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Hardly a failure, Smith may be best athlete in Southeast history

Monday, July 7, 2008

I was talking to Joey Haines after Southeast Missouri State product Miles Smith finished 12th in the U.S. Olympic Trials 400-meter semifinals last Monday when Haines said something I found interesting.

Smith was naturally disappointed that he didn't place in the top eight to make the finals and keep his 2008 Olympic hopes alive.

Haines, Southeast's retiring track and field coach who coached Smith at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., told me during our lengthy telephone conversation that he hoped people wouldn't view what Smith did as a failure, noting that finishing 12th in the entire nation is not a failure.

I understand Haines' concern, but I don't think he has anything to worry about.

Anybody who describes what Smith accomplished not only in Oregon last week but also during his incredible career so far as a "failure" would be an absolute moron.

To be the 12th-best American in the 400 meters — an event that the United States annually dominates in international meets — would be a notable feat under any circumstances.

For Smith to pull that off despite being limited by a hamstring injury the past several weeks makes his accomplishment even more remarkable.

When Smith pulled up lame and crumpled to the track in early May at the Ohio Valley Conference outdoor meet in Cape Girardeau, it looked like he might not compete again for a few months, and especially not at a really high level.

Haines credited Smith's heart and desire for getting back on the track so quickly, but all his missed training time no doubt eventually caught up to him.

Smith has not been totally healthy for a full season since 2005, the year he burst on to the international scene by finishing sixth at the U.S. Championships and earning a gold medal at that year's World Championships as a member of the U.S. 1,600-meter relay team.

Smith's top time from 2005 of 45.16 seconds would have placed fifth in last week's Olympic Trials finals and earned him a spot on the U.S. Olympic squad.

Smith has not been able to approach that 2005 time since, primarily because he's suffered one setback after another with his hamstring.

If Smith had been at least relatively healthy since 2005, you've got to think he would be running under 45 seconds these days, which would be among the world's best times.

But the good news, said Haines, is that he believes Smith — a five-time Southeast All-American who completed his collegiate eligibility this year — is finally totally healthy.

Now it's simply a matter of again reaching the type of conditioning level that a world-class athlete needs to compete with the very best on the planet.

Smith is about to embark on his professional track and field career, with several meets in Europe next on his agenda.

Haines is confident Smith will be at his peak in four years when he takes another shot at the Olympic Games.

Smith just might be the most accomplished athlete that Southeast has ever produced.

Who else at the university has ever been deemed the sixth-best in America at his specialty, as Smith was in 2005, or even the 12th best, as he was this year?

Track and field is not like most other sports. A basketball player from Southeast can average 25 points per game, a football player can rush for 200 yards per game, a pitcher can have a miniscule earned-run average, etc.

Those would all be notable feats and would have them ranked high in the nation statistically, but it would have been accomplished primarily against OVC competition — or the MIAA, before Southeast went Division I — and would not necessarily mean they are among the best in the country.

But Smith achieved his rankings by competing head-to-head against the elite the U.S. has to offer, not only collegiate athletes but professionals as well.

As far as a national and world stage, what Smith has accomplished — and he's not done yet — has likely never been matched by any other Southeast athlete.

A failure?

Hardly.

*

Southeast product Justin Christian's first stint in the major leagues didn't last long.

Hopefully he'll get another opportunity.

Christian, called up by the New York Yankees from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on June 24, was optioned back to that Class AAA minor league team exactly seven days later.

Christian had a dazzling major league debut the same night he was promoted to the Yankees, going 2-for-4 with a double and two runs batted in as the starting left fielder against the Pirates.

Christian started three more games after that, but had just one more hit in 11 at-bats. His average was .200 (3-for-15) before being sent down.

But the 28-year-old Christian received a bit of consolation Wednesday when he was named to the International League All-Star team.

The squad of 28 International League standouts will take on the Pacific Coast League's best in the 21st annual Class AAA All-Star Game on July 16 in Louisville, Ky. The contest, set for a 6:05 p.m. start, will be nationally televised by ESPN2.

Christian played just one season at Southeast, in 2003, after transferring from Auburn.

*

I didn't even know that longtime Central High School boys and girls soccer coach Tom Doyle had retired this past spring until reading Chris Smith's article in Tuesday's editio of the Southeast Missourian.

Doyle compiled quite a record with the Tigers and led both teams to numerous district titles.

I always enjoyed covering Doyle's squads, as well as talking to him when he phoned in results to the newspaper.

Here's wishing Doyle all the best in his retirement.

Marty Mishow is a sports writer for the Southeast Missourian.


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