Profile: Shani Marks and Amanda Thieschafer
by Charlie Mahler
When Minnesotans Shani Marks and Amanda Thieschafer are called to the runway for their first jumps at next week’s U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, they’ll likely be a little nervous. Both triple jumpers, who train together in Minneapolis, have a good chance to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
But while the Olympic Trials is a big meet, Marks, a four-time USA Champion, and Thieschafer, who finished third at this years USA Indoor Championships, both regularly jump for even higher stakes: Namely, those of “Champion of the Universe.”
Shani Marks at the 2007 USA Outdoor Championships. Photo by Sean Hartnett.
Champion of the Universe, you’re asking?
“Champion of the Universe,” “Champion of the World,” and various other made-up competitive scenarios are the child-like games the two determined but fun-loving jumpers construct to keep their jumping practices interesting.
“We put lines in the pit for where you have to jump to,” Thieschafer explains, “and if you don’t jump to that spot, you have to … go get a job.”
“Or,” Marks chimes in, “We’ll say, ‘You’re at Nationals, it’s your last jump, so-and-so has just passed you for first place, so you have one jump left …”
“It feels real,” Marks admits, “even though we’re joking. You think: I have to get past this line.”
It seems so real, for Marks anyway, that she sometimes attempts to place safeguards on the contest, according to Thieschafer.
“Here’s what Shani didn’t want me to tell you,” she reveals. “She’ll go, ‘You’re just jumping for second place because we all know I won. Here you go, you can only get second place.’”
“It’s only a joke,” Marks protests through a grin, “I’ll tell her ‘Only the slot for second place is open.’”
Amanda Thieschafer. Photo by Charlie Mahler.
After the laughter dies down, Marks is quick to add that, in a real contest, she wouldn’t have a problem finishing behind Thieschafer
“For the record, I would be so excited,” Marks said. “She’s the only person I would be excited about beating me. We’re such good friends that I want her to jump far just as much as I want to jump far. It’s like what’s happening to her is happening to me too.”
In defiance of the zero-sum game of making an Olympic Team – where something going well for one athlete can only make it harder for another – Marks and Thieschafer train and compete as one. Since shortly after the 2004 Olympic Trails, Marks, a University of Minnesota alum from Apple Valley and Thieschafer, a North Dakota State grad from Melrose, have worked out and competed together so much they tend to think of themselves as one entity.
And if, by some cruel stroke, one’s success causes the other’s disappointment at the Trials, you get the feeling, spending even a little time with them, that both of them would find a way to be happy and sad for one-another at the same time, and in a proper proportion.
If, on the other hand, both would find themselves taking an Olympian’s lap of honor in Eugene, their shared euphoria might burn away all of Tracktown’s notorious cloud cover.
“We’re so thankful that we have each other,” Thieschafer said. “Because we go to meets and meet other triple jumpers and it’s almost the number one thing they talk about – how hard it is to train as a post-collegiate field event person. Just to have one-another to train with every single day is amazing.”
They do the same workouts, compete in the same meets, use the same coach, finish each other’s sentences, and, of course, chase the same Olympic dream.
On a typical jumping workout day earlier this spring, Marks and Thieschafer took turns video-taping one-another and noting shortcomings in each other’s technique. They work like co-player-coaches, noting problems, confirming reactions, offering support, and alternately working the little video camera.
The “both for one and one for both” attitude and fun-and-games approach to some workouts shouldn’t leave the wrong impression, however. Marks and Thieschafer are serous athletes driven to do well in Eugene and, they hope, beyond. Getting together in the first place was an effort to advance both of their jumping careers.
Connecting last year with Mike Eskind, a jumps guru at Boston University, also points up the pair’s seriousness about their dreams. After working with Gopher women’s coach Matt Bingle and trying to direct their own preparations, they sought out Eskind and worked out a unique relationship with him.
Eskind typically only see the pair jump two or three times each year, and always at meets. In lieu of a typical coaching observation, the pair shares the practice video tapes with him and gets feedback in return.
Along with his long distance critiques, Eskind has targeted Marks’ and Thieschafer’s preparation specifically on the triple jump and the various components of the event.
We jump a lot more than before,” Marks admits. “We see results a lot earlier in the year than before.
A typical week during the pair’s competitive build-up this spring saw them doing short – 20 to 30 meter – sprint work on Mondays, jumping on Tuesdays, practicing approaches on Wednesday, doing additional jumping on Thursdays, doing more short sprint work on Fridays, and sprinting long – 100 meters or more – on Saturdays. Folded into the program is Olympic lifting and triple jump-specific lifting like lunges.
And as a rule, everything is done together.
“She’ll text after a workout, ‘Our quads are sore,’” Thieschafer revealed of Marks.
“And, if hers aren’t, I freak out,” Marks admits. “We’re together so much, we joke that we’re the same person.”
“Every once in a while we’ll have a workout that we’re not together,” Thieschafer said, “and we’ll joke about how we don’t know when it’s our turn again.”
In Eugene, though, Marks and Thieschafer will each need to make the Olympic team on their own.
Marks, currently the U.S. leader in the event with last weekend’s personal record jump of 46-11 in Chula Vista, California, is considered a favorite to make the team and win the event. She’s gone to national championships like the Trials and come back a champion. She already possesses an Olympic A qualifying standard which guarantees that a top-3 Trials finish will put her in red, white, and blue in Beijing.
Thieschafer, who also PR-ed last weekend with a 45-5, the 4th-longest jump in the country this year, needs to find another 6 1/4 inches to notch the Olympic B standard of 45-11 1/4. Realistically, though, she’ll likely need to make the Olympic A standard of 46-7 1/4 to convert a top-three finish at the Trials into a spot on the Olympic team. Qualifiers with the A standard get preference in team selection under most Trials scenarios.
Beyond the qualifying marks, there’s of course the competition to consider. Shakeema Welsch, who bested Marks and Thieschafer at USA Indoors, is a prime contender. She finished second, between the Minnesotans, with her 46-3 1/4 jump in Chula Vista. NCAA champion Erica McLain of Stanford marked a wind-aided 47-10 3/4 in Des Moines and jumped 46-7 1/4 during the indoor season. American record-holder Tiombé Hurd jumped her standard setting 47-5 in 2004, but has only jumped 43-8 this year. Also expected to contend is Maimi alum Brenda Faluade who jumped 45-10 3/4 this year.
Marks, who has landed a lot of winning jumps in championship competitions, says she plans to under-play the significance of the Trials in an effort to do well.
“I think that’s when people mess up at the Trials,” she offered, “it’s because they’re treating it like ‘Oh my god, this is the Olympic Trials,’ instead of treating it like any other meet. We try to keep it as normal as possible.”
And, if Marks or Thieschafer finds herself at the top of the runway needed one big, make-or-break jump they can always take it a step further. They can pretend it’s practice, imagine a line in the sand, and say to themselves …
“You’re in the finals, you’ve got one jump left, and if you hit it you can be … Champion of the Universe.”