Columbia pair thrilled about competing in Athens Games

Monday, September 13, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:35 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

Derrick Peterson remembers when it first hit him.

When Peterson, an 800-meter qualifier and former Missouri track and field standout, walked into the packed Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2004 Olympic Games, he realized exactly what it means to be an Olympian.

“Walking into a stadium filled with 100,000 people, it’s just kind of the official stamp, when you say ‘I’m here. I’m at the Olympics,’” Peterson said. “It’s really just an intense excitement.”

The Missouri Alumni Association will honor Peterson and Hans Uldal, a Missouri decathlete and fellow Olympian, in an Olympic Congratulation Reception at 4 p.m. today. The reception, which will be held in the Reynolds Alumni Center’s Grand Room, is open to the public.

Although Peterson didn’t advance past the preliminary rounds in the 800 in Athens, he returns to Columbia, where he works as an assistant for the Tigers’ men’s track and field team, as one of only 22 athletes in MU history to have qualified for the Olympics.

“Just to have the opportunity to represent my country as well as the Missouri athletic department and the Missouri track and field team was great,” Peterson said Sunday. “It was just exciting from the time I got to the trials to the time I got home from the Olympics.”

Peterson developed a strong bond with the university after finishing his career as an eight-time Big 12 champion in the 800. In 1999, he also won the NCAA Indoor Championship in 1:45.88, still the fastest by an American collegian.

After failing to qualify for the 2000 games in Sydney by one-hundredth of a second, Peterson spent the next four years training for another chance. In July he ran a personal-best 1:45.08 at the USATF Olympic Trials, claiming the third and final qualifying spot on the U.S. team. He ran a 1:47.60 in his preliminary heat in Athens.

“Just the drive and determination and the will-power within that four year period between 2000 and 2004, that’s what I’m most proud of,” Peterson said. “Everyday, just thinking about this dream and I was fortunate that it played out the way it did.”

Despite the early exit at the Olympics, Peterson made the most of his trip to Athens. He said he spent his free time touring Greece, taking pictures, and schmoozing with some of America’s most high-profile athletes.

“It was awesome to hang out with these guys, some of which are considered celebrities in the sports world, in such an informal manner,” Peterson said. “Just sitting around watching television or checking email … I found Andy Roddick to be a very down to earth person. It’s totally different from what you see of them in their sports arenas or in magazines.”

Although he said he is recognized regularly on the streets of Columbia since returning from the Olympics, Peterson said he is not a celebrity.

“I’ve signed more autographs, but that’s about it,” Peterson said. “I think a lot of people are happy for me right now, but I wouldn’t look at it at the standpoint of being a celebrity.”

Uldal, who hails from Norway, qualified for the Norwegian team after finishing with a school record 7,733 points at the Norwegian Championships in August. He placed 27th out of 39 competitors in Athens.

“It’s kind of a different world when you get to the Olympics and you see the top athletes in the world and the way that they compete,” Uldal said. “It’s unreal.”

Peterson turns 27 in November, a relatively old age for a competitive runner, and will be hard pressed to make another Olympic team. He says, though, he will continue to run and will look to qualify for the world championships next year.

Uldal, 22, will have his eyes set on the 2008 Games. He was the only American collegiate athlete in the decathlon this summer, and the second youngest competitor in the event.

“You start thinking about your experience and it makes you hungry, in a way, to start working out again,” Uldal said. “The Olympics was a great experience for me. I got to see what it takes, and see that it is possible to succeed (at an elite level).”

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