LA to London: Past, present, and future Olympians share Santa Clarita track

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This is the second in KPCC’s series “L.A. To London,” which will be exploring local connections to the 2012 Summer Olympics. View Part 1 and follow the series on Twitter at #latolondon.

Along a stretch of track at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, Olympic legends and hopefuls train side by side. The space is a haven for Southland Olympians, bringing past, present and future track stars together.

The concrete seats in the stadium are empty. A couple of women in workout gear do battle with long rows of stairs. The padded track and the grassy field are great for training, says Sherri Howard.

“You’ve got a plethora of Olympians that come out here to train. It’s quiet. No one bothers you. You get your work in, you have no distractions, the weather’s always nice,” she said.

Howard won Olympic gold in 1984 at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. These days she’s a track and field trainer. With a cell phone as a timer she coaches 13-year-old track star Bailey Pate for the upcoming Junior Olympics. It’s the fourth year in a row that Pate’s competing in the 800 meters at the national championship.

Pate looks over her shoulder. A few yards away, on the brick red track is her idol, Lashinda Demus, stretching and warming up.

Demus won the 400 meter hurdles with the third fastest time ever recorded at last year’s track and field World Championship in South Korea. And she’ll represent the United States in the same event at the London Olympics. Teenager Pate gets giggly when she talks about sharing the same track.

“I want to go to the Olympics so working out with her, I see that it takes a lot of work and it’s not easy,” she said.

During a break from her routine, Demus talks about making it onto Team USA. She says it’s a second chance.

“I made the 2004 team and it was kind of, like I didn’t expect to make the team," she said. "I was young, a junior in college. When it happened it was like, 'Well this is good'. It happened, so I didn’t really have mind set on winning a gold medal or anything like that.”

Five years ago Demus gave birth to twin boys. She tried making it on the 2008 Olympic team but couldn’t get back into shape — and missed the cut. She was depressed. Then she began to find the balance between being a mom and getting back on the road to Olympic gold.

“I’m not going to say that I don’t think about my kids. But, you know, it’s just not at the top of the list when I’m out here," she said. "They’re always in my head, but here it’s track and I’m working towards my goal. It’s just hard work and intensity. At home, I’m just a caring mom. So I separate the two.”

All three athletes on the field this day have Southern California roots. Demus was a track star at Wilson High School in Long Beach. Sherri Howard was the state athlete of the year when she attended Kennedy High in the San Fernando Valley. And Bailey Pate attends Placerita Junior High in Santa Clarita.

Howard says that since the 13-year-old runner started training with her a month and a half ago, she’s shaved eight seconds off her best time in the 800 meters.

“The key words with her is, don’t think, just run,” Howard said as Pate’s long legs made graceful strides, causing her blond ponytail to bounce, “and she’s got such natural talent.”

Howard learned how to strengthen her mind for competition at the highest level. That’s the next step in the training, she says. And with that, the past and present Olympians shared a track with a young athlete whose dream is to join them.

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