Thursday, November 22, 2007

Amazing Race

A self-described ‘‘redneck from the Cove that likes to run’’ someday will apply to dentistry school and fulfill his longtime goal.

In the meantime, Brian Sell will settle for being an Olympian.

Sell qualified for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China, by finishing third in the marathon at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in New York City on Nov. 3.

‘‘The last six or seven years, I’ve been saying, ‘If I don’t do this, I’m going to quit and go to dental school,’’’ the Woodbury native said. ‘‘I’ve been running well enough to keep doing it.’’

Sell, a Northern Bedford and St. Francis graduate, is only the second Olympian ever from the Mirror’s coverage area.

He has the adulation of the first, Maureen (Latterner) Brown, a member of the U.S. handball team in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea.

‘‘I always have serious respect for those marathoners,’’ said Brown, formerly of Carrolltown and now living in Colorado Springs, Col. ‘‘Even me running three miles, it’s like, ‘wow!’ Those guys blow my mind.’’

The feeling isn’t one Sell always gave people.

‘‘Nobody knew he had this kind of potential,’’ former St. Francis teammate Art Remilliard said.

Sell never even knew, until the 2004 U.S. Trials in Birmingham, Ala. An unknown on the national stage at the time, Sell began establishing his pedigree by leading the 26.2-mile race through the first 21 miles before hitting a wall. He finished 13th that day.

‘‘Ever since then, I’ve seen the Olympics as a possibility,’’ Sell said.

His crowning achievement came on a bittersweet day in the country’s largest city.

The marathon through New York City began at 7:30 a.m. No more than 15 minutes after finishing the race and qualifying for the Olympics, Sell learned of the death of Ryan Shay, another American vying for a spot on the team.

Shay had collapsed about 5 1/2 miles into the race and was pronounced dead at 8:46 a.m., according to New York City Police.

Sell learned of the tragedy from Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished second in the marathon, as he made his way to his first of many press conferences.

‘‘It definitely makes you think it could happen to anybody,’’ said Sell, who considered himself an acquaintance of Shay’s. ‘‘At the same time, it’s a small chance that would happen. ... His death has been on my mind a lot because of who he was. You could go at any time.’’

Sell continued to be whisked away to press conferences and other ceremonies well into the afternoon. At 2:45, he made an appearance at a party that his sponsor, the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project, threw on his behalf.

The Olympian walked into a room of nearly 400 people with his wife, Sarah, 15 minutes before the bash was scheduled to end.

‘‘He was late to his own party,’’ Kevin Doyle said, ‘‘but we’re not going to hold that against him.’’

Doyle, a groomsman at Sell’s wedding and former Red Flash teammate, caravanned to New York City with several of Sell’s college buddies. Teammates from Canada, Oklahoma and Alaska all converged to watch Sell, whom Doyle called the fan favorite.

‘‘In the middle of New York City, there were Brian Sell fans everywhere,’’ Doyle said. ‘‘I think part of his appeal is how average he was in high school.’’

Sell presented his friends with VIP passes for his sponsor’s party.

‘‘I got there late,’’ Sell said. ‘‘Pretty much everyone had left. [The sponsors] extended the party almost an hour so we could make it over for a few minutes. ... It would’ve been nice to hang out with them and talk to them a little more.’’

Sell left the restaurant on 83rd Street and later crashed at his hotel with his wife.

‘‘We had pizza and went to bed,’’ he said. ‘‘We were pretty tired.’’

Sell will begin preparations for ‘‘the biggest marathon in the world’’ by training in Florida for a week or two to adjust to the heat.

First, though, is a 30-kilometer race in Japan in February, followed by a 25-kilometer race in Grand Rapids, Mich., in May.

Sell won’t initiate a training regimen specifically for the 2008 Olympics until June, two months before the Games.

‘‘It’s one thing to be an Olympian,’’ he said. ‘‘The big thing now is to go and run well there. If I do that, I’ll consider myself an Olympian. I don’t want to treat it like a vacation.’’

The concept of relaxing is foreign to Sell. Terry Bennett, St. Francis’ longtime trainer, said asking Sell to cut back was like taking oxygen away from him.

If the coaches wanted Sell to run 80 miles in a week, Sell ran 90. If the coaches asked for 90, Sell would increase the workload to 100.

‘‘Runners think rest is a four-letter word they don’t ever want to hear,’’ Bennett said. ‘‘Brian was the epitome of that.’’

Sell transferred to St. Francis in 1998 after going to Messiah College out of high school and took the Red Flash program to an elite level. The track and field team cracked the Top 25 in the fall of 2000, and another one of Sell’s teams finished third at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championships, beating programs like Penn State and Princeton.

‘‘He made people around him better,’’ former St. Francis track and field coach Kevin Donner said. ‘‘Because of Brian Sell, St. Francis had some outstanding track and cross country teams. He made other people around him great.’’

Sell remains grounded despite his accomplishments. Following Shay’s death, Sell remarked he’d give up his spot on the Olympic team in a second if it would bring Shay back.

‘‘I guess in a time when we think of pro athletes as showy, Brian is a great counter-voice to that,’’ Remilliard said. ‘‘He’s somebody who’s humble and excellent at the same time.’’

The excellence is something Brown can relate to thanks to her Olympic experience.

‘‘Walking into the opening ceremonies was everything they built it up to be on TV and radio,’’ Brown said. ‘‘You can’t explain the feeling you get.’’

Sell will experience the feeling first hand in August in Beijing. His wife will be there, and it’s likely a few of his college teammates and coaches will make the trip to follow one of the country’s top marathoners.

‘‘It’s something to celebrate, I guess,’’ Sell said of his berth on the Olympic team. ‘‘But it’s kind of like I have a bigger goal now.’’

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