Pascal Dobert heads into Saturday's 3,000-meter steeplechase qualifying heat at the track and field world championships in Seville, Spain, undaunted by the competition -- and with good reason. Dobert, a Bethesda native and the top U.S. entrant, trains with some of the fastest men on the planet.
Dobert graduated from Whitman High in 1992 after winning four state titles -- two in cross-country and two in track. He continued to excel at the University of Wisconsin, where he was the NCAA steeplechase champion in 1997. Since that time, Dobert has devoted nearly every waking moment to honing his skills at hurdling, jumping and flat-out racing -- the essence of the steeplechase.
Under the tutelage of his agent and coach, Kim McDonald, Dobert trains around the world with Bob Kennedy, holder of the U.S. record in the 5,000; Kenyan mile prodigy Noah Ngeny; former steeplechase world record holder Moses Kiptanui, and a coterie of other Kenyan stars. For the past two years, Dobert has spent winters with the group in Australia.
"It's not like we're going to the beach, or taking in the sights," Dobert said. "We train twice a day, and try to stay off our feet the rest of the time."
In the spring, the American athletes return to Palo Alto, Calif., and prepare for the national championships. Last June in Eugene, Ore., Dobert, 25, won his second consecutive steeplechase title.
Racing begins in earnest come summer, on the European track circuit. With London as its base, the group continues to train -- "Some of our track sessions are like track meets," Dobert said -- and crisscrosses the continent to compete in meets before tens of thousands of fans.
There, he is mistakenly known as Pascal "Doe-Bair," as fans give his name the French pronunciation. However fans pronounce his name, Dobert is a bona-fide star on the European circuit in an event dominated by the Kenyans.
Yet he remains understated. Dobert's mother, Urte Dimitrijevic of Glen Echo, greeted him during an airport layover after he won his first U.S. steeplechase title.
"I had to ask him on the phone how the race went," Dimitrijevic said. "He was very low-key: `I won,' he said. But at the airport, he had a big, beautiful smile. `How's my national champion?' I said. He went, `Shhh, Mom!' "
Despite his recent success, Dobert will race in Seville less fit than he would like to be. In Rome last month, he ran 8 minutes 18.42 seconds, near his personal best of 8:15:83, and within shouting distance of the U.S. record of 8:09.17 held by Henry Marsh. A hip flexor strain limited his training last winter, and his goal Saturday simply is to advance to Monday's final.
"Back in June, I was thinking it wouldn't be too hard to make the final," he said by telephone from London. "But the injuries have caught up to me. I've been tired lately, and maybe now I'm panicking a little bit.
"I still think I can pop one at Worlds. Peaks and valleys are part of the sport."
If Dobert sounds sanguine at the prospect of missing the final, he knows that the Olympics -- to be held in Sydney in 2000 -- is the top goal for track athletes.
"Next year, I'll have a better base coming into the summer," he said. "That's when I need to be ready."