ATHENS — They aren't sisters. One was born in Trinidad, the other in Utah. But they might as well be. For the past 10 years they've been in their own little sorority of two. Marsha Mark-Baird and Tiffany Lott-Hogan started college the same year — Marsha at Ricks College, Tiffany at BYU — and both specialized in the seven-event heptathlon. Shortly after that, Marsha transferred to BYU. The rest of their respective stories is combined history.

"We have seen an awful lot of each other over the years," Marsha said as the two women relaxed at the Athletes Village for the 2004 Olympic Games.

"Even here, we've hardly been apart. Ever since we saw each other last Thursday, we've been together. We've eaten together, watched movies together, hung out together."

On Friday and Saturday, on the track and in the field at Athens Olympic Stadium, they will compete together in the Olympic women's heptathlon — the seven-sport event that includes javelin, high jump, shot put, long jump, hurdles and races at 200 and 800 meters.

It is an unlikely alliance. Marsha is a black athlete from the Caribbean. Tiffany is a white kid who grew up in American Fork. But their sport brought them together and showed them how much they have in common.

Throughout their careers, as they have watched each other graduate from college, marry and improve in their sport, they have shared the same coach — BYU head women's track coach Craig Poole, who is here in Athens — and more often than not they have trained on the same fields and competed in the same meets.

"Heptathletes tend to stick together," says Poole. "It's a demanding event, and anyone who's in it soon realizes the competition is against the clock and the mark, not somebody else. Tiffany and Marsha are very supportive of each other and always have been. They are very close. They have a great synergism."

Both women agree that that closeness has helped them each get better.

"We motivate each other," says Marsha. "When one of us gets it going, the other one gets going too. We're both competitive."

Tiffany, who at 29 is two years younger than Marsha, has always had a slight edge. At the 1998 NCAA track & field championships, when both were BYU seniors, Tiffany won the national championship and Marsha finished fourth.

"We would love a first and fourth here," says Tiffany.

Realistically, that's not going to happen. Even if they posted their personal bests in all seven events, their scores would not add up to the 6,900 points that is commonplace for Carolina Kluft, the pre-meet favorite from Sweden, whose personal best is 7,001 points.

Tiffany's all-time best is the 6,159 points she scored to take second at the U.S. Trials in June in Sacramento and qualify for Athens. Marsha's best is the 5,934 she scored at a meet earlier this year in California that got her past the minimum Olympic qualifying standard.

Tiffany says her goal is to place in the top 10. Marsha's is top 15.

"We're not medal contenders, we have to be realistic," says Tiffany. "But we want to compete and do as well as we possibly can."

These are Marsha's second Games. She also represented Trinidad & Tobago at Sydney in 2000, where she placed 22nd. For Tiffany, these are her first Olympics. She just missed qualifying for the U.S. team that went to Sydney, finishing fourth at the 2000 U.S. Trials. She made up for that this year in Sacramento.

However things turn out here, they are confident they will return to Provo with their friendship intact. They live and work near each other.

Tiffany is the assistant strength and conditioning coach for the BYU track team, while Marsha is a social worker for the Provo School District.

While it's likely these will be their last Olympics, they expect to continue to compete.

"We'll see who has the most kids or whose kid is the fastest," says Marsha, laughing. "We'll probably join a softball team or something.

Anything to keep competing.


E-mail: lbenson@desnews.com