certain distance, to qualify.
Brian finished in second, was given a medal and did a victory lap with the American flag. But because he didn’t meet the ‘A’ standard, he didn’t qualify for the Olympics.
“It’s a real cool experience but in the back of your mind, you know you didn’t make the team,” he said. “It’s incredibly bittersweet and it’s those kinds of moments that keep you coming back for more. I want that again, but the next time somebody tells me congratulations, I want it to be real.”
In 2008, he made another bid for the Olympics. But just a few months before trials, he tore a ligament in the index finger of his throwing hand.
Despite agonizing pain, he still competed at trials and finished third. Again, he received an Olympic celebration but did not meet the ‘A’ standard required to compete.
“The [rules] are there because there’s a standard for being an Olympian, and he hasn’t reached it yet,” Taylor said. “He knows he can, and I know he can.”
Despite the obstacles that Brian faced in his first two bids for the Olympics, his third attempt will be the most challenging. Though his wife has encouraged him to pursue his dream and his employer has allowed him to work part-time, he knows this bid, likely his last, will not be easy.
With under three months until Olympic trials in June, Brian has not yet met the ‘A’ standard. He was hoping to reach it at this weekend’s Penn Relays, but life threw another curveball in his way.
- * *
Two weeks ago, Brian’s wife Kim gave birth to their first child, Audrey Elizabeth. She was born six weeks premature at three-and-a-half pounds, and has been in the NICU fighting for her life.
As a result, he says it doesn’t look likely that he will compete in Penn Relays. He has also temporarily suspended his training.
“Track takes a back seat to family,” he said. “It always has, but this solidifies that.”
Brian admits he will be very upset if he has to miss the Carnival.
“I’ll always love the Penn Relays,” he explained. “It’s an awesome time.”
Taylor empathizes with Brian’s struggles.
When Taylor was his age, 31, and making his final bid for the Olympics, his father died of a stroke.
“I went through a lot of the same challenges he’s going through with training and family,” he said. “It made it very hard.”
In many ways, Brian has seen his daughter as an inspiration.
“She’s fighting and she’s strong and she wouldn’t want anything less of me,” he said.
Though Brian has decided not to compete until his daughter is released from the hospital, he is optimistic it will happen soon.
“Once she’s ready to come home, we’ll chase my dream together. It will be really cool to share this experience with my daughter and tell her everything that’s happened in these early months of her life.”
Brian expects to start training again at the end of April or the beginning of May, which will give him about eight weeks before the Olympic Trials.
Still, the “eye-opening experience” has forced Brian to put his priorities in life in perspective.
“It will make it that much sweeter, but it doesn’t matter if I do or [if I] don’t make the team. [My daughter] is the greatest prize I could have gotten.”
Taylor believes the setbacks Brian has faced will serve as an inspiration to him when he competes this spring it will make the experience that much more powerful.
“That’s what makes the journey more valuable in the end,” Taylor said. “When you have success at the end of that journey, it makes it all the more worth it.”
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.