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Tampa's Cherry overcomes steroids suspension to make Olympic team

The wait felt like an eternity to Damu Cherry.

The 100-meter hurdler from Tampa's Leto High and the University of South Florida had just earned a spot on the Olympic team at the track and field trials.

But before she could savor the moment with her coach/fiance, Dennis Mitchell, and parents, Don and Hassie Cherry, she was shuttled off to the podium ceremony, a news conference and mandatory drug testing.

"When I saw Dennis and my parents, they looked exhausted — like they had run the race and not me," she said by phone, laughing. "Then Dennis gave me a big hug. It was like, finally."

Finally, indeed. And not just because postrace priorities had delayed the family celebration.

For Cherry, 30, the biggest hurdle of all has taken five years to surpass, after a suspension from 2003-05 for a steroid violation. She maintains she never intentionally took steroids, saying that cheap, tainted vitamins caused her to test positive for the banned substance.

"It was at a time when I was trying to take care of myself and trying not to burden my parents, so I was buying supplements that I could afford like for $3," she said. "At the time, there were a lot of substances on the market that were contaminated, and I wasn't aware of that, and I just made a mistake. But it was not intentional. I served my time, and it was hard. But I knew I had to try to reach my potential."

The Tampa native had been doing a good job of that for years. The youngest of three sisters, little Damu (pronounced DAH-mu) was a standout gymnast, on the verge of reaching elite junior status at age 16. But she didn't see a long-term future in the sport. So the Leto honors student, cheerleader and eventual homecoming queen listened to her dad and decided to add another sport to her hectic schedule.

"She told me it would be track, and that sounded good. That's what I was coaching at Robinson High School," said Don Cherry, now a physical education teacher at Hillsborough High. "Then she told me she was going to run hurdles, and that shocked me. I had a hard time getting anybody on my own team to do hurdles. Nobody wanted to get hurt. But I think because of Damu's gymnastics background, she was good at it right away."

Gymnastics gave Cherry a mental edge as well.

"In gymnastics, you compete all alone, so it taught me how to handle competition," she said. "When I moved to track, I said, 'I have all these people around me; this is easy. I don't have to get on the beam by myself.' ''

Cherry did both sports through her senior year at Leto, and she earned a partial academic scholarship to the University of Florida, along with an invitation to join the track team as a walk-on. But a week before leaving for school, USF stepped into the picture, offering a full scholarship. "I'd wanted to be a Gator, but going to school for free wasn't a hard decision," she said.

Cherry became a standout hurdler for the Bulls while graduating cum laude in four years with a degree in exercise science. But she wasn't ready to excel at the international level.

"My times weren't good enough, but I knew that I could do it," she said. "I needed to get with someone who had been there and done that. Dennis was there, and he offered to help me."

In college, she had watched Mitchell — a UF star and 1992 Olympic gold medalist on the 4x100 relay team and bronze medalist in the 100 — in competition at USF. Now she was becoming his student, moving to Gainesville to train with him. "He said, 'You can do this,' but he basically had to break me down and then build me back up," she said. "It was not an easy process."

Cherry was making big strides, ranked seventh nationally, when she was hit with the two-year suspension. But Mitchell devised a training regimen to help her remain focused and motivated.

"I told Damu it would be rough but that I could get her through," he said. "And I came up with a plan. We very rarely acted like anything was wrong. When the U.S. indoor national championships took place, we trained as if we were going.

"We actually had time trials on the same day she would have been running in the finals. Same for the world indoor championships and outdoor championships. We trained as if we were there. I kept her totally in synch with what the sport was doing."

Cherry marked her comeback in 2006 with a personal-best 12.44 seconds in a meet at Lausanne, Switzerland, and finished the year ranked second in the United States and third in the world by Track and Field News. She entered the Olympic trials with the fastest time in the world this year, 12.47, and finished second in the final in 12.58 behind Lolo Jones' wind-aided 12.29.

"I was actually going for the win, so I was a little disappointed when I didn't," Cherry said. "I looked up after I looked at the scoreboard and said, 'Wait a minute, you're going to Beijing!' "

"This is Damu's dream come true," said Hassie Cherry, a former marathon runner. "We're still trying to let it sink in. We always told her to stay focused and don't give up on your dream. In her heart, she knew she hadn't done anything wrong. I told her, 'Okay, you have five minutes to cry, and then go back and do what you have to do.' "

What Cherry wants to do is keep hurdling. She'd like to compete in the 2012 Games and hopes one day to break Gail Devers' U.S. record of 12.33.

She and Mitchell, who have been engaged about a year, have not set a wedding date.

"Right now, we're just trying to get through the season and then spend more time with family in the fall," she said. "We're just going to try to have some fun. I've been working so hard from one season to the next, there hasn't been much time for that."

That should change for the woman with the distinctive first name. Hassie Cherry chose the Swahili word that traditionally means blood, but she says she had another connotation in mind for her newborn daughter:

"Perseverance."

.Fast facts

29th Summer Olympics

When/where: Aug. 8-24, Beijing

Number of countries: 205

Number of athletes: More than 10,000

Number of sports: 35; medals will be awarded in 302 events.

Tampa's Cherry overcomes steroids suspension to make Olympic team 07/29/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 1:09pm]

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