Former Bull Damu Cherry has hurdled obstacles on and off the track, and her path has led directly to Beijing and the 2008 Olympics.
“It feels really good. I’m excited. I don’t think it has really sunk in yet, though,” Cherry said.
Cherry finished second in the 100-meter hurdles with a time of 12.58 seconds in the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., on Sunday. The second-place finish guaranteed her a spot on the U.S. National Team.
“Going into the meet, my coach told me not to make the meet any bigger than it was,” Cherry said. “He said to just do what you do in practice every day.”
Her coach and fiance, former University of Florida Gator Dennis Mitchell, has been with her through the ups and downs, including her absence from the 2004 trials due to a two-year doping suspension in 2003.
“It is a real honor whenever you can coach an athlete to be an Olympian,” Mitchell said. “It is also very exciting – this is a very exciting time.”
After winning gold and bronze medals in the ’92 Olympics and silver in the ’96 games, Mitchell was also embroiled in doping allegations. He was given a two-year ban but was later cleared.
This was Cherry’s first Olympic trials and at the age of 30, she is a veteran rookie.
“I wouldn’t say I had a comeback because I really never left,” Cherry said. “I have always considered myself part of this sport and I knew I could be elite. I just followed the process. I never quit, I just kept going and going and going and I still have more to go: I am still not done.”
Cherry said she did not intentionally use performance-enhancing drugs and resolved to come out of the suspension on top of her game. The record-holding Bull said she took the suspension in stride.
“I believe that God is in control of every situation in your life, good or bad,” Cherry said. “I felt like that was my test: He was testing me to see how bad I really wanted this. I didn’t do anything wrong intentionally and I knew that in my heart.”
Cherry, who graduated in 2000, still holds the outdoors school record in the 100-meter hurdles, the 4×100-meter relay and the 4×200-meter relay. She is also 4th in the 100-meters.
“USF has been part of the process,” Cherry said. “Back then, I just wanted to be an elite runner. Little did I know that it would take me this far. It is great to represent USF.”
Though she cannot openly display any USF merchandise because of her sponsorship contract, Cherry said she would try and sport the Bull horns.
“I will probably just throw up the Bulls’ sign,” Cherry said.
Cherry used the time during her two-year suspension to stay sharp and mount a re-entry into competitive hurdling. Assistant track coach, former USF athlete and Olympian Kemel Thompson spent a few years working with Cherry during her time at USF and said he is in awe of her commitment.
“I can’t even imagine what that would have taken,” Thompson said. “To stay on top while competing is hard, but to stay on top while not competing is unbelievable.”
Thompson ran for the Jamaican National Team in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games.
“I’m not sure if I would have been able to do what she did,” he said.
Part of Cherry’s regimen included staying competitive by running in virtual meets.
“It was very difficult,” Cherry said. “I am not going to say that every day was easy. When there was a big meet on TV or something, I would run a time trial the same day. I would ask my coach, ‘What was the winning time in that meet?’ and I would go to the track and run that time by myself.”
Since coming out of her suspension in 2005, Cherry has been ranked No. 3 in the world and No. 2 in the U.S. (2006) and was runner-up in both the indoor and outdoor U.S. championships (2006).
Cherry leaves the U.S. on Saturday and heads to Greece to compete in the international circuit. She will return July 30, only to leave again for China on Aug. 6.
“I still have to stay race-sharp,” she said. “I can’t just sit around and chill, I have to keep my times down.”
As for the strategy in China, both Cherry and Mitchell agree that things cannot become larger than life.
“This is just another track meet, with more people,” Mitchell said. “We have to keep it really simple.”