At this time last year, Maggie Vessey was running in whatever she had that could pass for a track uniform.
The former Cal Poly standout had taken nearly three years off from the track before returning to place fifth in the 800-meter race at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008, but she was still far from being a known commodity.
A breakout season last year — that started with a surprise win in the Prefontaine Classic, continued with a career-best 1 minute, 57.84 second-mark at a meet in Monaco and culminated with an appearance in the world championships in Berlin — changed all of that.
“I literally won Prefontaine in like a surfer tank top that I’ve had since I was 16,” said Vessey, who nearly gave up the sport when a rash of injuries stunted her post-collegiate career. “I was like, ‘Oh, this looks like it could pass for a running top.’
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“That was the last time I ran in my cool surfer top because I got my New Balance sponsorship right after that.”
Vessey, a 2005 Cal Poly graduate, returned to the Mustangs track decked out in her new sponsor’s gear Saturday, and along with former teammate Sharon Day, she was one of the biggest names competing at the open Cal Poly Invitational.
Professionals looking to follow up a couple of breakthrough 2009 seasons, the duo took the opportunity to open the year in a pressure-free environment.
In her first action in six months, Vessey took third at 54.80 in the 400, just 0.37 seconds behind winner Turquoise Thompson of UCLA. She also pulled a planned withdrawal from the 800 about three-quarters of the way through the race and jumped into the 200-meter field just for fun as a last-second replacement for Day, who was still finishing the long jump.
“This is a good year to play with some things,” Vessey said. “There’s no culmination meet, like world championships ... My biggest goal is to be more consistent.”
Day, an NCAA champion high jumper and one of two former Cal Poly athletes who competed in the Beijing Olympics, had a breakthrough of her own last season, when she began seriously training for the heptathlon and advanced in both the heptathlon and the high jump all the way to Berlin.
Saturday, Day was third in the shot put with a 43-71⁄4 throw, second in the long jump at 19-2 and fourth in the 100 hurdles in 14.11 seconds.
“Not a bad day, but just getting started,” Day said.
“Long jump is kind of like my focus this year. I want to get that better, get some more points in that for the heptathlon, just kind of feeling out the events.”
Without an outdoor world championship meet to shoot for this season or making an international event beyond the U.S. Championships, Day said she’s spending the season trying to focus on her weaker events.
The 2008 Cal Poly graduate set five personal bests en route to a second-place finish in the heptathlon at last year’s U.S. championships with 6,177 points.
The other Cal Poly Olympian, Beijing women’s discus champion and former Arroyo Grande High star Stephanie Brown Trafton, did not compete at the invitational this year, instead choosing to delay the start of her season.
“She felt the timing of it last year wasn’t coinciding with her being ready in the summer at the time she needed to be ready,” first-year Cal Poly head and long time Mustangs distance coach Mark Conover said. “She’s doing what any smart athlete does, and that’s make adjustments.”
Former UCLA and Atascadero High standout Chelsea Johnson, who tied for second in the pole vault in Berlin, also skipped the meet after appearing last year. Day still trains in San Luis Obispo, which made the meet an easy commitment. Vessey drove down from her Santa Cruz home. She said she’s likely to compete next at the Mt. San Antonio College Invitational and will spend the summer traveling the European circuit of open invites.
“We’re all very proud of Maggie,” Conover said. “She’s persevered. You can’t put it any other way. That’s what you have to do in this sport, and then you just wait for your breakthrough to come.”