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Glory at Last

After deferring his retirement, U.S. shot putter Adam Nelson finally struck gold at the world championships

A big, ROUND man stood crying joyfully in a cold summer rain, far from home, a gold medalist at last after so many silvers. His lower lip quivered, and his blue eyes surrendered droplets onto the grassy floor of Helsinki's old Olympic Stadium, and then Adam Nelson grimaced in the way that grown men grimace when they are embarrassed at bawling like babies.

Minutes earlier on the night of Saturday, Aug. 6, Nelson had wrapped up the shot put competition at the 10th World Outdoor Track and Field Championships. As the final thrower, he was obligated by a sense of sportsmanship to take his last toss, even though he'd clinched the championship. Yet Nelson could barely lift the 16-pound shot as emotions overwhelmed him.

"I couldn't find my composure," Nelson recalls. "All the memories just came flooding back.''

The tale of the struggling Olympic athlete has been told and retold with such quadrennial fervor that a truly warm story gets swallowed up like just another prefabricated fairy tale. Nelson's victory in Helsinki, achieved on his first throw of the competition on the first night of the championships in front of an audience of 32,000, was as genuine as blood and sweat.

Four times since ascending to the top level of international throwers in 2000, Nelson, an Atlanta native with a Dartmouth degree in government, had finished second in major championships. Most painfully, at the Olympics in the summer of 2004, competing on the sacred grounds of ancient Olympia in Greece, Nelson finished second to Yuriy Bilonog of Ukraine on a crushing tiebreaker. (Their longest throws were identical; Bilonog's second-best was longer than Nelson's.)

Two months later Adam and Laci Nelson, newly wed after two years together, sat in the backyard of their home in Athens, Ga., and talked about his career. Adam was ready to quit. "I can make a lot more money doing something else," he told Laci.

She wouldn't let him do it. "You have more to accomplish," Laci said. She put her plans for law school on hold and took a job teaching first grade in Athens.

Nelson decided to carry on. Shortly afterward he received a fresh four-year contract offer from one of his main sponsors, Nike, which merely mirrored his initial contract from 2000, tendered when he had never won a medal of any kind. Nelson was insulted and turned it down, leaving himself with no financial support beyond prize and appearance money. He sold his services on eBay and signed a one-month, $12,000 deal with MedivoxRX Technologies to advertise Rex--the Talking Bottle, an aid for the blind and for senior citizens who have difficulty reading labels. (His gold in Helsinki was worth considerably more: $60,000 in prize money.)

When Nelson heaved his winning throw, Laci was driving back to Athens from a teaching seminar in Atlanta. Her brother, Beau Braswell, was watching the webcast of the championships and text-messaged Laci in her car: ADAM OPENS HUGE 21.73 METERS.  Further texts followed, tracing Nelson's victory. Laci drove through tears of joy, wondering what other drivers must be thinking. Nelson laments to this day that she was not in Helsinki to share a victory that was as much hers as his.

It was a performance that meant as much to track and field as it did to either of the Nelsons. While many sports have been bruised by the steroid revelations of the last three years, track has suffered longer and more deeply than most. (Is there a more notorious name in the annals of performance enhancement than disgraced 1988 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Ben Johnson?) It was sprint coach Trevor Graham who sent the designer-steroid-laced syringe to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in June 2003, setting in motion the epic BALCO scandal and confirming suspicions that track gurus are on the cutting edge of pharmaceutical advancement.

For more than two years no major track meet could unfold without some reference to BALCO and its fallout, and the cloud over the sport's head became darker with each passing month. Fans and media were aggressively suspicious; athletes were uniformly defensive. Along came the 6-foot, 255-pound Nelson, a popular showman who turns every throw into theater. His performance in Helsinki was a shaft of sunlight.

The story does not end neatly. Nelson, 30, is now committed to throwing through the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but he remains sponsorless. "I'm looking outside the shoe companies," Nelson says, "trying to find somebody who wants to have me as a partner, not just for advertising at competitions."

Nelson has applied to several business schools for next autumn. "My brain has atrophied," he says. "I feel like I've gotten dumber." Likewise, Laci has applied to law school. (So far they've both been admitted to Virginia.) Their immediate future will be as chaotic as their recent past.

They can find calm in the memory of one rainy night in Finland, a heavy ball sailing through the air and a husband and wife crying together, thousands of miles apart.

THE BEST . . .

Diplomatic performance
In his Singapore hotel suite British P.M. Tony Blair met tirelessly with IOC members. Days later London beat out Paris for the right to hold the 2012 Games.

THE BEST . . .

Inspiration for a comeback
Diver Laura Wilkinson won the platform gold at the 2000 Olympics six months after breaking her right foot. She earned the world title in July, six months after right wrist surgery.

THE BEST . . .

Evasion of consequences
After tarnishing track and field and ruining athletes' careers, Victor Conte was sentenced to four months in prison and four months of house arrest.

THE BEST . . .

Family affair
In April the Lopezes--Stephen, Mark and sister Diana--of Houston won three gold medals at the world taekwondo championships in Madrid.

THE BEST . . .

Rivalry on hold
100-meter world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica, who was injured in July, watched Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin win the world title in August.

THE BEST . . .

American skeleton champ Noelle Pikus-Pace finished 20th at Igls, Austria, seven weeks after a bobsled broke her right leg. She said the injury fortified her will to make the 2006 Olympics.

THE BEST . . .

Coaching job
Clyde Hart, the head man at Baylor for the past 42 years, has elevated that program to the elite ranks. Moonlighting with U.S. stars, he guided Jeremy Wariner, 21, and Sanya Richards, 20, to world titles in the 400 meters.

THE BEST . . .

Career moves
Old rivals Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia and Paul Tergat of Kenya each won major marathon titles, adding to their epic achievements.


Photograph by Bob Martin

HURLING IRON As Nelson worked up to his victory in Helsinki, his anxious wife received text message updates back home in Georgia.