Standing in a darkened, near-empty Balch Fieldhouse Tuesday afternoon, Casey Malone pulled a well-worn discus from its blue storage bag. He caressed it gently, as a musician would a treasured instrument.
The steel discus nestled comfortably in his large hand, while his fingers brushed over its curves. Quietly, almost to himself, he read off the numbers written on the discus, this one from a U.S. championship, that one from a world championship.
Throwing the discus has taken Malone, the University of Colorado throws coach for the past 16 years, a long way, from a gold medal at the 1996 junior world championship to the 1998 NCAA title, to two Olympic Games, a world championship, and many top European track meets.
And in a remarkable testament to Malone's work ethic, smarts and talent, he has competed in 20 consecutive U.S. national track and field championships (winning twice), something accomplished by no other athlete.
"It has been a good career," said Malone, 38. "Early on, I had the idea that I would be competing for a long time. I am always learning, and my technique evolves each year. I feed off that."
Malone's career is continuing this winter, as he is one of several area track and field athletes training for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, set for July 1-10 in Eugene, Ore. There, Malone hopes to throw the discus 65 meters, a distance that would likely get him to his third Olympic Games, in Rio de Janeiro, Aug. 5-21.
"I'm excited," said Malone, in between overseeing practice for three of his athletes. "I feel I am in a better place than last year. I feel good about this fall and the training cycle. In years I made the team there was a good buildup that led to great things."
In addition to placing among the top three at the Olympic trials, Malone and any other qualifier must also meet an Olympic standard in each event. It is 65 meters for the discus. Malone's personal best is 68.49 meters (224 feet, 8 inches).
"Having done that helps me know what it takes to get there," Malone said, adding, as he looked up at the large U.S. flag hanging on the north end of Balch: "Representing your country, wearing that flag on your uniform, brings a whole new level of pride. Every time I see the flag I am inspired."
Colorado head coach Mark Wetmore believes Malone has a decent chance to make another Olympic team. "Casey is extremely even-tempered. He has no tear-his-shirt-off roaring highs, and no weeping-in-his-beer lows. He is calm-minded, confident, patient and self-assured."
Some of that comes from the mentors Malone has had ever since he was a three-sport star at Arvada West High School, where his football coach was the well-known Dave Logan. The 6-foot-9 Malone went on to become a four-time All-American at Colorado State, where he had top coaches, he said.
Then there were older discus throwers who competed well into their late 30s with international success becoming role models for Malone. Athletes such as Anthony Washington, Mac Wilkins and the greatest discus thrower ever, four-time gold medalist Al Oerter, who called Malone just as he was entering the Athens Olympic stadium for his first Olympic competition.
The Road to Rio has been passing through Balch this month for several other local Rio hopefuls as well. On a recent cold, snowy morning, three Olympians -- steeplechaser Shalaya Kipp, marathoner Kara Goucher, and 1,500-meter runner Jenny Simpson -- along with 1,500 meter hopeful Sara Sutherland were running sets of short intervals.
Fans might look at the credentials of world championship gold and silver medalist Simpson, or Boulder's Emma Coburn, who has run the fastest steeplechase ever by an American female, and pencil them in for a spot on the 2016 team.
That is not how it works, said Wetmore.
"It is going to be hard for anybody to make the team," he said. "Just because you made the team before is no assurance you will do it again."
Goucher, 37, is among the more than two dozen Boulder area runners who have qualified for the Feb. 13 U.S. marathon team trials, to be held in Los Angeles, by meeting either a marathon or half marathon qualifying standard. A complete list of qualifiers is at usatf.org.