Editor's Note: Sharon Day-Monroe finished fourth in the heptathlon at the U.S. Olympic Trials on Sunday, July 10, in Eugene, Ore., narrowly missing the Olympic team. Only the top three finishers qualified.
Sharon Day-Monroe has been to the Olympics twice, in two different events. She's been the U.S. heptathlon champion three times. And she won four consecutive U.S. indoor pentathlon titles.
It's a hugely impressive resume. But at 31, she knows this may be her last shot at Olympic glory.
And that's always a challenge in the pentathlon, which requires an athlete to prove herself over two days in a wide range of skills: speed and strength; power and buoyancy.
"You gotta be able to find the balance for everything," Day-Monroe explained as I spent a recent broiling afternoon with her in Los Angeles.
She was on the track at UCLA, training for the Olympic Trials, which are now underway in Eugene, Ore. She competes on Saturday and Sunday and is considered a favorite to make the U.S. team for the Rio Games, which would be her third consecutive Olympics.
She went to Beijing in 2008 as a high jumper, and followed that with a trip to London in 2012 as a pentathlete, where she finished 16th.
Day-Monroe walked me through the sequence of heptathlon events and what's required for each.
100-meter hurdles: speed, coordination, balance.
High jump: explosive power, speed, timing, lift.
Shot put: strength and timing.
200 meters: ballistic speed.
Long jump: speed, power, aerial lift.
Javelin: timing, flexibility, full-body strength.
800 meters: controlled speed and a burst of power when you're exhausted from the other events.
Day-Monroe came to heptathlon in college at UCLA. She was a high jumper and runner, but had never done hurdles or thrown the shot put or javelin.
When a teammate in heptathlon got injured, Day-Monroe was thrown quickly in to replace her. It turned out she was a natural, and coach Jack Hoyt informed her, "You're a heptathlete!"
She's still training with Hoyt, and on the day I watched her he was pushing her through a 400-meter run, followed quickly by two 200-meter runs.
Afterward, Day-Monroe was doubled over, panting, dripping with sweat, and in pain from lactic acid buildup in her hamstrings.
"People refer to it as booty lock," she said, "because everything feels like it's locking up and sometimes cramping. Your muscles are contracting really hard for so long that you can't get enough oxygen in there."
Day-Monroe admits there are times when it seems that putting her body through these seven punishing events borders on insane.
"Especially at the end of the hep or the next day when you just feel like everything hurts," she said, laughing.
"But," she added, "it's all in the journey. You know, it's a lot of fun just kind of testing what my body can do, and exercising this talent I've been given through DNA and the blessings of God, and just trying to see how far I can take that. I just feel like I was born to do this."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
I mean, imagine competing in an Olympic event (laughing). I'm laughing because I couldn't imagine doing that - maybe you can. And if you can picture that, imagine having to compete in six more different events. That is the grueling heptathlon, seven track and field events in two days. To find out what that takes, NPR's Melissa Block spent time with a top heptathlete who has her eye on the Summer Games in Rio.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: It's broiling hot in Los Angeles when I meet up with Sharon Day-Monroe. She's training on the track at UCLA, working on her javelin throw with her coach Jack Hoyt.
JACK HOYT: There you go. Open up a little bit. But that looked good - the rhythm, the block. How'd it feel?
SHARON DAY-MONROE: Pretty good.
BLOCK: Day-Monroe was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. last year in women's heptathlon. So who better to explain how it all works? Here we go - Day One of the heptathlon starts with the 100-meter hurdles, which means you need...
DAY-MONROE: Speed, coordination and balance.
BLOCK: Next up, the high jump.
DAY-MONROE: You have to be really explosive...
BLOCK: To power over the bar. Then...
DAY-MONROE: (Throwing shot put).
BLOCK: ...The shot put.
DAY-MONROE: That is definitely strength and timing.
BLOCK: And the fourth and final event on Day One - the 200-meter run.
DAY-MONROE: I'd say that's just, sort of, ballistic speed.
BLOCK: OK. We're a little more than halfway there. Get some rest. Day Two starts with the long jump.
DAY-MONROE: Running as fast as you can and hitting the board perfectly and projecting yourself upward and outward. And then, second event on Day Two is javelin. It feels really good when you hit one right, and it kind of just sails out there.
BLOCK: Pace yourself - big finish here.
DAY-MONROE: And then the 800 is the last event.
BLOCK: Eight hundred meters - twice around the track.
DAY-MONROE: And I'd say the 800 - I don't know if I'd say it's the toughest, but it's definitely the one I get the most nervous for.
BLOCK: Now think about the body types these events require. After all, a shot putter is built really differently from a hurdler or a sprinter.
DAY-MONROE: Yeah (laughter), totally differently. Yeah (laughter).
BLOCK: But a heptathlete has to have everything - strength and speed, power and buoyancy.
DAY-MONROE: That's the idea, is you got to be able to find the balance for everything. You don't want to put on a lot of weight and put on a lot of muscle to be able to throw because you still want to be able to be light enough and fast enough to jump high and run fast. So it's - yeah, it's tricky putting it all together (laughter).
BLOCK: Sharon Day-Monroe was a high jumper in high school, tried heptathlon in college when another athlete got injured. Turned out, she was good at it. So Coach Jack Hoyt told her, now you're a heptathlete.
HOYT: So it's that cone right there...
HOYT: ...Straight ahead.
BLOCK: At the end of their workout, Hoyt has her do speed work - two 200-meter runs back-to-back.
HOYT: Let's go. Come on. Get to that finish. Use your arms. Work it all the way through the finish.
BLOCK: She's doubled over at the end, dripping with sweat and in pain.
DAY-MONROE: Feel the lactic on that one (panting).
BLOCK: What does that mean?
DAY-MONROE: The lactic acid build-up in you hamstrings - people refer to it as booty-lock because everything feels like it's locking up and sometimes cramping. Your muscles are contracting really hard for so long that they can't get enough oxygen in there (panting).
BLOCK: We take a break so Sharon can catch her breath and hydrate.
And do you ever think, you know, Sharon, it's crazy what I'm asking my body to do? These seven events, that's insane.
DAY-MONROE: Like, the next day when you just feel like everything hurts (laughter), then it's like - why do I do this to myself? But it's all in the journey, you know. It's a lot of fun just kind of testing what my body can do and exercising this talent I've been given through DNA and the blessings of God and just trying to see how far I can take that. I just feel like I was born to do this.
BLOCK: Sharon Day-Monroe is a favorite at the Olympic track and field trials underway now in Oregon. At age 31, she figures she's nearing the end of her career as a heptathlete. Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.