Cheers to the Chants

Amber Campbell is going to the Olympics for the third time - as the U.S. Olympic Trials champion in the hammer throw.

Campbell's achievement, on a heave of 74.03 meters (242 feet, 10 inches) on her last throw Wednesday in Eugene, Ore., marked a lifetime best (and the best throw by an American this year) and capped possibly the greatest stretch in the history of a collegiate athletic program - without question one the size and previous scope of Coastal Carolina University, a school with an enrollment pushing 10,000 and a mascot few have heard of or can pronounce.

Campbell is a graduate of Coastal Carolina, home of the Chanticleers (SHONT-a-cleers, a bad-ass rooster and the king of the barnyard in The Canterbury Tales) and a member of the school's athletic hall of fame. On June 19, former CCU golfer Dustin Johnson won the U.S. Open, and on June 30, the Chanticleers' baseball team, led by alum and 21-year coach Gary Gilmore, won the College World Series.

I covered Coastal Carolina for eight years when I worked at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. Things were a bit less heady then, but the people were warm and welcoming pretty much across the board, and there was no shortage of athletic success. The Chants were becoming a nationally respected baseball program, the men's soccer team was already there, and CCU's softball team was a power that boasted the nation's best base stealer.

Coastal formed a football team - which has become a perennial playoff contender while producing NFL stars such as Josh Norman and Mike Tolbert - during my Sun News tenure. Chronicling that team's journey in its first season, which included the use of driving ranges and farm land as practice fields, remains one of the best experiences of my career.

A lot has changed since I left that paper in 2005. A weekend trip to the beach drove that point home. Coastal now boasts a fancy entrance, a gussied-up football stadium preening on the side of 544, and a whole neighborhood of shops and apartments that did not exist a decade ago. Target clerks scramble to find Chanticleer merchandise, and the town of Conway holds victory parades for a national championship team a few dozen fans would turn out to see in the late 1990s.

I have changed a lot since I left that paper, a fact driven home by every passing day, every return beach trip, every joy and disappointment as life marches inexorably forward. I've traveled quite far from Coastal, only to end up two and a half hours away. I've covered many things since - the Washington Redskins, Florida high school football, and now the Columbia business community. 

Time-worn and tenuous though my connection may be, the Chants' recent run of unprecedented success makes me smile and cast a fond glance over my shoulder. Campbell's smile is one of my brightest memories, and seeing it today on such a grand stage provided balm to a savagely sad few days. It must've also provided some sweet solace for Campbell, who fouled on all three of her final-round attempts at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing.

The top three finishers in Wednesday's finals qualified for Rio. Already assured of no worse than a third-place finish and a third Olympic trip, Campbell unleashed a no-doubter in her final go-round, jumping up and down in excitement as the silver hammer flashed through the air. Moments later, Campbell hugged second-place finisher DeAnna Price, who was in tears after realizing her Olympic dream.

"OK, stop crying," Campbell said laughingly. "Knock it off, or I'll start crying."

Campbell finished 12th at the 2012 Olympics with a best-ever mark for a U.S. hammer thrower of 69.93 meters.

"We are sending a super-strong squad (this year)," Campbell told NBC Sports. "I expect us to come home with some hardware."

I can't wait to watch her in Rio, and I can't imagine what CCU might do next.


Below is the first blog I wrote about Campbell, published in August 2012 and titled LASTING IMPRESSION. 


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.

PDATE: 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.