Steve Fritz missed an Olympic medal by 20 points in Atlanta, but he's not kicking himself over it. Going into the decathlon's final event, the 1500m, Fritz, in third place then, felt he had a shot. But he knew that Frank Busemann in second and Tomaš Dvorak in fourth were both solid 1500 runners. He also knew that his own legs were too tired after taking a more-than-usual 16 jumps in the vault. "I thought if I ran a great race that I would run maybe 4:30," he recalls. "At the end of the first lap, my legs were burning. I ran as hard as I could run from start to finish, and all I could get was 4:38. It was not a bad time, but I was just too tired. Looking back, there's not much I could do. I didn't vault well."
Fritz had finished the best competition of his life, scoring 8644 points, more than Bruce Jenner produced to win the Montreal gold. That got him fourth place. "It was a tough situation, but I left everything I had there. I was just a little bit short." A talented all-around athlete in high school, Fritz, the son of a gas station owner in tiny Gypsum, Kansas, attended Hutchinson Junior College on a basketball scholarship. He walked on to the track team specifically to try the decathlon. "I'd heard about it a little bit and thought it would be fun." A few months later, he placed fifth at the junior college nationals.
As a sophomore at Hutchinson, Fritz grabbed two national titles. "To date," he says, "it was the best year of my life." In the finals of the NJCAA basketball tournament, Fritz played what he calls "a terrible game, until the last three minutes." Then he came to life, making a key steal and scoring on a layup. Then with some 20 seconds left he hit a jump shot, got fouled, then made the free throw. Hutchinson won by two points. "Hutchinson is to a junior college what Kentucky is to the NCAA," says Fritz. "Everyone in the town loves basketball and they go crazy over it. It was an amazing sight after the game and for weeks afterwards. They had never won a national title before." Of course, the team got a parade.
The following spring, Fritz scored 7015 to win the JC decathlon title. A track scholarship to Kansas State followed, and there he walked on the basketball team. It didn't take long for Fritz to realize that his future would be in track and field. He added nearly 700 points in his first year working with coach Cliff Rovelto. As a senior, he scored 7924 and ranked number nine in the nation. Since then, Fritz's stock has steadily climbed.
A strong long jumper, Fritz has the advantage of being at least decent in every one of the 10 events of the decathlon. A man with no weakness can be very dangerous in the multi, but the number of variables in the event means that every one, sooner or later, is going to have a bad day. For Fritz, it came at the 1992 Olympic Trials.
Thinking he was capable of hitting 17 feet in the pole vault, Fritz ran into problems at much lower altitudes. He made 14-5.5, then missed thrice at 14-9. If he had jumped near his PR, he would have made the Olympic team. Instead, he finished fifth in 8019.
Fritz bounced back well in 1993, improving his best to 8324 and placing seventh in the World Championships. He had an even bigger breakthrough in 1994, finishing second at nationals in 8548; that gave him his highest world ranking yet, number five for the year.
Then came 1995, a year Fritz refers to as "the worst year of my career." After setting a World Indoor record of 4478 in the rarely-contested pentathlon, he ran into a series of nagging lower leg injuries. "I've never had a history of injuries, and then this came out of the blue and I lost half a season because of it," he explains. He got in only a couple of good weeks training prior to nationals. Then, vaulting into a stiff wind, he pulled a quadriceps muscle and had to drop out. "I just wasn't physically ready to do nationals, but in the U.S. system you have to do it, so I was there."
In spite of the disappointments of 1996, Fritz counts his blessings. "I stayed healthy the entire season, so that was a huge improvement over the previous year," he says. "I'm disappointed in my progress. I feel like I could have scored a lot more this year. I made some good improvements overall, but I just never was able to put together a great meet as far as the first day/second day combination."
At the Trials, he placed second with a lifetime best of 8636. "It wasn't a meet where I went full bore from start to finish," he says. "We went hard early to get as many points as I could as early as I could to take away the chance of something bad happening. It was a solid meet, it was a fun competition, and I got through without hurting anything, and that's the main thing."
A slight strain limited his practice sessions in the days leading up to the Games. He says, "I went in there probably not as sharp as I should have been. I had a little strain, but that wasn't the problem. I just didn't get it done."
The Olympics took their toll on Fritz. "I had to struggle through the whole first day and the second day," he explains. "I was completely wiped out after the meet. Emotionally, physically, I was spent. It was probably the most I had ever put into one meet in my life as far as energy is concerned."
A rest period when he got back to Manhattan failed to rejuvenate him. He traveled to the September competition in Talence, France, where he put together a horrid series. "I think eight of the 10 events were season worsts, and another tied a season worst. A little bit of pride played in there. I just wanted another shot at those guys who beat me in the Games."
Lessons learned. Fritz is preparing for a 1997 campaign that is centered on two important competitions: The heptathlon at the World Indoor Championships, and the World outdoor meet in Athens. Two weeks later, there's an even more important date on the calendar. On August 23, he is set to marry Jill Montgomery, a former Wildcat heptathlete who scored second at the multi-event national indoors last year.
Fritz's training has changed little this year. "What we've done in the last four years has worked pretty well," he says. "There's not really a need to go back and change a whole lot. The only thing we're going to change is I've been injured the last few years on and off and I haven't done hardly any plyometric training at all. So we're going to go back and try to get that done this year, if possible. My strength level is really good. I just don't have any explosion anymore because I've missed the jumping exercises."
Fritz, who works as an assistant with the Kansas State program, says his goal all along has been to compete to 2000, and maybe a year or two after that. He's thought about continuing in the coaching field when he's done, but says, "I'm going to get married, and I want to have a family, and coaching you're gone a lot. I don't want to be gone a lot."
A plainspoken man, Fritz has shown himself capable of making priorities and doing what he has to in order to succeed in achieving them. Olympic medal or no, that's the mark of a champion.