Two former Southeastern Conference track All-Americans and national champions from Signal Mountain will try this week to earn spots in the London Olympics.
Both have legitimate shots at finishing in the top three and making the United States team in the track and field trials at Eugene, Ore.
Baylor School alumnus James Strang, who ran two years for Colorado before transferring to Arkansas and winning the SEC 5,000-meter championship in 2008, will run Friday night in the 10,000 at Oregon's Hayward Field. Earlier that day, Red Bank graduate Phoebe Wright, who almost went to Colorado before walking on at Tennessee and four years later winning the 2010 NCAA 800 indoor and outdoor titles, will race in the first round of heats at that distance.
The semifinals are Saturday and the 800 final is next Monday.
Wright, 23, also is entered in the 1500, the prelims for which are June 27. Although she has raced mostly at the longer distance in recent months, the 1500 is her backup plan at the U.S. trials.
A nine-time All-America award winner in college, she finished third in the 800 in the Millrose Games in New York in February -- after leading through 650 meters -- and was second to Nike teammate Erica Moore in the USA Track and Field indoor nationals in Albuquerque, N.M., earning a spot on the U.S. team for the world meet in Turkey. She was in the top 12 in that international competition, but except for a couple of 800 tuneup races she has competed mostly at 1500 in the outdoor season.
"Already having the time standards for the 800 gave me the flexibility to train for strength," Wright said this past weekend. "The 800 is my best race right now, but the stronger you are the more endurance you have."
She specialized in the 1200 leg of the distance medley relay that won three national titles for the Lady Vols.
"Right now I have fresh legs, a good mind, and I'm fit and ready to go," she said. "I'm definitely more fit and stronger than I was two years ago. I just have to go and run two minutes three times. I guess I would be considered a dark horse [to make the U.S. team], but anybody who knows anything about the sport would know I'm going to be in the hunt. I think I'm predicted to finish fifth or sixth, but I think I'm better than that."
Wright's boyfriend, Steve Fassino -- also a former Red Bank and UT runner from Signal Mountain -- agreed with her assessment of improved strength, conditioning and tactical ability since her NCAA championships, and he added that "the competition is relatively the same. I don't think there's really any new, younger faces."
Wright's outdoor NCAA title and subsequent Prefontaine Classic victory in 2010 both were at Hayward Field, the latter in her personal best of 1:58.22, so returning there adds to her confidence level this week.
Strang was in the 2008 trials at Hayward, in the 5K, but was coming off a grueling collegiate season and was hampered by a heel injury that ultimately required surgery. He didn't make the U.S. team then but believes the experience will help this week.
He derives even more motivation, however, from a fourth-place finish while representing his country in the Pan American Games last October in Mexico. Topped by two Brazilians and a runner from Mexico, and he was just 0.02 second from a bronze medal in the 10K.
"That's kind of been with me every day at practice," Strang said Saturday. "I was so close. I never want to lose by two-hundredths of a second again."
The four-time NCAA All-American has done well since turning pro in 2009, sponsored by Adidas and recently adding support from PowerBar. Now 27, he changed his usual "60-40 or 70-30" ratio of sea-level to altitude training by basing his work at Colorado Springs the last 10 months.
"We basically reversed our training schedule this past year, and so far it's worked really well," he said. "I noticed a difference when I came down to my last qualifier at Stanford. You're training at altitude and also sleeping at altitude, so your body is getting used to less oxygen. So when you come back down it's like you have more oxygen -- it's easier to breathe.
"I've had faster times and placed higher in all my races having spent since last August in Colorado."
He earned his place in the Olympic trials with a 28:12.03 on April 29 at Stanford. That was more than three seconds faster than the U.S. "A" standard. As for Friday, he said, "One guy is pretty much a shoo-in. Then there are about eight of us fighting for spots two and three."
Strang said he enjoyed the USA road circuit last year but hopes to be delayed in rejoining it this year -- until after the Olympics and what would be a well-deserved break.
Although he has been back to Chattanooga only to visit since leaving for the University of Colorado in 2004, he still considers this his home.
"I still have a Tennessee license plate on my car," he said.
Wright likewise has remained in Knoxville since graduation with her focus on professional track and making the Olympic field, so she could continue to take advantage of UT's coaches, training staff and facilities, but she remains a Chattanoogan at heart, too.
"If I could live anywhere in the world, it would be Chattanooga," she said. "But people sacrifice for their jobs all the time."
And her job, like Strang's, involves a crucial presentation this week.