July 31, 2012
By Joshua Scroggin
Faith Mimnaugh recalls the Cal Poly women’s basketball road trip more than a decade ago when freshman Stephanie Brown Trafton shared her connection with the film “My Fair Lady.”
“I remember sitting and watching the musical on TV with my mom,” Trafton said. “It’s my favorite memory with my mom.”
“And that just touched my heart,” Mimnaugh, the Mustangs head coach, remembered last week.
Trafton, a Central Coast native, Arroyo Grande High School graduate and Cal Poly alumna, is in London to defend her 2008 Olympic gold medal-winning performance in the women’s discus.
Qualifying in the discus is Friday, with the final set for Saturday.
Though basketball was her favorite sport, a college knee injury led Trafton to focus on track and field, and as revealed on her cartwheeling “Today” show appearance in 2008, winning gold in Beijing fulfilled an Olympic dream that Trafton had since donning a Mary Lou Retton leotard as a 4-year-old during the 1984 Olympics.
That same 4-year-old also lost her mother to cancer that year.
“My Fair Lady” — set in London and themed around British elocution — shares a special significance with this Olympic Games for Trafton, now 32. Her mother was born and raised in the United Kingdom, where her grandfather was a fifth-generation Londoner.
“It is an honor to compete for my father’s country in my mother’s homeland,” Trafton said.
And it seems Trafton might be a contender again.
She won gold in Beijing with a throw of 212 feet, 5 inches. Her victory, the first for a U.S. woman in the Olympic discus since 1932 and first medal of any kind in the event since 1984, was considered a major upset.
In the years prior, Trafton hadn’t shown to be a favorite. She made her first Olympic team in 2004, when she finished 22nd in qualifying in the Athens Games.
Even after winning in Beijing, Trafton was not a dominant force. She finished in last place in the finals at the 2009 world championships and fifth in 2011.
But she is back on track in another Olympic year.
After returning to San Luis Obispo and appearing in the Cal Poly Invitational early this spring, Trafton set an American record with a throw of 222-3 in Hawaii in May. She had a scare in the preliminaries of the U.S. Olympic Trials in late June, where she fell twice under rainy conditions, but ended up dominating in the final, winning the trials for the first time.
“After she won the Olympic gold, she did have a down period there, which is natural,” said Cal Poly track and field coordinator Mark Conover, a former U.S. Olympic marathon runner. “I remember talking to her and saying, ‘Of course there’s going to be a letdown. You’re on top of the Olympic mountain. You’re a gold medalist. It will come back.’ And I know deep down she knew it would come back, and it has.
“She’s a veteran, very businesslike, and she’s seasoned and really has this Olympic cycle dialed in. Not too many track and field athletes can say that.”
Trafton was also one of the few high-level Olympic athletes who maintained a day job before Beijing, working for an environmental consulting firm in Sacramento. She’s since left that position to train and compete more frequently and, living in Galt, has taken a support position in the athletic department at Sacramento State University.
Though upgrading her time commitment to athletics, Trafton continues to impact the Central Coast community. She visits the Cal Poly women’s basketball teams whenever they make their Big West Conference road trips to Pacific, in Stockton, and UC Davis.
“She’s spoken to my kids several times,” Mimnaugh said, “let them wear her gold medal and pose for pictures with her gold medal. If I won a gold medal, I don’t know if I’d want anybody to touch it. She’s just so humble.”
Trafton has also made a commitment to coach a throwing clinic at Arroyo Grande High. Each of the past three years, she’s coordinated with Eagles throwing coach and former Cal Poly football All-American Stephen Field to spend a day with area athletes.
“It’s awesome, especially for the younger kids,” Field said. “Track and field isn’t a very exposed sport. Not that many people know about it. By the end of the day, kids’ eyes are wide open just looking at her, and she signs autographs and stuff. It’s really cool.
“It’s definitely a big source of pride. Anytime that Stephanie is mentioned, it’s, ‘Oh, you know she’s an A.G. alum and you know she’s a Cal Poly alum.’ There’s definitely a sense of pride.”
Trafton lived most of her life in the Five Cities area with her father and older brother, who was born in Oxford, England.
Her parents met on a Kibbutz in Israel on a work-study program in the 1970s and married a few years later. They settled in the United States the year before Trafton was born in San Luis Obispo.
She has as much motivation to succeed in these Olympics as she has in any other competition in her life, perhaps more. She’s proven she can produce upsets on a grand stage. And she has the hopes of the many she has touched supporting her.
If this were a movie, the happy ending would be simple to conceive.
“At the time that’s most important, when everything was on the line,” Mimnaugh said, “there is something inside of her when everyone else crumbles, she doesn’t crumble.
“It’s a real testament to her strength and her family. I just think her mom is smiling up in heaven and will be proud of her for many, many years.”