Compton native to lead U.S. Women’s track and field team in upcoming Olympic Games
Three weeks before the 2008 Summer Olympics kick off on August 8 in Beijing, U.S. women’s Olympic track and field coach Jeanette Bolden enjoyed the last bit of family time before leaving to prepare for the Games.
Her 7-year-old twins, Anthony and Kimberly, played around Drake Field at UCLA and with her husband, Al, keeping a close watch; the 48-year-old Compton native and Olympic gold medalist took stock of this latest step in her career.
“For someone born in Compton with solid roots in Los Angeles, it has come full circle for me,” Bolden said, adding that she was “blessed and honored” to be the first gold medalist to serve as an Olympic track and field coach.
It is a journey that took her to a state title at Compton Centennial High School in the 100-meter dash, an All-American career at UCLA and the afore-mentioned gold medal during the 1984 Summer Olympics as part of the women’s 400-meter relay squad.
Now after completing her 15th season as women’s track and field coach at UCLA, Bolden is preparing to help her new team fulfill those same dreams and with one of the deepest squads in recent memory, chances are several could find themselves on the medal podium.
The goal is simple, Bolden says. “We want to hear our national anthem as much as we possibly can.”
Familiar names fill up the squad, including silver medalist Allyson Felix (200-meters) and gold medalist Monique Henderson (4 x 400m relay), but Bolden is excited about newcomers such as 19-year-old Queen Harrison (400m hurdles) from Virginia Tech and Dawn Harper (100m hurdles), who is one of six Bruin alumni on the roster.
“This will be one of our best Olympics yet,” she said.
She said she won’t meet with the team as a whole until after the opening ceremony but one area she won’t address is the idea of a protest, something that many are anticipating in light of concerns over China’s record on human rights.
As she put it, her job is to focus on “winning medals and creating a positive experience that they only get once every four years.” But she was quick to dismiss ideas that today’s athletes are less concerned about issues than before.
“I think athletes today are just as concerned but I think they just have other avenues of getting their opinions known,” she said, citing that they are more likely to do that via the Internet than a track meet.
Aside from coaching, Bolden is also going to the Games as an ambassador for Americans living with asthma. She battled it frequently during her career but never used it as an excuse or a crutch to hamper her.
When she would run at Roy Campanella Park in Compton, she remembered telling a coach about her asthma and he said “If it doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother me.”
Her asthma would sometimes force her to rearrange her training schedule or carry an inhaler in her sock during races. She recalled one college meet where she had a poor showing due to difficulty breathing and a doctor later told her it stemmed from a reaction to sleeping on feather pillows.
It wasn’t until recently that she learned she was diagnosed with allergic asthma triggered by specific causes. Now she is taking medication specifically to treat it and is encouraging others via her website, AsthmaOnTrack.com, to get tested by asthma specialists and check their Immunoglobulin E (IgE) level.
“IgE is an antibody [produced by the immune system] and for people with asthma, they tend to have a higher level than normal,” Bolden said.
In the body, IgE is produced after inhaling an allergic trigger (i.e. dust) and it swells and inflames airways which lead to asthma attacks.
With the air quality in Beijing affected by severe air pollution, many have voiced concerns about how the athletes will perform but all the women’s team has to do is look to the sidelines for inspiration.
“Hopefully I can serve as an encouragement to not let asthma stop you,” Bolden said, “It’s not a handicap...it’s just another obstacle you have to overcome.”
This will be Bolden’s second trip to the Olympics (she made the 1980 Olympic team that boycotted the Games in Moscow, Russia) but this time around, she will do something she didn’t do in 1984 - participate in the Opening Ceremonies.
Due to a stress fracture between her third and fourth toe, she sat out the ceremony to rest her foot although she did participate in the closing ceremonies.
“Having the opportunity to march for the first time will hold a special place for me,” she said.
Bolden has indeed come full circle and even though she has found success as an athlete, coach and businesswoman - she’s a third generation owner of the famed 27th Street Bakery in Compton - the journey getting there has been much sweeter.