I forget what year, exactly, I met Amber Campbell. The stories were archived pre-SEO (way, way pre-SEO), and my memory has been a lot of places and done a lot of things.
Let's call it at least 10 years ago, and let's remember the salient points: the smile that could light the way to Mars, the humility that didn't waver whether she'd (often) just set a conference record or (rarely) not won her event. The politeness that went beyond courtesy, that made a reporter feel she was almost glad to see you - again. The work ethic, the determination - all that, clearly. But something more.
I've met a lot of athletes in my career. Interviewed a multitude and been struck, here and there, by a quote, by a story. Amber, I remember. That smile. That joy. That certainty that talk of the Olympics on a Saturday afternoon at a Big South Conference meet at Coastal Carolina, 20 minutes removed from the Atlantic Ocean and home of the Chanticleers, was, somehow, rooted in something real.
The hammer (or the weight, in indoor track season) is not for dainty daises, and Amber wasn't. She was strong, powerful, full of confidence and skill - which made her soft voice and sweet disposition all the more disarming. You'd inwardly quake for fear of asking a dumb question about a sport you were far from an expert on, but she'd laugh, kindly, and explain, patiently, the finer points of hand placement or leg torque.
Throughout the years, I'd catch up with Amber, after she graduated and was training professionally. I'd walk up on her in practice, in a brown, summer-fatigued field somewhere, endlessly tossing the hammer or the weight, that smile never far from her face, still able to almost convince me she was glad for the interruption of my presence.
She was far from arrogant, though - quick to say how much she had to learn. She believed completely in her Olympic dream, but she also - in a nod to the tone of a oh-so-smart, world-wise 25-year-old reporter's question - acknowledged how difficult reaching it would be.
What's Amber doing? one of the two, three, four sports editors who came and went would ask. Sometimes I'd answer enthusiastically, having just wondered and answered that myself. Other times, my first mental response would be, Probably still throwing the same damn hammer in the same damn field, and less than eager to tell me what's happened in the six months since she last told me what's happened.
I lost touch with Amber when she was still in the promising local athlete-verging on national recognition stage, with a sprinkling of All-American honors to her credit. Life happens, careers take different paths. I knew that Amber made the 2008 Olympics, like she always believed she would. She didn't qualify for the hammer finals.
She competes tomorrow in London to better that result. There's a small, selfish, bitter part of me that wants to see her try, that thinks that if circumstances had been different, this business better, more rewarding, more ... just, I would see it.
That part has no place in Amber's dream. If there is justice, for genuinely good, hard-working people, Amber will make the 2012 Olympic finals.
And I'll be blessed to know what that smile looks like, up close.
UPDATE: Amber came up one spot shy of qualifying for the final, but if anyone could handle that oh-so-close disappointment with grace, I know she did.