We’ve finally arrived to that part of the season that really matters – Olympic team qualifying! That means EVERYONE had to show up. That means some of the best competition of the year. That means watching track and field the way it is supposed to be watched – in a stadium; with ALL of the events represented! And guess what? No one leaves early. No one is worried about "attention spans". No one needs bands playing in the parking lot, or portions of the meet in the street! Why? Because when you get the best athletes available to compete, the sport in its purest form is as good as ANY sport on the planet to watch – perhaps better than most. That’s why the challenge of this sports leaders isn’t trying to figure out new ways to "present" the sport, but rather how to get the world’s best on the track to compete more often! Frankly I don’t think that’s going to be a problem soon, and I’ll explain why in a subsequent post. Today it’s all about the Trials. Primarily the US Trials, but a mention about some others.
Once again the American Trials are demonstrating any they are the second best meet on the planet every four years – second only to the Olympics themselves! It’s simple, depth of competition and drama. Depth of competition leads to drama, as the US qualifying system of, one meet, first three finishers on THAT DAY is the most cut throat on the planet! If you’re an athlete, mark your calendar. The days your events are run are the only days that matter this year – because of hits not on THEM, you have to purchase a ticket if you want to see the Games! So, how has it worked out so far? Not great if you’re a veteran.
This year is becoming one of those transformational years. A year where athletes we’ve seen in two, maybe three, Olympic cycles find their date with Father time was booked in Eugene. For some it started before the first round as Carmelita Jeter and Nick Symmonds had to give in to injury and were not unable to toe the line. Jeter is the second fastest woman in history (10.64, 100m); Symmonds the third fastest American ever (1:42.95, 800m). Sport can be unforgiving.
Sanya Richards Ross lined up for the first round of the 400, but the AR holder (48.70) found the going too tough as she had to withdraw around 200 meters! The casualties continued to mount however as a plethora of veterans and young favorites found roadblocks in their Road to Rio including: Donovan Brazier, Duane Solomon, Reece Hoffa, Lauren Roesler, Gina Gall, Maggie Vessey, and Vernon Norwood. All eliminated early. There were also youth stars giving it a shot and finding out they aren’t quite ready yet: Noah Lyles, Michael Norman, Kaylin Whitney, and Candace Hill found out how deep US sprinting is – though I suspect all will be in the mix in 2020!
So much for the tragedy. That’s part of the game in the deepest Trials on the planet! Who made the team? The field events got it going starting with the shot put. Ryan Crouser winning with a huge 72′ 7.5" toss, with Joe Kovacs at 72′ 0.25". Brittany Reece hit a monster 23′ 11.75" to blast to her long jump win. And the men put on a show as Jeff Henderson 28′ 2.25", and Jarrion Lawson 28′ 1.75" led the deepest long jump competition in history with seven men over 27 feet!
As usual, special things happen when America’s best get together to select an Olympic team. None more special than watching Allyson Felix begin get attempt at a 200/400 double, starting with the quarter. What was once thought to be a "gimme" became a struggle as Felix hurt an ankle in training earlier in the spring. She delicately worked through the first two rounds and appeared to be out of contention through 250 meters when she found another gear, and literally ran right through the field to victory in a world’s leading 49.68. The real shocker was that it wasn’t Courtney Okolo fighting her for the win, as the NCAA champion and world leader coming into the meet was relegated to a shocking 6th – another casualty of the veterans/favorites syndrome of this meet!
Surprisingly however, it was the sprints, which should be volatile, that proved to be somewhat predictable. Just as Felix came through for the win, LaShawn Merritt did the same in the men’s 400, storming to a 43.96 world’s leading time. He was led to victory by the torrid early pace of Gil Roberts who literally "held on" to take second in 44.67 – surprising most prognosticators including myself. Merritt looks prepared to go to war in what could be the most competitive event in Rio. At least half a dozen men could enter the stadium with PRs under 44.00, including last year’s World medalists – Van Niekerk, Merritt, and James.
Speaking of war, the 100 meters has become a global one on one between the US and Jamaica. Jamaica had their trials this weekend as well, with the 100 one day earlier than ours – so they got first say, so to speak. They too, however, had both triumph and tragedy. On the triumph side, Elaine Thompson ran away with the title in 10.70 – burying Shelley Ann Fraser Pryce and tying her national record (=#4 all time). The tragedy was the hamstring injury suffered by defending Olympic champion Usain Bolt. Who withdraw from the meet. Bolt says he will try to show fitness prior to the Games to have the Jamaican federation place him on the team. In his absence, Yohan Blake took the title in 9.95.
The US response was on point. On the women’s side, Tori Bowie, Jenna Prandini, and English Gardner dominated the rounds. In the final Prandini’s start failed her; Gardner and Tianna Bartloletta nailed theirs; and Bowie closed like a train. The result: Gardner (10.74), Bartoletta (10.78), Bowie (10.78) – first time in history three women were under 10.80 in the same race! Rio will be HOT.
The men showed fitness too. Specifically Justin Gatlin and Trayvon Bromell who ran 9.83 and 9.86 in their semis. Everyone else was clearly running for one spot. Including AR holder Tyson Gay who couldn’t seem to find a start to save his life. In the final, Gay’s start failed him again as Gatlin and Bromell nailed it. Gatlin (9.80 WL) and Bromell (9.84) booked easy tickets to Rio. In the fight for the third spot, Marvin Bracy (9.98) snuck in for the last golden ticket. A formidable group heads to Rio. The only question is will Bolt be there?
This weekend was as hot as it gets. World leading performances back to back to back all weekend. Key veterans like Felix, Reese, Merritt, and Gatlin will lead the youngsters into competitive battle. If the rest of the squad is anything like the members chosen the first few days, we’ll be in great shape. I’m looking forward to seeing what else transpires.