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Tuesday, June 21, 2005 | Ten days ago, UCLA senior Monique Henderson won her first NCAA title in the 400 meters at Sacramento.
Two days later, the San Diegan was named the recipient of the Honda Award for women’s college track and field. The honor is the equivalent of college football’s Heisman Trophy as her sport’s national athlete of the year.
Ten months earlier, Henderson won an Olympic gold medal as a member of the U.S. 1,600-meter relay team at the 2004 Games in Athens.
Four years earlier she was named to her first Olympic team as a member of the 1,600-relay squad at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Before that, at Morse High, she set a national high school record of 50.74 seconds in the 400 and was a four-time CIF state champion.
But here’s something else you should know about Mo: San Diego’s Golden Girl is a Comeback Kid.
How, you might be wondering, could someone with her resume be considered a comeback story for winning an NCAA title 10 months after an Olympic gold medal? If you’ve been around high school sports, sometimes – no, make that many times – the best high school athletes struggle at the next level and fade away when talent alone no longer separates them from the crowd.
Henderson’s freshman and sophomore years at UCLA weren’t a failure, but they weren’t reaching a level of expectations – hers or others. So the summer before her junior year, she realized the old workout routines were no longer sufficient. It was time to take lifting weights in the offseason seriously. It was time to add more distance running to her regimen.
As a UCLA junior, Henderson started running times expected of her, under 51 seconds, but she was forced to settle for a runner-up finish at the 2004 NCAA meet. She kept working.
Next she placed fourth at the 2004 U.S. Olympic team trials, missing by one place one of the three berths in the 400 for the Athens Games. She kept working.
She was named to the 1,600-relay team – in 2000, she was a member of the U.S. relay pool but wasn’t tabbed to compete – and ran legs of 49.64 seconds in the semifinals and 50.2 in the final: the gold-medal race.
She could have cashed in at that point, skipping her senior year to pick up checks on the European and world indoor and outdoor track circuits. But she kept working because she wanted an NCAA title.
“She is a complete champion now,” said John Hutsel, who coached San Diegan Felix Sanchez, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, at University City High.
High school coaches see plenty of athletes fail to live up to their potential because they won’t do the added work. Hutsel talked about how Sanchez’s career suffered ups-and-downs after his NCAA title at the University of Southern California. Sanchez failed to earn medals at the Pan American Games or the 2000 Olympics before breaking through in Athens in 2004.
“I think sometimes it’s harder for the kids who had success at an early age,” he said. “They all have their moments, but the great ones fight through the adversity.”
Last week, Henderson graduated from UCLA with a degree in sociology. This week she competes in the USA Track and Field national championships, June 23-26 at the Home Depot Center in Carson, hoping to earn a berth to the World Championships in August in Helsinki.
If she keeps working, she could join another San Diego Mo in the pantheon of San Diego sports – Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly, who won women’s tennis’ Grand Slam in 1953.
“Big Mo” has her eyes on Beijing in 2008.
Tom Shanahan has been writing about San Diego athletes at the professional, collegiate and high school levels for 27 years. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions (www.sdhoc.com). His features on high school athletes and coaches can be seen on the cable television show “School and Sports Stars” on the San Diego County Office of Education’s ITV Channel.