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What it is to escort for sport

Updated: Dec 14, 2019

Des Moines, Iowa, that plain capital city smack in the middle of the U.S., has its graces for a runner. For the past two summers (2018 and 2019), Des Moines has hosted the biggest outdoor and field competition organized by United States Track and Field—the Outdoor Championships. The top three finishers in each event are national champions that go on to represent the United States around the globe. Next year, that means the athletes who competed in Des Moines will be seen in Qatar for the 2020 Olympics.

Even for a recreational runner—heck, even for a non-runner—these USATF events in Iowa have been very exciting stuff.

Volunteering for values

Each year that the Outdoor Championships comes to Des Moines, I don’t hesitate to sign up as a volunteer. I remember the excitement the first time I filled out the form. I was so stoked that my enthusiasm was matched only by the flurry I felt when asked the following question: how did I want to donate my time?

What task would I help with? What difference would I make?

It was less than a second before the answer jumped off the page right at me: I was going to be an escort to see athletes to drug testing directly after an event.

Why drug testing? Because I’m a huge believer in clean sport. Track and field sports around the world are rife with athletes who use a sundry allotment of performance-enhancing drugs and techniques. It’s not just to edge out their competition, either. Stealing sponsorships and prize money is just a big draw. My job as an escort was to get the assigned athlete from point A to point B so they could be tested immediately after the competition.

As my form floated off into cyberspace, I wondered—how would I be received by a professional athlete? Would I even be prepared to walk in the shadow of these professionals I so admired?

Ms. Coburn

In 2018, I had the privilege of walking the perimeter of Drake University’s blue oval track with the winner of the women’s steeplechase, Emma Coburn. As a track and field event, women’s steeple is fairly new, getting its Olympic debut in 2008 in the Beijing games. Since Ms. Coburn burst onto the scene, she has dominated long-distance track events from the 1500m to 3000m. Throw in hurdles and a water pit for the steeple competition, and she is America’s sweetheart.

As I followed quietly behind Ms. Coburn slowly making her way around the outer edge of the track after her exhilarating victory, I was struck by how appreciative and humble she was with the young, female fans that wanted selfies and autographs. She smiled. She shook hands. She listed to their stories and encouraged them to stay involved in athletics.

For my part, I had quite a job trying to stay out of all those selfies, as per the requirements not to be photographed or ask for an autograph from the athlete I was escorting to testing.

What was more, as an introvert (not to mention being a bit star struck that day), I was taken aback by the quiet moments between handshakes where I found myself making awkward small talk. When we passed empty sections of the stadium, I heard my voice bouncing back at me as though coming from an external broadcast.

As Ms. Coburn and I made the trek to the exit, we passed by her husband (who is also her coach) waiting in the stands. She asked if we could stop to talk. Absolutely. She had just won her seventh national title. His support as a partner and coach were part of that. I felt honored to witness the exchange of emotion between them.

I still don’t quite have words to describe how incredibly sappy I felt acting as Emma Coburn’s shadow. This experience acting as an escort for sport still rocks me to my core.

No, not THAT kind of escort...

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