LSU a changed team after Hurricane Katrina
April 26, 2006, 5:00 am·
Louisiana State track and field coach Dennis Shaver makes a point to teach his athletes about "being in control of the things which you have some control over."
This maxim comes into play on an annual basis for the Tigers when they make the journey from Baton Rouge to the Penn Relays, which Shaver calls "the distraction capital of track and field."
But this year, LSU has had many other distractions to deal with. For, like so many other people on the Gulf Coast, the team was dramatically affected by Hurricane Katrina.
In addition to the psychological effects of the disaster, LSU's track facilities were used as evacuation and staging areas.
The 5,680-seat outdoor track stadium was transformed into a helicopter launch pad, with flights in and out "seven straight days, 24 hours a day," according to Shaver.
"It was like I was sitting here watching M*A*S*H," Shaver said of the view from his office.
The 3,000-seat indoor fieldhouse took in senior citizens and other evacuees with special needs from the time the hurricane struck through early November.
Because of damage to the local airport, the team had to fly out of Houston to get to meets, and, due to a lack of housing, the school could not host the Southeastern Conference Championships.
And when the initial recovery period ended, LSU allowed the University of New Orleans track team to use the fieldhouse, which severely complicated both teams' training schedules.
But through it all, the team persevered, and Shaver said the athletes came away with some memorable experiences.
"There were some life experiences a lot of them went through that made them feel pretty lucky to be LSU track-and-field athletes and students here at the university," he said.
The athletes spent a lot of time volunteering, mainly at the indoor track facility and at the school's basketball arena, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, which became a triage unit.
"People were showing up here, and they just didn't have anything," Shaver said. "There were drives for simple things like underwear for the people that were here, because they evacuated with just the things on their back."
Now, nearly eight months after Katrina struck, the team's focus has returned to the track. Given what his team, his school and his state went through last fall, Shaver said everyone has a new perspective on the meaning of sports in their lives.
"A person realizes when they are in the kind of environment that our athletes were in during that disaster that you can be in control of your environment here at LSU," he said.
He added that, "at the same time, you can help a lot of others feel good about it," noting the spirit of sportsmanship between athletes at the Penn Relays.
Of course, sportsmanship alone does not win races. Shaver did not hesitate to define the frenetic nature of the paddock and the roar of the crowd at Franklin Field as "total chaos," and he emphasized the mental work his team will have to do to succeed on the track this weekend.
But for a team that survived a hurricane, surviving the frenzy of the Penn Relays should be as easy as downing a beignet for breakfast.