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Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008 | In 1960, Wilma Rudolph, the legendary track and field sprinter, brought home three gold medals from the Olympic Games in Rome. She was so celebrated around the world that the Italians called her La Gazzella Nera, and President Kennedy invited her to a sit-down visit at the White House.

But Monique Henderson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, has something on Rudolph. She competes in an era when she can eye a fourth trip to the Olympics, in London in 2012. In earlier Olympic generations, women had to decide to either continue training or quit their sports and join the work force.

“My old coach at UCLA (Jeannette Bolden) got a gold medal in the 1984 Olympic Games, and she was saying how great we have it,” Henderson said. “We’re lucky we can keep training. It wasn’t realistic for them to make multiple Olympics teams back then; they didn’t have the funding.”

Henderson’s sponsorship deals may not pay as well as men’s — or even as Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s, the late Florence Griffifth-Joyner’s, or the now-disgraced Marion Jones’ — but still, today’s female athletes like Henderson are rewarded better than ever.

“Reebok is very happy with me right now,” said Henderson, who also travels next month as part of her sponsorship deal with Hershey’s Chocolate.

Henderson made her first Olympic team in 2000, the summer before her senior year at Morse High, and again in 2004, where she won her first gold medal on the 4×400-meter relay team the summer before her senior year at UCLA. Her second gold medal came again for 400 relay team this year at Beijing. She is believed to be the youngest three-time Olympian in history.

If there was any doubt Henderson would dust off her UCLA degree instead of embarking upon another four-year plan, it was erased by a conversation with Layne Beaubien on the Olympic athletes’ flight home.

Beaubien, a Coronado High alumnus, brought home a silver medal in men’s water polo at age 32. Even though the men’s water polo team was ranked only ninth going into the Beijing games (after a disappointing performance in Athens in 2004), Beaubien, a Stanford grad, still gave the Olympics another shot.

“It shows you that as long as you have the means to keep training, why would you waste your talent and not go for it one more time?” Henderson said.

Henderson’s talent and courage to compete on track and field’s grandest stage were on display in Beijing. This can be better understood with knowledge of the full story about when she was passed on the third leg by Russia’s Tatyana Firova.

In the women’s 400, any finish under 51 seconds is very fast. Henderson ran a 49.5 second split in the semifinals, advancing the United States to the finals. In the finals, stopwatches clocked her third leg between 50.1 and 50.5 seconds.

This might come as a surprise to anyone who watched Firova pass Henderson on TV, because the event’s announcers failed to provide proper commentary. The Russsians, in a strategic ploy, moved their fastest leg, Firova, to third against Henderson. They hoped to build a big lead that would demoralize American anchor leg Sanya Richards before she got the baton.

Firova did her job, running a blazing leg in the 48s. In fact, her accomplishment was largely due to chasing Henderson’s own fast leg.

“I went out there and ran my hardest,” Henderson said. “When the Russian passed me, it was discouraging and made me doubt I had run as well as I had thought.”

But then Henderson heard her split was in the low 50s.

“I thought, ‘Well, what was her split?’” Henderson exclaimed with a laugh. “Then it was explained to me what they did. I don’t recognize the Russians, so I didn’t know.”

A lesser athlete might not have tightened up when taken aback by being passed, but not Henderson. If she had finished in the 51s instead of the 50s, she might not have kept Richards close enough to come from behind. The United States won the gold, Russia the silver and Jamaica the bronze.

“The Americans, Russians and Jamaicans were so close on paper, it came down to who could run the best strategy,” Henderson said. “Obviously, our order was the best for us. If it looks like I took a hit, so be it. I did my best and we got the gold.”

Now Henderson’s goal is a third gold medal on the 400 relay team in London and a gold medal or a medal of her own in the open 400.

After an injury plagued year in 2007, she missed qualifying for the U.S. team in Beijing by one hundredth of a second with a fourth-place finish at the Olympic trials.

But she has placed in the top three twice before at the U.S. nationals, which serve as qualifiers during Olympic years. She placed third in both 2005 and 2006. In 2005, she was a finalist at the World Championships in Helsinki, games that — usually held every two years — did not take place 2006.

“The Olympics have always been my dream since I was 13 years old watching the ’96 games,” Henderson said. “I told my dad, ‘I want to be there.’ “

She’s been there again and again … and still has at least one more try.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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