Eugene, Oregon is a picturesque college town, sparkly with streams and framed by dark pine-forested hills, with a population equal parts public radio, Dick-and-Perry-with-a-snort-of-Eminem, and hippie. The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials are happening there right now—bands of backward cap-wearing dudes are skimming along 24th Avenue shirtless, exceptionally fit people are walking very slowly, and public stretching is the order of the day. On three different occasions within the first two days, I saw a runner dash into a cafe, jog through tables, jump into a restroom, and burst out at a trot. (I didn’t have a clock on him, but I’d hazard less than a minute, hand washing questionable.) Not a single diner looked up. This is Eugene. TrackTown USA.
Most importantly, we have freshly crowned Olympians. Six days of the ten day track and field extravaganza are in the books, and about half the finals have been contested. Most of the athletes, who have been busting it in relative poverty and obscurity with rewards few and far between, seemed a little shell-shocked standing on the podium, holding their flowers and flag. Here are the Olympians so far, with four more days of competition ahead:
Women’s 100 Meter: English Gardner, Tianna Bartoletta, Tori Bowie
Women’s 400 Meter: Allyson Felix, Phyllis Francis, Natasha Hastings
Women’s 800 Meters: Kate Grace, Ajee Wilson, Chrishuna Williams
Women’s 10,000 Meters: Molly Huddle, Emily Infield, Marielle Hall
Women’s High Jump: Chaunte Lowe, Vashti Cunningham, Inika McPherson
Women’s Long Jump: Brittney Reese, Tianna Bartoletta, Janay DeLoach
Women’s Discus: Whitney Ashley, Shelbi Vaughan, Kelsey Card
Women’s Hammer Throw: Amber Campbell, Gwen Barry, Deanna Price
Men’s 100 Meter: Justin Gatlin, Trayvon Bromell, Marvin Bracy
Men’s 400 Meters: LaShawn Merritt, Gil Roberts, David Verburg
Men’s 800 Meters: Clayton Murphy, Boris Berian, Charles Jock
Men’s 10,000 Meters: Galen Rupp, Shadrack Kipchirchir, Leonard Korir
Men’s Pole Vault: Sam Kendricks, Cale Simmons, Logan Cunningham
Men’s Long Jump: Jeff Henderson, Jarrion Lawson, Marquis Dendy
Men’s Shot Put: Ryan Crouser, Joe Kovacs, Darrell Hill
Men’s Hammer Throw: Rudy Winkler, Kibwe Johnson, Conor McCullough
Men’s Javelin: Cyrus Hostetler, Curtis Thompson, Riley Dolezal
Men’s Decathlon: Ashton Eaton, Jeremy Taiwo, Zach Ziemek
Being in Eugene is like drinking from a firehose—there is so much going on it’s impossible to keep up with it at all—but here are some thoughts so far.
Molly Huddle turned the screws on the last of 25 laps, all the while looking composed, like she could have welcomed guests and served tea in her lovely home only moments afterward/Hayward . It was beautiful. I stood and added my voice to the roar.
I wish Galen Rupp had Meb Keflezighi’s personality, but that might crack the universe—too perfect. Wooden as he is in interviews, he’s a thing of beauty on the track. Go to 1:40 to see Rupp’s opus.
You’d be hard pressed to slip a piece of paper under my feet when I jump, so high jump fascinates me. Watch this and know that 32-year-old high jump queen Chaunte Lowe has three children and is a fine dancer.
Women’s high jumpers are the soccer players of track—tatted, expressive, outre. Check out Olympian Inika McPherson, the only ear-plugged, ink-kissed 5'4" woman to ever clear 6 feet 6 inches.
The once-every-four-years Trials provides closure for some. Top athletes deal with setbacks, bad races, and injuries all the time. Having the mental strength to work through those hard times is—as much as talent—the factor that separates the great from the good. But that perseverance also makes it difficult to know when to stop. Plenty of athletes face the music in solitude and hang up their shoes without so much as a tweet.
If you’re 2012 gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross, you pull up in the first round of the 400 meters at the Trials, receive a standing ovation from the Hayward Field fans, and make a going-away speech. The 400 meter legend has been posting world-class times since 2002, when she was only 17 years old. A gimpy hamstring was the last straw, she said, and while she regrets not making another Olympic team, she said she feels blessed and hopes, “people saw that little bit of God in me every time I stepped on the track.”
Allyson Felix steps into Sanya Richards Ross’s 400-meter shoes. Having won about all there is to win at 200 meters, the very recognizable Felix overcame injuries to win the one-lap race in a personal best and world leading time of 49.68 seconds. This, after posting on Instagram on June 30: “ONLY by the grace of God I will walk to the starting line tomorrow. Undoubtedly, this will be the hardest team I try to make.” She said later she feels 400 meters might be her best event.
Entrepreneur, author, activist, and 800 meter specialist Nick Symmonds scratched before the qualifying rounds of the 800 started due to a ligament strain in his ankle. The 32-year-old, who has been racing at the top of the sport for ten years, said he’s done competing this year. His sponsor, Brooks, has the option to renew his contract in 2017, and he made sounds that indicated he’d compete in 2017 if they exercise their option. But in essence, this is his swan song.
And then there is Bernard Lagat. At 41, daddy can still kick. Watch below as Lagat runs down young studs Eric Jenkins and Lopez Lomong to win his heat of the 5,000 meters and advance to Saturday’s final. His last of 12-and-a-half laps? 53.64 seconds.
Lagat dropped out of the 10,000 meters on the first day of competition but said after the 5,000 heat win that the 10 laps he’d completed of the 10,000 were good training: “So I did a wonderful tempo run with Galen Rupp on Friday (and) it’s helping me right now.” That must have warmed Rupp’s heart, since he was one of the casualties of Lagat’s kick, barely hanging on for sixth place in the 5,000 heat. Lagat is the American record holder at 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meters, and has 13 world championship and Olympic medals. He has not mentioned retirement, and neither have any of those he’s schooled.
A different kind of unbelievable, Justin Gatlin, 34-years-old, ran a world-leading 9.80 in the 100 meters, and is at the world-class level he first reached way back in 2002. While Lagat has made concessions to age by moving up in distance, Gatlin is getting faster and faster in an event that is literally no country for old men. And 34 is old for the 100. Most sprinters peak at age 26 or 27. Gatlin’s fellow Olympians on the 100-meter team are 20-year-old Trayvon Bromell and 22-year-old Marvin Bracy. With Usain Bolt’s recent hamstring injury, Gatlin has an excellent chance of being the oldest 100-meter Olympic champion ever. That honor now belongs to the British Linford Christie, who was 32 when he ran 9.96 seconds for the gold. Both Christie and Gatlin have served doping suspensions.
The Trials, of course, are anointing some new stars. Eighteen-year-old sylph Vashti Cunningham turned pro in her senior year of high school after winning this year’s World Indoor Championships, graduated in June, placed second in the women’s high jump in July, and will compete in her first Olympics in August. At this point, she no longer needs to borrow sports cred from her dad.
Young Mason Ferlic washed his Michigan singlet after winning the 3,000 meter steeplechase at the NCAAs, popped it on, and represented again on a national scale.
He finished second to American record holder Evan Jager in Monday’s semi-final round, and advances to Friday’s final. Jager has provided hope that Americans can compete in this brutal Kenyan-owned event. Well ... here, you should watch this well-commentated video of Jager falling over the last barrier and still setting the American record, minutes ahead of any other U.S. steepler. Go to 10:10 and feel the ecstasy and the agony:
While many American steeplers have copied Jager’s ‘do, they haven’t been able to copy his success over the barriers, until the lanky Ferlic loped into the picture. I’m out on a limb here considering Ferlic has only the ninth best American performance this year, but few others have started their professional career, pink-cheeked and eager, with a shrewdly run 8:27 in their pocket. It’s hard to measure potential, but I think Ferlic has it.
I went out to South Eugene High School track today—a weedy patch with mini stands that hold 13 small people—and saw Olympian Leo Manzano doing 200s, Justin Gatlin talking on his phone, 1500/5000 pro Gabriele Grunewald coming back from a warm-up, a dad and his daughters doing strides, 55-year-old Mark Berry tearing around the curve, and Lauren Fleschman doing high knees. Another day in TrackTown USA.