Sunday, May 23, 2004

He was chosen to compete with Ironman's elite


Scott Smith / White Oak

The La Salle graduate struck gold on the 2004 Long Drivers of America tour: He set the world record with a 539-yard drive May 6 in Albuquerque, N.M. Not bad for a guy whose previous best was 440 yards. "I think the conditions definitely played a part. There was a pretty good tail wind and the air was a little bit thinner," Smith said. "I was hitting about as good as I could hit." LGA officials confirmed that Smith beat the former record, 510 yards, set by Ryan Gearhart in Arizona in 2002. In March 2002, Smith entered a long-drive competition featured in Golf Magazine and competed in one of 10 tour stops in October in Washington, D.C. Smith advanced to the finals in Nevada, where he competed against PGA long-drive legend John Daly; Smith finished as the finals champion and won $100,000.

Mary Ann Plunkett / Fort Thomas

Plunkett won the 75th Florida State Women's Amateur Golf Championship at Black Diamond Ranch, in Lecanto, Fla., May 2-7. The 20-year-old sophomore at Citrus County Community College, who will attend Florida Southern University this fall on scholarship, defeated Reggie Parker of Hobe Sound 3 & 2 for the amateur title. Plunkett attended Highlands High School before transferring to the Ledbetter Golf Academy for the last 2 1/2 years of high school in Bradenton, Fla. She played golf at Ohio State University before transferring to Florida last year.

Shelly Ruberg / Harrison

Wrestling runs in the Ruberg family, but its youngest protégé hopes to take her skills to the Olympics. Ruberg, 20, a Cumberland College junior, is competing through today at the U.S. Olympic Trials at Indianapolis' RCA Dome for one of four spots in the 48 kg., 55 kg., 63 kg., and 72 kg. freestyle divisions. Women's wrestling is the only new sport at the Athens Games. Ranked No. 4 in the country among 59 kg (130-pound) women wrestlers by, Ruberg will grapple at 63 kg (138.5 pounds) in Indy - and will try to defeat four teammates from the Cumberland women's program. "I'm going to go in and give it everything I've got and see where it gets me," Ruberg said. She grew up watching her brother, Tim, wrestle and hearing stories from her dad, Mark. She also has an uncle and two cousins who have wrestling hardware. Ruberg made the Olympic Trials by winning the south regional qualifier in New Orleans April 22.

Christopher Couch couldn't help shouting when he opened his e-mail messages at work the morning of April 15. His alarmed coworkers at the Toyota Motor Manufacturing North America in Georgetown, Ky., paused, anxiously awaiting an explanation.

"They wanted to know what I'd won," said Couch, 34. "I told them I'd qualified for the Ironman World Championship. They were like, 'And you're excited for that?' "

Yep, Couch said. It's been a dream nine years in the making.

The five-time Ironman finisher was one of 200 contestants selected by lottery to compete in the triathlon's World Championship on Oct. 16 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The ultimate championship is difficult to qualify for, with 50,000 Ironman competitors vying for 1,500 slots. The winner is considered the World's iron-est Ironman of all.

"Don't worry, I won't be winning," said Couch, who couldn't be dissuaded from singing Willy Wonka's "I've Got a Golden Ticket" all day at work.

Before swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles within a 17-hour limit in Hawaii, Couch must finish half of each distance to prove to tournament officials he's fit to compete in the real thing. Couch travels to Portsmouth, Ohio, for the Little Smokies Half Ironman Triathlon on June 1.

Couch trains up to two hours on weekdays and longer on weekends, focusing on two sports daily - to the amusement of his wife, Tomomi Kumagai. The couple, expecting their first child in six weeks, have molded their lives around training since they married five years ago.

"There are times I'll say I want to see a movie and he'll say, 'OK, but first I have to train.' Sometimes I'm agreeable and other times I'm not," she said, laughing. "I try to support him as much as I can."

Couch, a former varsity rower at M.I.T., was looking for another exercise challenge after college and tried a triathlon at a friend's urging. He lived in Japan for seven years while working for Toyota and has completed four of five Ironmans since returning to the United States in 2000.

He said he "basically had to learn how to swim" to complete the triumvirate of events but has perfected the craft, whittling his best time to 11 1/2 hours.

He competes with two metal screws in each foot. Couch's feet were malformed at birth, prompting surgery when he was a teenager.

"Miraculously, the screws have managed to stay put. They ache once in awhile, but nothing too bad," Couch said.

Couch, who has done the Ironman in Florida, Switzerland, France and Austria twice, said he and Tomomi adore triathlons for vacations as much as anything else. He's excited to test his mettle among the world's best in Hawaii.

"I got in the lucky way. We'll see how well I keep up," Couch said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

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