Unfortunately, Olympic dreams can sometimes turn to nightmares

FORT WORTH, Texas – The sad story of the recent death of world-class racewalker Al Heppner says all you need to know about the haunting sirens that call athletes to the Olympics.

And synchronized swimmer Tammy Crow first heard the call of the Olympics when she was 8 years old.

But Heppner’s tragic tale is worth telling first.

At 29, Heppner was an Army specialist and the 2002 national champion in the five-kilometer racewalk. That same year, “Track and Field News,” ranked him No. 2 in the nation in the 20-kilometer event.

He was talented enough to be invited to become a resident athlete at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. His dream was to make the Olympic team for Athens in the 50-kilometer racewalk.

The Olympic Trials for the event were Feb. 15 in Chula Vista. According to reports, Heppner started strongly and set the pace for the field through the first 30 kilometers.

But during the final two hours of the long race, Heppner faltered and staggered to the finish line in fifth place. His time of 4 hours, 23 minutes, 52 seconds was far off the 4-hour Olympic qualifying mark.

A story in “The San Diego Union-Tribune” said Heppner was despondent about his poor performance.

On Feb. 18, the California Highway Patrol received a call from a motorist who reported seeing an abandoned white Ford SUV on the eastbound shoulder of Interstate 8.

Working through rain and fog, a search party that included Heppner’s racewalk teammates found the athlete’s body in a cluster of bushes at the bottom of a 450-foot-high bridge. A Highway Patrol spokesman said that the death was an apparent suicide.

There is ample evidence that Tammy Crow, 27, cherishes a place on the U.S. Olympic team just as much as Al Heppner did.

She claimed that spot last December, 10 months after breaking her arm and back in a one-car accident that claimed the life of her boyfriend and a 12-year-old boy.

Crow has said that she didn’t want to drive to Dodge Ridge ski resort that February morning. But she had agreed to ride with her boyfriend, Cody Tatro, 26, a popular middle school P.E. teacher and coach, and with one of Tatro’s students, seventh-grader Brett Slinger.

Slinger’s parents trusted Tatro so much they had agreed to let their son stay behind with his grandmother and play in a youth league baseball game in Danville, Calif. Brett would get a ride with Tatro the next morning and meet the parents at Dodge Ridge.

But Tatro, who had partied the night before, woke Crow at 4:50 that morning and said he was too tired to drive.

Crow was at the wheel of Tatro’s SUV when, traveling at a high rate of speed – according to witnesses – it left the road and crashed into two pine trees. Tatro and Slinger died in the impact.

When a county district attorney learned that Crow had been drinking the night before, he filed vehicular manslaughter charges. She had been out with swimming teammates and had consumed three drinks. A blood sample taken three hours after the accident revealed no alcohol in Crow’s system.

Crow entered a plea of “no contest” to the charge. Last month, a judge sentenced Crow to 90 days in jail and three years’ probation. The swimmer also was ordered to pay $22,900 to Slinger’s family.

Superior Court Judge Eleanor Provost said, “I cannot punish you in any way that you haven’t already done. … There is no justice here.”

But Provost surprised the emotional courtroom by postponing the start of Crow’s jail sentence until Oct. 25 – two months after she is scheduled to return from the Athens Olympics.

In a tearful interview with Bay Area media, Crow pleaded that she had done nothing to cause the accident. She had filed the nolo contendere plea, she said, expecting no jail time because she hoped to “continue with my training.”

The case is now in the hands of the U.S. Olympic Committee to determine if Crow becomes an Olympian. Fretting the legalities, the USOC caved in 10 years ago and allowed skater Tonya Harding – despite suspicions that she was involved in the Nancy Kerrigan attack – to compete at the Lillehammer Olympics.

But in Crow’s tragic case, two lives are lost and a would-be Olympic athlete faces incarceration for her role in those deaths.

Allowing Crow to go to Athens would be inviting a global media circus. More than that, one would think, Crow has forfeited the privilege of representing her country on its grandest sports stage.

It’s a privilege, we were reminded at least twice recently, that shouldn’t be taken for granted.