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July 2016 – by Mike Arnold: I wasn’t planning on working a pro bono case all day Friday but was grateful for the opportunity to help out an amazing athlete with a dream. Shekinah (shi-KINE-uh) Banks fought to long jump at the Olympic Qualifiers in Eugene but was stopped by a bureaucratic problem with the status of her qualifying meet, the Rice All-Comers.
So, yesterday at 11 am I became an Olympic sports lawyer (is that a thing?) with a deadline of a 5pm long jump. We filed an appeal with USA Track and Field. We then filed for an arbitration with the US Olympic Committee. Shekinah’s family struggled to pay the $1600 arbitration fee but banded together with three different credit cards. We lined up witnesses from the Rice meet to show the arbitrator that it was sanctioned. When USATF started to prepare for the hearing and gathered paperwork they realized that they made a mistake and agreed to let her jump.
Shekinah was eating a turkey sandwich from downstairs at George’s Cafe and we were listening to gospel music on YouTube on my computer when I read her the news. She broke out in tears of joy and ran down the hall elated. Once we all calmed down, she realized that she must have thrown her sandwich into the air in celebration. It is still MIA.
We instead fed her some cashews and a banana and then received a call from USATF wishing her luck and letting us know that this had nothing to do with her and they were sorry for the confusion. “Sometimes it takes an attorney getting involved to force everyone to take a closer look,” we were told. They were very professional and understanding on how stressful this was.
Of course, Shekinah didn’t expect to have days of sleepless nights trying to get the information to the USATF to prove that there was a mistake. She had eventually received an email telling her that she was competing and she confirmed it by phone. That’s why she was floored when she received a simple text message the night before her jump telling her that she wasn’t on the list of competitors.
She was confused, desperate and frustrated. She had made the trip to Eugene last minute when she received the email that she was in. She had to travel alone, without her family and without her coach, leaving her children and husband at home in Jackson, Mississippi.
The morning of the event she was an athlete without an event. She frantically called around for Eugene, Oregon, lawyers to see if there was anything she could do.
When I got the message of her plight from legal assistant Jessica Cooper I thought about who in the world I could refer her too. I called to speak to her and understood that time was of the essence and she needed to start warming up in a couple hours. I thought that if I didn’t step in as her lawyer, she would be spinning her wheels looking for a lawyer in Eugene or Springfield. I knew that most lawyers are too cautious to take a case on a Friday before a holiday weekend with such a looming deadline. So, I did what I normally do and jumped in to help.
I googled the problem and found an email address for an appeal. Having no idea if this was the right organization or the correct process, I sent the email and then jumped in the driver’s seat of her little rental car and headed to historic Hayward Field.
While we were bounced around from building to building, we eventually got a call from general counsel (their attorney) at the USATF. We were told the appeal was denied.
He asked me if I was familiar with the process and if I have ever done it before. I said, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I just have an upset little girl here who needs some help.” He graciously explained to me who to contact at the Olympic committee to receive more information.
The USOC ombudsman gave me the forms for arbitration and we headed back to the law office to draft the complaint and prepare. The arbitration was scheduled for 2:30 about the time that she should be checking in to warmup. We were told we had 30 minutes to pay the arbitration fee. She started making calls looking for family to help. Everything moved fast after that.
Once we received word of the reversal of position by the USATF, I jumped back in the rental and drove us back to the university. Parking was scarce so we parked about a mile away southwest of the track at Edison Elementary School.
I flagged down a teacher packing up her car for summer and let her know that we had an athlete that was late to check in. She, without hesitation, agreed to allow two strangers in her car. She dropped us off at a barricade and we walked with Shekinah’s box of water bottles to the entrance.
It was hot for Eugene and we were surprised when we weren’t allowed to bring liquids in. I sat the bottles down on the ground and went through the metal detector. Then I ran back out and emptied two bottles to fill for her when we got in.
We then asked where to go to check in. Nobody in official clothes knew anything about the athletes. They only knew where volunteers went. We were bounced around from building to building.
We had walked a couple miles by then in the heat. This wasn’t the stress and physical workout she needed before such a high-level competition.
I eventually got the USATF on the phone and found out we needed to leave the event and head to the Ford Alumni Center northeast of campus.
We headed there as the clock was ticking and started the long accreditation process. I watched the other athletes with their coaches sign in, get their photo taken and be issued their credentials.
Shekinah was the only coachless athlete that I saw struggling through the red tape alone. Of course, she wasn’t on the list so I made a phone call to USATF for assistance. Who knew you needed a coach and an attorney?
We eventually got her checked in and me registered as a member of USATF so I could go with her to warm up and literally carry her water, my only track and field skill.
We then went to search out the event check in. They wouldn’t let us in again but I eventually talked our way past security while Shekinah followed behind me texting her family the play by play.
Once at the equipment-approval tent she had a crew cover her gear Nike logos with duct tape.
Then we walked to the next table for the event check in. She wasn’t on the list. They directed us down to the referee. She said we aren’t on the list. I asked her to call general counsel and confirm. I had brought along the emails to prove that she was in. A few phone calls later the referee began shouting out hurried commands to the clerks.
She was handwritten in as the 13th jumper in group 1. She had 24 other competitors, all fighting for three spots at Rio.
She got her shoes inspected and we headed over to get her number bib ironed on.
You have to see Shekinah up close next to the other jumpers. They towered over her. She looked nothing like the tall women in line. She is a tiny little thing. A true underdog. She was so tiny that the bib was too big to fit on her shirt so she opted to pin it on, old school style.
During check ins I directed her where to go and worked out the details with the event coordinators. They referred to me as “coach.”
She then began her warm-up alone with no teammates and no real coach except for me, the glorified water boy, chauffeur, and campus tour guide.
She looked exhausted. The elation of getting in had passed and now she was just tired from the miles of walking around campus and the stress of sitting in an attorney’s office prepping for an arb the afternoon of the highest level event of her career. I was tired, hungry and thirsty too but water was in a short supply and I hoarded the last two water bottles from a now empty cooler provided for the athletes.
She now had 30 minutes to warmup for the meet of her life. She started her abbreviated warmup and eventually sought some shade. There was none. All the covering was for the volunteers who packed in a small space.
I showed her a little sliver of shade on the side of the tent and she sat down for her final stretches. I sat in silence and watched the 400 and 800 meter athletes do their final warmups. They looked like machines designed for one purpose: exploding off the mark. They were in great contrast to little Shekinah.
At 4:25 they announced final call for the long jump. I walked towards the tent and was instructed to stand 10 feet away. They could have no more contact with non-athletes.
When they walked the athletes into the stadium past the grandstands of the packed crowd, I made my way to the coaches box to watch on the monitors. I ended up, however, wandering my way to the first row of spectators and sat in a portable chair next to two older fans sitting in the disabled seating.
I watched the magnificent runners of the 800 and 400. When the long jump began I could always tell when it was Shekinah’s turn. In the shadows of the west grandstands the short curls of her natural haircut were backlit by the reflections off of the white north walls. Her bright white shoes also stood out in the distance.
After her first jump she was on the board as 16th of the 25. They only were showing the top 16. Her feet would be a streak of white when she sprinted down the runway towards the pit. She would launch her little self over twenty feet each time. I was amazed. She was apparently struggling to get vertical mainly projecting out flat but I couldn’t tell. I was only a pretend coach.
She ultimately didn’t jump as far as she did to qualify at Rice and fell about four people short of advancing to the finals. The women were escorted back across the track while the women’s 400 was halfway around the track.
I made my way back to the warmup area. She turned her head looking for me. I saw her and gave her a hug. I was so proud of my new friend who fought all day to never give up on her dream. She smiled and pointed out what she could have done better and said, “Now I start training for Worlds. Never give up.”
We found some wood-fired pizza and sat with some Eugene locals. She was a wonderful ambassador of the sport telling them about her journey from Jackson and her crazy day. After supper we took the long walk back to the car and then parted ways back at my office.
I headed home and was quickly greeted by my daughter. “Hi, dad!”
“I brought you something.” I gave her my neck badge and coaches pass and told her about my day.
She listened attentively. After explaining what kept me late at the “office,” I asked her if she had any questions.
“Yes, dad. Did she have fun at her race?”
“Yes, sweetie. I think she did.”
by Mike Arnold