Thrills and Spills: 22 takeaways from U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials

EUGENE, Ore. — For two weeks, the United States’ track and field faithful could remove themselves from the doping scandals, governing body corruption, contract disputes and other plaguing issues within the sport to focus on assembling one of the highest, fastest, strongest and youngest Olympic track and field teams in history.

Led by five reigning Olympic champions and five world champions, the United States medal hopes will not be anything to fret over with the return of greats like decathlete Ashton Eaton and triple jumper Christian Taylor . Rio de Janeiro will bring wide-eyed stars like hurdler Sydney McLaughlin, high jumper Vashti Cunningham and sprinter Trayvon Brommell into the global spotlight while Eugene already got a peek of the fresh look of fast with 84 first-time Olympians headed to the Summer Games.

It is Oregon so rain fell throughout the second weekend and Olympic dreams were dampened and others achieved. A fall brought Alysia Montano to her knees in the women’s 800. A dive at the finish line of the women’s 200 dashed Felix’s hopes to match Michael Johnson’s double. The sunlight came out for 41-year-old Bernard Lagat to turn back the clock to win the men’s 5,000 meters. Hayward Field was brought to its feet as Brenda Martinez hit the track with .03 of wiggle room between fourth place and her spot on her first Olympic team.

• ​By The Numbers: Records, stats, more from Olympic track and field team

Twenty-eight track and field medals were won at the 2012 Olympics in London. As other countries finalize their own Olympic teams and the world debates the status of Usain Bolt’s hamstring, it still may be early to determine how mightier this team may be than 2012.

Here are my parting thoughts from the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials:

1. Justin Gatlin will face off with Usain Bolt again

Gatlin unleashed a 9.80—fastest in the world this year—to win the 100 meters at the U.S. trials and set up an Olympic rematch with Bolt, whose injury may not be as severe as people initially thought. Gatlin missed out on a major opportunity to beat Bolt at last summer’s world championships as he flailed his arms and lost his form in the closing meters while the Jamaican reigned victorious again. At the moment, Gatlin’s 9.80 is faster than Bolt’s 9.88 with a bad start. If history has taught us anything, a Bolt slow start is never indicative of how a world championships or Olympics will play out.

How Usain Bolt’s injury could change the landscape of Rio Olympics

2. Despite an injured ankle, Allyson Felix favored for gold in the 400 meters

Felix won’t get a chance to defend her 200-meter gold medal in Rio after finishing fourth at trials, but here’s a silver lining: she now has five weeks to solely focus on her 400-meter race (and heal from the injury, of course). Her toughest competitor will be Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas, who has run 49.69 earlier this year (Felix posted a 49.68 in her trials win, the best in the world this year). Americans Courtney Okolo and Quanera Hayes have the third and fourth fastest times of 2016 but failed to make the Olympic team.

•​ Gatlin, Felix took vastly different paths to same team in Rio

3. LaShawn Merritt will chase Michael Johnson’s double

An American will have the opportunity to chase Michael Johnson’s two gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters won in the 1996 Olympics, but instead of Felix, it will be Merritt. However, he has plenty of competitors standing in his way. Merritt’s 400-meter time of 43.97 run at trials is the fastest in the world this year, but he’s closely followed by South Africa’s Wayde Van Niekerk, who won last summer’s world championship gold medal ahead of Merritt. And, of course, Bolt has won the last two Olympic golds in the 200 meters. 

4. Sydney McLaughlin, Vashti Cunningham lead U.S. youth movement

The average age of the U.S. Olympics track and field team is just 25 years old, and 77 of the 127 members are competing in their first Summer Games. Sixteen-year-old McLaughlin, who qualified in the women’s 400-meter hurdles, will be the youngest U.S. runner to compete at the Olympics since Cindy Gilbert ran at 15 years old in 1972. She’s clocked two of the top-10 times in the world this year, and has a legitimate chance at medaling in Rio. Cunningham, the 18-year-old daughter of former NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham, took second at the trials and already owns a world indoor championship gold medal.

• ​Vashti Cunningham poised to become world’s next high jump star

5. Women’s 800-meter core now faces Caster Semenya

With two of the women’s 800-meter medalists in 2012 not competing in Rio due to doping, the U.S. 800-meter group of Kate Grace, Ajee Wilson and Chrishuna Williams take on the tough task of taking down South Africa’s Caster Semenya, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist. Semenya’s 2016 world-leading time of 1:56.64 is almost three seconds faster than Grace’s trials-winning time of 1:59.10. Semenya has been highly scrutinized since her breakout in 2009, and the International Association of Athletics Federations, track and field’s governing body, forced her to undergo gender testing after her winning a gold medal at the world championships that year.

6. Brenda Martinez overcomes heartbreak in the 800 meters in dramatic fashion

After falling in the final meters of the women’s 800-meter race, Brenda Martinez had her eye on the prize in the 1500 meters. And the fans were on her side as well; when she lined up for the 1500 final, her reception by the spectators at Hayward Field would’ve made one think that she once ran for the Oregon Ducks. It took a dive at the finish, but Martinez finally earned the elusive Olympic berth.

• ​Collision in women’s 800 meters was unfortunate, but final result was fair

7. English Gardner and Tori Bowie set to capture loads of U.S. attention.

The U.S. sprints corps at the 2016 Olympics will have a fresher look with Gardner and Bowie at the helm. Gardner won the Olympic trials crown—Bowie and Tianna Bartoletta finishing second and third respectively—but has yet to prove herself at a global championship; her best finish was a fourth place showing at the 2013 world championships. Bowie looks to improve upon her bronze medal from last year’s 100 meter final at the world championships in Beijing. Gold and silver may not be out of the question as two-time Olympic champion Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica attempts to heal a foot injury in time for Rio.

The U.S. team also has a chance of breaking their own world record of 40.82 in the 4×100 from four years ago.

• ​​Tori Bowie ready to make her case as next great U.S. women’s sprinter

8. Coach Jerry Schumacher won the Olympic trials

Jerry Schumacher, coach of the Portland-based Nike Bowerman Track Club, can take credit for 23% of the U.S. Olympic distance runners. Seven of the eight professional women that he coaches will compete in Rio: Shalane Flanagan (marathon), Amy Hastings (marathon), Betsy Saina (10,000 meters for Kenya), Courtney Frerichs (steeplechase), Colleen Quigley (steeplechase), Emily Infeld (10,000 meters) and Shelby Houlihan (5,000 meters). 

His men went 1-for-5 at the U.S. Olympic Trials—steeplechase champion Evan Jager will represent in Rio.

9. Molly Huddle seeking redemption for podium miss at world championships

At last summer’s world championships in Beijing, Huddle was nipped at the finish line of the women’s 10,000 by Infeld (who will also be racing in Rio), missing out on a podium spot, and has never let up before the finish line since. Huddle became the first woman to win the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the Olympic Trials, but will only run the 10,000 at the Olympics.

Photo: Robert Beck

10. Galen Rupp locked in for the 10,000 and marathon double

Rupp, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000 meters, easily won that event on the first night of the trials. But he was swallowed in the final lap of the 5,000 meters, since his speed has taken a step back since London. Rupp easily won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February, his debut at the distance, and Rio will be his first test against East Africans in the marathon.

11. Hurdles yield major upsets

David Oliver (110 hurdles), Keni Harrison (100 hurdles), Johnny Dutch (400 hurdles) and Shamier Little (100 hurdles) entered the trials as the fastest Americans in their respective event. Harrison, Dutch and Little held world-leading marks. None of them will head to the Olympics as Oliver missed the final due to injury, Little did not make it out of the semis. Dutch and Harrison finished outside of the top three in their respective final. The rest of the world can breathe a sigh of relief as some of their gold medal hopes improved.

12. Brittney Reese out to follow up trials break-out

Early in the trials, Reese unleashed a 7.31-meter long jump for a huge personal best and the longest jump in the world since 2004. Reese won gold in 2012 but the years that followed were a struggle with injuries and sub-par performances. Nicknamed “The Beast”, she could become the first back-to-back Olympic champion in the event.

• ​​​Get to know the members of the 2016 U.S. Olympic track and field team

13. Boris Berian wants David Rudisha’s scalp

Boris Berian’s rise from working at a McDonalds just two years ago to becoming a world-class 800-meter runner is nothing short of stunning. He just narrowly lost to world-record holder David Rudisha of Kenya at a race in New York City in 2015 and does not plan on doing so again. Berian was the Olympic trials runner-up but already owns a world indoor championship gold medal. His personal best of 1:43.34 is still not close to Rudisha’s 1:40.91 but the former Adams State runner will need to polish his race tactics if he expected to go toe to toe with one of the greatest of all-time.

14. Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson rivalry will continue in Rio

Jenny Simpson, who won the U.S. Olympic Trials 1,500 meter crown in 4:04.74, and Shannon Rowbury, who holds the American record in the event, foster an intense rivalry that could help bring out the best in each of them with medals on the line. Both competed in London: Rowbury finished sixth in 2012 behind several drug cheats, and Simpson failed to make the final but has improved greatly since London.

• ​​​Women’s Olympic 1500-meter team is stronger than in 2012

15. U.S. World Class Athlete Program fares well

The U.S. Army WCAP program, coached by 2008 Olympian Dan Browne, added several Kenyan-born athletes to the U.S. Olympic team at the track trials with Shadrack Kipchirchir and Leonard Korir in the 10,000 and Paul Chelimo in the 5,000. While it may initially come off as Kenyans moving to the U.S. to make an Olympic team, these athletes train hard to become soldiers for the U.S. Army first, typically for eight years (with a combination of active and reserve duty) and Olympians second. Athletes that make the Olympic team remain in the WCAP Program. Those that don’t will go back to their normal Army service. When Paul Chelimo held on to third place in the men’s 5,000 meter final, he also held onto his running career.

Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images Sport

16. Ashton Eaton banged up but up for title defense

Olympic decathlon champion and world record holder Ashton Eaton took a very cautious approach en route to winning the Olympic trials. Four years ago, Eaton set his world record of 9,039 in Eugene before winning gold in London, and he improved upon that world record to 9,045 at last summer’s world championships. His point total in Eugene may not have been close to his record as he was tending to a few minor injuries in the lead-up to the trials, but Eaton should be better in Brazil and is likely to become the first back-to-back Olympic decathlon champion since Daley Thompson in 1984.

17. Aries Merritt suffers heartbreaking loss

Merritt missed making the Olympic team in the 110-meter hurdles by .001 of a second, the slimmest of margins. His recovery from a kidney transplant less than a year ago and being able to get to the starting line is nothing short of incredible. He’ll take a much needed break but then come back strong in 2017.

18. Jenn Suhr and Sandi Morris lead pole vault medal hopes without Isinbayeva

Suhr, the reigning Olympic champion, and Morris went 1–2 at the trials, much like March’s world indoor championships. The same could happen in Rio as they await the CAS’s decision on whether or not to allow Yelena Isinbayeva, the 2004 and ’08 Olympic champion, to compete in Rio amid the Russian doping ban. Suhr has welcomed the challenge of Isinbayeva in Rio but a final decision is expected to be made later this month. Last week, the IAAF made the decision to only deem two Russian athletes, based in the United States, eligible to compete at the Olympics.

• ​IAAF ban of Russia’s track and field team a small win for drug-soaked sport

19. Bernard Lagat still has wheels

In what may arguably be the biggest surprise of the trials, 41-year-old Lagat kicked down the men’s 5,000 meter field with a 52-second last lap to clinch his fifth Olympic team berth. Lagat, who plans to retire after Rio, already owns a bronze and silver medal in the 1,500 meters from his days representing Kenya at the 2000 and ’04 Olympics. He has one more chance to add to his collection and will become the oldest American distance runner in Olympic history in Rio.

20. Joe Kovacs in a different place than 2012

Despite finishing fourth at the 2012 Olympics, Joe Kovacs’ shot putting career was extended as he came out of Penn State and signed a professional contract with Nike. 2015 was a marquee year for him as his 22.56 meter heave was the longest throw in the world since 2003 and put him at eighth on the all-time list before he went on to win gold at the world championships. Kovacs finished in second at the trials, and could become the first American to win gold in the shot put since Adam Nelson took gold in 2004.

• ​Shot putter Joe Kovacs fulfills his Olympic dreams four years later

21. Long jump needs an encore in Rio

The long jump final in Eugene brought along its own craziness with big marks under windy conditions. The U.S. ended up with a team of Jeff Henderson, Jarrion Lawson and Marquis Dendy. Will Claye, the 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in the event, was left off the team despite a third place finish as he failed to hit the standard. Buffalo Bills wide receiver Marquise Goodwin finished seventh and will head back to the gridiron.

22. Christian Taylor returns to Rio

Claye ended up making the Olympic team in the triple jump as he beat Olympic champion Christian Taylor in the final. Taylor has his sights set on defending his gold medal and potentially taking down Jonathan Edwards’ world record of 18.29 meters. Last summer, Taylor became the second-best triple jumpers of all-time with his 18.21-meter jump to win gold at the world championships.

Bonus: Happy Trails, Sanya Richards-Ross

The 2012 Olympic champion at 400 meters may not have exited the sport on the grand stage that she expected as she failed to make it out of the first round in the 400-meter heats. But Richards-Ross will still be in Rio, since she’s signed on to be a color commentator with NBC.

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