Posted by: steveonfilm | November 23, 2009

Pride is Forever

“Pain is temporary, pride is forever.”

Over the past few weeks while I’ve tried to concentrate on revising Bystander I’ve found myself being pulled towards something different. Something slightly biographical. And a departure from what I’ve been writing over the past few years. It’s the story of how my uncle made the 1972 U.S. Olympic team for the steeplechase. I’ve mentioned this in a few posts and one of my videos, but in today’s post I’m going to go into a bit more detail.

This was a significant event in my family’s history (as it would be, I assume, for any family). However, it was a story that occurred when many of my aunts and uncles were still young (my mother was the only sibling old enough to really be a part of it), and obviously it occurred several years before I was born. It was also an event that took place before the digital age. There are no VHS tapes of any of any of the races my uncle ran. No TV broadcasts. No radio broadcasts. No old magazines. No websites. No articles. For such a significant event, it’s is one of the least documented pieces of history my family has.

But this isn’t just a neat story about my Uncle. It is also the story of a young collegiate runner thrust into a situation he was not prepared for, not supposed to overcome, and certainly not supposed to excel in. And that’s part of the reason I want to tell it.

My uncle was a freshman at the University of Tennessee. He had been recruited to run the 5,000M and 10,000M distance races after performing extremely well as a high school cross country and track athlete at Notre Dame High School in metro Detroit. While he was a promising freshman, he was certainly not yet a top tier runner at the collegiate level. But when the University of Wisconsin requested that Tennessee provide a set up to run the steeplechase at an upcoming track meet, that was all about to change.

At the time (1970s), the SEC (Southeastern Conference) did not run the steeplechase at its track events. However, Wisconsin had the current Big Ten champion for the steeplechase. They wanted to run the event, but Tennessee didn’t have any runners for it. In a stroke of chance, my uncle was asked if he would run in the event, basically to serve as a sacrifice to the Big Ten champ, and to placate Big Ten officials.

My Uncle’s preparation for the event consisted of basically going to the track the night before and practicing jumping over the steeplechase hurdles. The steeplechase is a shorter race than my uncle currently trained and competed in, so his game plan for the race was to keep pace with the Big Ten champ between the hurdles and hopefully be able to catch him after the last hurdle.

The day of the race my Uncle did just what he set out to do. He kept pace with the champ, falling behind after each hurdle, especially the one with the water pit, and then catching back up as the race headed toward the next hurdle. After the final hurdle my uncle kicked it into high gear and races to catch up with the Big Ten champ. But something was odd… the Big Ten champ was gassed. He didn’t have any juice left. My uncle caught up and passed right by the Big Ten champ, winning the race! In a screenplay this is the perfect way to end a first act.

With this seemingly easy defeat of what was one of the top tier collegiate steeplechase runners at the time, my uncle and his coaches were faced with the task of trying to adequately train one of their athletes for a race their conference didn’t run. Over the next few months my uncle continued to excel at the steeplechase in the various track meets he was able to compete in it at, getting better and better, loosing less and less time after each hurdle, until he qualified for the US Nationals meet, where the members for the 1972 Olympic team would be decided. This would serve as great content to move the story through the second act.

Obviously, he went on to qualify and make the team (which would easily be the third act and close out the screenplay), but there was a lot of drama that went down at Nationals that I’m just beginning to crack the surface of.

You can see how I viewed this story in the eyes of a potential screenplay. I think it adapts really well. I’m going to have to really look at some additional dramatic events, either real of fictitious, to flesh out the second act. I’ve never had to do that before. Everything I’ve ever written was completely fictitious. So this poses an interesting challenge to me as an amateur and aspiring writer.

My uncle and cousin will be coming with me and my wife to a beach house my parents rented for Thanksgiving. It’s going to give me a really solid chance to interview him and get some more background information on what transpired between that first race and making the Olympic team. It’s an opportunity that I really can’t pass up. While there are no guarantees that after I sit down to start fleshing the story out I won’t realize there isn’t enough there to write a screenplay with, it’s something that I’d like to go through the motions on. An exercise that will continue to nag me until I do it.

So that’s what I’m going to be moving onto in the next few weeks.

If any other writers out there have written any screenplays about their own families, or real life events, I’d be interested to hear how you approached your subject matter, and any tips or tricks you can offer me or any other writers.

Until next time, keep writing!
-Steve

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Responses

  1. Storyville was based on real facts, but no stories. It was my job to tell the stories. It was really difficult at first to flesh them out, but eventually I realized there were no barriers. I could make these people up anyway I wanted, and so I did.

    The unique opportunity you have here that I did not, is to get to know the character really well. You can embellish, for sure, and don’t forget events that happened, historically, at that time, things that might overall influence the way he makes his decisions, or has them thrust upon him. Relationships also make a big difference – family, girlfriend, puppy, whatever.

    I find it an intriguing story, sorta like “Invincible”, or “Without Limits” which you should check out as research, explaining Steve Prefontaine’s life and how he changed foot racing. But overall, I definitely think its worth a stab. And if you don’t come out with anything, I’m glad to hear you tried.


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