The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

How to Win the 4×1 in Rio!

Feb 8th, 2016
11:27 am PST

Relay Shadow rightIt’s one thing to be dominated in the sprints by an athlete like Usain Bolt, but during the same time span we’ve seen a comedy of horrors take place in what was also an American staple – the 4×1 relay. The American men haven’t won a 4×1 in a major since 2007 – approaching nearly a decade! This is tragic, and the first step to righting this ship in my opinion, is to admit FAILURE and move on. I don’t want to hear about Bolt, because the races have been lost before Bolt has gotten the baton – he’s not had to catch anyone from behind. And the one time in the Bahamas when we got to the anchor first, Bolt didn’t catch our anchor. For NINE years we’ve failed before the race was over.

Knowing that, how do we fix it? Well:

  1. Forget about the first 4 finishers in the 100 at the US Trials. We’re putting together a group based on skill set, not replicating the 100 field.
  2. Check egos at the gate – athletes, coaches and agents. We’re trying to put together the Warriors not the Clippers!
  3. Get commitment to the process. It’s not that hard to teach baton passing – but it does take some practice. The group needs to commit to when/where up front. If you can’t commit, you can’t be part. You could be 0.2 faster – we’ll make that up with better passing.

So, who would be the best personnel? It’s difficult to say in February because I don’t have a crystal ball that says who will make the team in June or who’ll be ready in August. I can tell you who I’d like to see represent the US, and the type of individual I would prefer represent on the team. So I will start there, knowing that this is the year of surprises – it’s an Olympic year and there are bound to be many – so I reserve the right to come back and revise my team at a later date given injuries and significant improvements.

That said, personally I like my relay teams to get out fast and put pressure on the field from the gun. In order to win any race at some point you have to get in front, no better time to do that than in the beginning – and in the relay that’s your lead off leg. The easy choice here for me to get that done is Trayvon Bromell. He’s technically solid, and extremely consistent. Last year he ran a 9.84 PR, and took the bronze medal in Beijing at 9.92. Trayvon reacts well to the gun on a consistent basis; has a great drive phase and transition; runs the turn well and handles the stick. With this in mind, he should be at our near the front from the gun – putting the squad in a prime position. Equally important is the fact that he’s passed the stick with my choice for the second leg which would give us some consistency through the first half of the race!

As a backup (you should always be thinking about your backup), should Bromell not be available, I would go with Mike Rodgers. A veteran sprinter who is also a superb starter. Rodgers ran 9.86 in 2015, just off his 9.85 PR. I know that others see him in a different roll, and will point to the fact he’s a veteran that’s made several international teams. But while Rodgers gets on the team, his performance falls off once there. I need an athlete that can run in the money on the big stage, so for my money he’s the back up lead off runner.

The second leg is another easy choice for me. I want a strong, powerful backstretch runner capable of blowing the race open – Justin Gatlin. He’s done that and done it well over and over again. Unless Bolt runs here for Jamaica, we take can take control of the race right HERE. From this point the race is then ours to LOSE – and unfortunately we have in the past. But not because Gatlin hasn’t done his job. So, the goal in Rio is to hold on to the gains made here and run home to victory!

What do we do if Gatlin can’t answer the bell? Frankly, there is currently no equivalent sprinter. Not with his speed, power, and ability to handle/move the stick. Wallace Spearmon could a few seasons back, but has lost that in recent years. That is the kind of sprinter needed here however – Steve Riddick, Ron Brown, Leroy Burrell – fast and powerful! The closest that might be able to fit that mold as backups might be Dedric Dukes or Diondre Batson. They are also my backup choices for anchor – and there is more on them below.

Right now there are two irreplaceable sprinters on the planet when it comes to international relay squads – Justin Gatlin and Usain Bolt. If we, or Jamaica, lose these men our relay chances falter. But just as each had his break out season of discovery, we will see what 2016 brings – perhaps a new star will emerge – a new Trayvon Bromell or Yohan Blake. Someone young, fast, and fearless. One can hope. That said, on to the second half of the race.

So, who best to handle the third leg? Critical because it requires a special skill – turn running. The standard thought a few years ago was that this leg belonged to Tyson Gay. That was 9.69, second fastest sprinter in history Tyson Gay – perhaps even 9.77, I run sub 9.80 at will Tyson. That sprinter ran roughshod over everyone in sight, beating them off the turn by yards to post sub 20 second 200’s! In the relay, he was the modern equivalent of Calvin Smith and Dennis Mitchell – grab stick and race over!

Injury forced Gay to have hip surgery in 2011, however and since returning to the track in 2012, he’s just not been the same demon on the curve that he was before. Yes, he’s still clocking 9.8x – 9.87 in 2015. But as I said earlier, we’re putting together a relay here, not replicating the open event. And for my money, in the race for gold in Rio this is going to be THE critical leg. If we do what I think we can in the opening half, then this will be the leg that at minimum holds on to those gains and gets the stick to the anchor in position to attempt to close the race out – in a perfect world, further opens things up!

So, the question is, is Tyson the best we can put on the track, with respect to this turn, or can we do better? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a Tyson Gay fan since the beginning. From what I’ve seen lately however, it’s time to replace that hip on the corner. Realistically though as I write this I don’t think we have better. But here is an opportunity for another youngster to step up – again, this should be a transition year. Personally I would love to see someone like Marvin Bracy or Trentavis Friday – young, fast, and ready to mature – step up, run sub 9.90 and take this leg over. I had hoped that an Isaiah Young, Charles Silmon, or Mookie Salaam would have become the guy by now, but neither seems to have "IT" – you know, swag, juice, power. There’s also the possibility to put veteran Mike Rodgers here, but I’m just not feeling the turn. If he were to start – see above – the blocks would be his friend. Without blocks this becomes a power leg, and depending on health and fitness this leg could be run against Jamaica’s Yohan Blake. This leg is KEY and an answer may not materialize until June, but those are some ideas.

Anchor is surprisingly easier for me. We face Bolt. We’re not catching him from behind. Either we execute on legs one through three or we’re running for silver – PERIOD. The key here is to have a closer. Someone strong enough to get the stick 3 to 4 meters up and have a shot at holding off Bolt – which means he can outrun the rest of the world. Ryan Bailey has fit this spot well in the past. Big, strong and fast and only Bolt can outrun him from a standing start. Bailey was slightly off his game last year, hopefully he is back on point in 2016 and ready to run well come Rio time.

If Bailey is not ready, my backup choice would be Dedric Dukes. Another young improving sprinter with size, Dukes is more of a 200 meter sprinter with outstanding closing speed! Dukes was 19.99/19.86w in 2015 following 19.97/19.91w in ’14. He’s not the best starter, but there are no blocks on the anchor leg. He does close like a bat out of Hell, and THAT is what is needed here – and he’s battle tested running on Florida’s successful relay squads. If I need another possibility here, I would take a look at Diondre Batson. Batson found sub-10 form improving to 9.94/9.86w in 2015.

Yes, I’ve thrown out several young names, and have questioned the use of Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers – two old standbys. But I’m looking at maximizing strengths and Tyson’s hip makes him questionable and Rodgers is really best coming out of the blocks. We need sprinters that match the needed skills. Like I said in the beginning. We’re trying to put together a winning RELAY TEAM, and some egos will have to be checked at the door. That could mean an aging Tyson Gay, or a Mike Rodgers whose strength may not fit this squad. These are the kinds of choices that face the US relay coach. Hard calls. And an intricate knowledge of the available personnel.

Being an Olympic year, any of the aforementioned could blossom. In 2008 Bolt went from 10.02 to 9.69! And we do have a lot of young talented sprinters out there. Though to be realistic, finding someone to get to sub 9.8 requires some physical maturity – meaning he should be a known quantity.

Of course, personnel selection aside, the group must pass the stick. I’ve not spent a lot of time on it because IT’S NOT THAT COMPLICATED! To be honest, the guys blew it in Beijing last year because they ran on the wrong side of the lane – stupid! Yes I said it. It would be nice to have hours of time together – absolutely. But meeting at a couple of meets in Europe and a couple of hours of total practice if done right should also be sufficient – if you know what to do!

If anyone has noticed, we’ve been beaten by Jamaican squads with relatively new pieces – it’s not always been their "veterans" getting the stick to Bolt first. WE just make it look like getting the stick around the track is as difficult as rocket science. It really ISN’T! I get teenagers to do it all the time – without dropping the stick – with an hour of work a week. It’s time to just get it done. Hopefully Rio will be the place.

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