What the heck is that, above? It’s years of 24/7 grind going down the tubes in a hundredth of a second. It’s dreams dying and being made. It’s bad luck and dumb luck. And according to USA Track & Field, it’s incidental contact. It’s the sport of track and field.
Last night at Eugene, Oregon’s Hayward Field—site of the U.S. Olympic trials—eight women were 650 meters into the final of the 800 meters, switching gears from organ-meltingly fast to flat out, do or die. The top three finishers would become Olympians, representing the U.S. in Rio next month. Five would have to start making other plans.
What you see is Brenda Martinez (on the outside, hand up, between the L and the Y) tangling with Alysia Montano (in the pink, partially obscured by the runner in yellow). In a blink, Montano went down hard and Martinez stumbled into lane four. Ahead of the fray, Ajee Wilson (in red) powered into the home stretch, Raevyn Rogers (in yellow and green) hugged the rail and carried on at speed, Molly Ludlow (in the red on the outside) somehow managed to hurdle Montano and avoid Martinez, and full-flight Kate Grace (in the back) avoided Montano and was suddenly presented with open track. Out of the shot were Chrishuna Williams and Phoebe Wright.
Here’s the full video, with the trip occurring at 1:38:
Twenty-four seconds later, the 800 meter Olympic team was decided. Kate Grace, who won in 1:59.10, Ajee Wilson, who ran the fastest 800 in the world in 2014, and a happy but stunned Chrishuna Williams, who two minutes earlier was a long shot at best. With Montano staggering to the finish line and collapsing in tears, and a packed stadium cheering only hesitantly, the victory celebration was confused and muted.
Martinez immediately walked off the track and, while struggling with emotion, said in the post-race interview that she was clipped from behind, but ultimately, these things happen in track and field.
Things have never been handed to Martinez. Growing up in gritty Rancho Cucamonga, California, her parents put five-year-old Brenda in the local track program to keep her out of trouble. The coach of that program, Carlton Austin, remembered Martinez as a fighter: “She was never the best athlete—there were a lot of girls faster—but she had the three Ds—desire, determination, dedication. If anyone was going to beat her, they’d have to do it again and again because she would keep coming back.”
Track was her ticket to college—she was the first person in her family to graduate—but her mid-distance resume failed to impress post-collegiate training groups. She was rejected by several big names who she declines to identify, and after a couple years of drifting, reached out to retired coaching legend, Joe Vigil. Impressed by her grit, work ethic, and blue collar background, Vigil took her on, phoning workouts to Martinez’s husband, Carlos Handler, from his home in Arizona:
So, an old coach, a husband with a stopwatch, and a pretty good runner decided to give elite running a go. They weren’t in Oregon. They had almost no budget. Unlikely was probably the most generous odds that could have been given. But in 2013, Martinez won a bronze medal at the World Championships in Moscow, something never before accomplished by a US woman at 800 meters.
With a lifetime best of 1:57.91 and the fastest 2016 time in the US (1:59.64), Martinez was a strong favorite to make the Olympic team.
So was Montano. By far the most decorated woman in the impressive field, Montano’s long list of world championships and U.S. records can be read two ways. She is the most decorated partly because she’s been at the top of the event since 2006; she set her personal best of 1:57.34 back in 2010. Ten years is a long time to train and compete at that level. Montano is famous for running the 2014 U.S. Outdoor Championships only a couple weeks before giving birth, and for her speedy recovery—she posted a 1:59.15 a year later.
The clock is undoubtedly ticking for a 30-year-old mid-distance runner who’s been at the top of the game for 10 years, but Montano passed easily through the two qualifying rounds, clipping off her season best of 2:00.20 along the way. She took out the final in signature Tina Turner style (“we never do nothing nice and easy; we do it nice and rough”), blasting through the first lap in 57.46 seconds, holding the lead partway through the back stretch. Montano is a train, a beast—she won all that hardware by dragging competitors through a seemingly foolhardy first lap, then trashing the laws of physiology by holding that pace as everyone else goes lactic in the most awful searing way.
But this is a new world. The U.S. is in the midst of a feast in women’s mid-distance: The last of 38 qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic trials 800 ran a 2:02.97. In the past, 2:04 or 2:05 would have gotten into the national championship.
At 600 meters, Montano uncharacteristically had company and lots of it. Ajee Wilson had shot to the front on the inside followed closely by 19-year-old University of Oregon star Raevyn Rogers (the hometown crowd in the stands was going nuts). Martinez blew by Montano on the outside, which Montano did not take sitting down. With the always dangerous Molly Ludlow coming up on the outside as well, Montano quickly closed the gap on Martinez so that, going around the final turn, there were four horses and eight flying legs going flat out in very close quarters with two more hot on their heels.
Watch the video above again. Notice how Wilson’s and Rogers’s legs swing, crossing at great speed within centimeters of each other in lane one, and in turn, a wobble away from the 3" high metal rail marking the inside of the track. The miracle is that falls don’t happen more often.
Even scrutinizing frame by frame, it’s impossible to say exactly what caused Montano to fall. Martinez said she thought she was clipped from behind, and Montano was behind her. Montano says in the video below that Martinez tripped and at the same time, someone hit her feet from behind. Montano bristled at the suggestion that she in fact caused Martinez’s loss of balance, and said she had no contact with anyone.
When I spoke with Raevyn Rogers, she said she didn’t see the cause but felt someone grab and pull her right (outside) arm, which broke her stride for a second. Though the crash happened in front of and to the outside of Kate Grace, she, too, had switched into top gear—avoiding distraction and focusing only on their own race is what pros have trained for years to do. Grace was aware there had been a fall, but of much more immediate interest was the clear track ahead of her and Rio beckoning 150 meters on.
Echoing the sentiments of the other runners, Ajee Wilson said in the post-race press conference, “It sucks when it’s you [who falls] but it’s part of the game.”
Not only is this likely Montano’s last go at the Olympics (though 41-year-old Bernard Lagat had just won his heat of the 5000 meters, so who knows), but unlike Martinez—who will get another shot at the Olympic team later this week in the 1500 meters—she put all her eggs in the 800 basket.
But Montano’s devastation seemed compounded by what she feels is betrayal by the sport’s governing body, the IAAF, for not acting on Russian doping during most of her career, negligence she says cost her medals, titles, and more importantly, self-worth. Montano finished fifth at the 2012 Olympics behind two Russians who have since been banned for life for doping, but she was not awarded the bronze medal after the fact.
“This doping ban and the corruption at the IAAF, this is not just a story in the press. People just read about this, like it’s a story, a scandal. It’s not just a story—it’s my life,” Montano told me in the mixed zone.
A protest was filed by Martinez’s camp, and after review of the tapes, USATF officials declared incidental contact, no DQ, and existing results final. Why didn’t Montano file a protest? “What good would that do me,” she asked rhetorically.
Without Martinez or Montano, the Olympic team marches on. Ajee Wilson sailed through the storm unscathed; she was a sure thing before the race, and already clear of the mess and looking like an Olympian at the top of the straight. Kate Grace ran 1:59.47 in 2013, was injured for most of 2015, but came out swinging in 2016. Somewhat overlooked in the fracas is that Grace kept her focus, overhauled the formidable Wilson in the straight, and won in a blazing 1:59.10—the fastest U.S. time in 2016 and a personal best.
But the biggest winner in all of this? The 23-year-old Chrishuna Williams. In 2014 she moved up from 400 to 800 meters competing for the Arkansas Razorbacks. Two months ago, she told Flotrack her goal for this season was, “to break two minutes and compete at the Olympic Trials.” Boom. Not even in the frame at the top of this story, Williams blew through the carnage on the curve and used her 400 speed to hold off Molly Ludlow in the straight, no small feat. She placed third, in 1:59.59, and made an Olympic team. While Williams, moreso than Grace or Wilson, benefitted from the removal of Martinez and Montano from contention, posting sub-two minutes means she is legit.
As they say, anything can happen, and last night it did.
Corrections: This article originally stated that Ajee Wilson was a 2012 Olympian, but she was not. It also stated that Alysia Montano ran the first lap in 56 seconds; she ran the first lap in 57.46.