James Burns: Brush with gold medalist pays for Hammar

James Burns, sports editor
James Burns, sports editor

ATWATER -- Sometimes fate intervenes, pairing you with an icon or superstar for one fleeting moment.

Like bumping into Barack Obama in a Los Angeles-area bathroom. Or fighting over flap-jacks with Brooke Burke.

And sometimes, well, sometimes Ray Guerrero decides to host a barbeque and empties the Rolodex, inviting everyone under the sun.

You, Rebecca Hammar.

Your father, Mike.

And an Olympic gold medalist.

Of course, you and your father accept, because like the weather, the company is nice.

So the two of you marinate some chicken and pick up a tri-tip -- because no BBQ is complete without a slab of juicy, tender beef -- and cruise over.

Everything is just as it should be at one of these Thursday get-togethers, chit-chat in every corner, smoke wafting off the grill, until you realize she's here, too.

And your 16-year-old eyes can't believe it. Stephanie Brown-Trafton, the gold medalist in the discus at the Beijing Games, the Queen of Spin and Soar, is actually here.

Brown-Trafton, the first American to win gold in the discus in 76 years, came to Merced County last week to share her story in a two-stop tour at UC Merced and Winton Middle School, where her cousin-in-law Guerrero is the principal.

"(Brown-Trafton) is larger than life when she walks into a room -- 6-foot-4, 225 pounds," said Mike, Buhach Colony's throws coach. "Becca's used to being the tall gal, but even she was like, 'Wow!' "

Rebecca was speechless, so overcome with nerves that she couldn't even be in the same room with Brown-Trafton.

"I had to stay in another part of the house because I was so nervous to meet her," Rebecca said. "She was sitting in the dining room. When I finally went in there, I felt silly because she was so nice."

And wouldn't you know, the two became fast friends.

At one point, Brown-Trafton opened up her goodie bag of Olympic souvenirs and let Rebecca play dress-up.

"She was jazzed," Mike said. "There she was wearing a gold medal, while Stephanie was enjoying the barbeque."

Said Rebecca: "I almost teared up."

What happened next was the stuff of movie magic. Like a Disney smash, starring the baby Hammar.

Here's the plot:

Rebecca grows up the youngest of the Throwing Hammars. Mike was a collegiate thrower and also the Buhach Colony throws coach. Her older sister, Rachel, set a ton of school records and is throwing in college on scholarship.

Rebecca has high hopes and even higher expectations heading into her sophomore year, but wonders how she'll ever compete with big sister's legacy.

"Everyone tells me I have so much potential," she says. "What if I don't get there? What if I don't use it?"

Rebecca, weary and drained from battling a flu, meets Brown-Trafton, hears her story of perseverance and modest beginnings and leaves feeling empowered and rejuvenated.

Still buzzing from her brush with fame, Rebecca steps into the ring and rips the throw of a lifetime. A real monster.

Suddenly, she's the new face of American track and field. Sports Illustrated wants her for a cover. Nike wants to brand her. And EA Sports is pitching a video game.

OK, so no endorsements came from Rebecca's dinner-date with Brown-Trafton, but...

The throw was real. And the timing, unbelievable.

One day after breaking bread with Brown-Trafton, and flaunting her gold like Mom's pearls, Rebecca twisted, twirled and launched her discus farther than ever before.

As if she was channelling her inner-Olympian. As if Brown-Trafton jumped inside her skin for one split-second, one mighty heave.

Rebecca tossed the discus 127 feet, 11 inches, besting her personal best by nearly a foot. The mark was good enough for second place at the Stanford Invitational -- the first of many big out-of-town meets this season.

"She's just scratching the surface," Mike said. "I want her to beat all of Rachel's school records this season -- and I don't think that's out of reach."

Call it fate, a gift from the track and field Gods. Or a classic case of knowing the right people.

Either way, Rebecca went to a BBQ last week with her dad and met a throwing icon. And for one night, enjoyed the spoils of an Olympic gold medalist.

Then she went out and competed like one.

James Burns is sports editor of

the Sun-Star. He can be reached at