EUGENE, Ore. — The U.S. Olympic track and field trials can be exhilarating and devastating. Or both. Consider Brenda Martinez.
One of the favorites to qualify for the Olympic team in the women’s 800 meters last Monday, Martinez was poised to finish among the top three, and perhaps win, when she tripped, was clipped from behind, stumbled into an outer lane and wound up finishing seventh. She would not compete in the Olympics in that event.
Six days later, Martinez was attempting to qualify in the women’s 1,500 on the final afternoon of the trials. She had been able to run into third place as she raced toward the finish line. And then Amanda Eccleston began to catch up to her. In the final meters, Martinez saw Eccleston from the corner of her eye and then lunged toward the finish line, falling forward. Martinez crashed onto the track, laying there uncertain if she had finished third and could go to Rio, or fourth and go home empty.
And the final result was … Martinez made the Olympic team, finishing third ahead of Eccleston by three-hundredths of a second in a race that takes more than four minutes to run.
“Right when I finished [the 800], I said, ‘God’s not going to deny me anything — he just might delay things,’ ” Martinez said. “I felt like it happened for a reason, that I can use my story so that it can help someone along the way. Don’t give up on yourself. Just trust in what you have and what you have going for yourself.”
Felix fails to qualify for 200, must settle for 400
Allyson Felix, who had already qualified in the 400 meters for next month’s Rio Olympics, won’t represent the U.S. in the 200 after she placed fourth in Sunday’s trials final.
From operating table to Olympic trials final in eight months.
From start to finish, the 100-meter dash takes mere seconds, but it takes years of training to cross the finish line first. Here’s a look at how the contenders fared at this year’s U.S. Olympic track and field trials.
This is the way the Olympic trials are. The country’s best athletes gather to compete against one another, with the top three qualifying in each event — sometimes by the slimmest of margins — while the others go home disappointed, frustrated, distraught. Sprinter English Gardner recalls failing to make the team at the 2012 trials and simply getting into her car and bawling.
Four years later, Gardner made the Olympic team by winning the women’s 100 here. “When I crossed the line and saw the results, I didn’t really care if I came in first, second or third,” she said, “I was just excited that I made the team.”
Whether you qualify or not, it’s not an easy 10 days at the trials.
“The emotion is, ‘Don’t screw it up,’ ” Olympic gold medalist pole-vaulter Jenn Suhr said after qualifying for her third Olympics on Sunday. ” ‘Don’t miss the qualifying. You’ve got to make the finals, place in the top three.’ I know all the pressure involved. I can’t describe it. It’s just pressure. Now I can think about defending, but you can’t think about defending until you’re on the team. That’s what I’m talking about. It’s not so much going for gold. I’ve already won gold. It’s getting there again that is the hard part.”
Some who qualified for Rio here are experienced veterans with multiple Olympics, while many are first-timers: 77 in all, or 68 percent of the team. There are even some teenagers.
“It just keeps getting better and better,” U.S. track and field coach Connie Price-Smith said. “We have the youth — track and field is not going away. We are strong and we just continue to get stronger and better, and the older athletes keep lasting longer in this sport.”
Very true. Justin Gatlin won the gold medal in the 100 at the 2004 Olympics, but at age 34, he is still among the world’s best (though that also comes with a tainted reputation for two suspensions for performance-enhancing since Athens in 2004). He will compete in the 100 and 200 … and try to beat Usain Bolt.
Then there is Bernard Lagat, who will be competing in his fifth Olympics after winning the 5,000 meters at age 41. Lagat says he is still running so well because he refuses to consider himself an old man, especially when running with his much younger partners. “They keep me young,” he said. “They really push. I feel like I’m one of the young guys.”
Lagat is old enough to be the father of some of the other Olympians, including 400-meter hurdler Sydney McLaughlin, who is only 16 years old. She will be the youngest U.S. track athlete to compete in the Olympics since 1972 when Cindy Gilbert ran the hurdles at age 15.
Until McLaughlin qualified Sunday, the youngest Olympic qualifier here was high jumper Vashti Cunningham, the 18-year-old daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham. She has been the focus of attention due to her early success and her father, but fellow high jumper Chaunte Lowe’s story is also worth noting.
Lowe competed in the 2004 Olympics and then had a child. She competed in the 2008 Olympics and then had another child. She competed in the 2012 Olympics … and then had a third child. She went on to win the high jump here with a leap of 6-feet, 7 inches, the best in the world this year. She will be trying to medal for the first time in Rio.
“I’m not ready to give up yet,” she said.
Regardless of age or background, whether you are a teenager or a parent, there are many track and field athletes to watch in Rio: world record-holder Ashton Eaton, who will try to defend the gold medal in the decathlon; triple jumper Christian Taylor, who is determined to win gold again and break the world record; Gardner and Tori Bowie in the 100; all the women hurdlers; Tianna Bartoletta, who will compete in the 100 and long jump; and LaShawn Merritt, who will be competing in the 200 and 400.
And, of course, there is four-time gold medalist and four-time Olympian Allyson Felix. Like Merritt, she was looking to compete in the 200-400 double, as well. While she won the 400 to qualify, she fell short in the 200 Sunday, finishing fourth by just one one-hundredth of a second.
She wasn’t alone in that time difference. Gold medalist Aries Merritt also finished one one-hundredth of a second short in the 110 hurdles despite undergoing a kidney transplant just 10 months ago. But he’ll keep competing and trying to make another team.
Like Martinez said, you can’t give up on yourself. So if we won’t see you in Rio, we should see you in four years at the next trials.
“Finishing fourth is a devastating place, and I finished by three hundredths of a second in the 1,500. It’s crazy,” Eccleston said. “This is my first Olympic trials, I ran 5:13 in high school. I never even imagined I’d get to the trials, let alone come that close to making the Olympic team. So it’s incredible, really emotional.
“It sucks, but I guess in some ways it’s been the best season of my life. I’ve had a ton of breakthroughs mentally and physically. And I’m 26, not that old. So in four years, I’ll be back, and hopefully, I’ll be a lot better and come in as one of the favorites.”