By David Yon
I have always been a fan of the Olympics (at least track and field) and somewhere along the way Track and Field News became my favorite magazine, which of course means I developed a love for the sport of track & field that went far beyond the Olympics. In 1996 the two (track and field and the Olympics) became melded in one great experience. I had a ridiculous thought – “What if I order tickets for all the track & field events?” I was certain, given the expected demand, the request would be returned – minus the application fee – and I could continue a normal life. To my delighted surprise though the Atlanta Olympic Committee sent me four passes for all of the track and field events. I watched every event that summer, often leaving my friend’s house in Stone Mountain before the sun came up and returning well into the night, running between the morning and evening sessions in the sizzling Atlanta heat. Somewhere during that magical period Bob Kennedy heroically challenged the great African runners in the 5K before fading to sixth place. Michael Johnson turned a 200 in an “other world” 19.32 (a feat unmatched by any other athletic event I have ever witnessed). Flashbulbs following Johnson around the track made it seem that the stars themselves had moved into the stands to watch his stunning performance. Ethiopian flags unfurled around the stadium on the wings of pride for the greatest hero that country has ever known – Haile Gebrselassie – as he won the 10,000 meter gold medal on bloodied and blistered feet. I was hooked forever.
I followed Atlanta by going down under to Sydney, where I had the special treat of watching Tallahassee’s own Breeda Dennehy-Willis compete in the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races. Regretfully, I lost faith in Greece’s ability to keep the magic going and decided to stay home this year. But I will be there in spirit through my television watching to see how the group that survived the US trials fares. The main part of the trials got started on July 9, in Sacramento. It is often said the US trials are the best track meet after the Olympic Games and the World Championships and I don’t doubt it. And while the US’s best hopes for medals ride mostly with the sprints and a few field events, this column takes a look at the distance events – still my favorites.
This year’s trials coverage was good with NBC and USA showing lots of competition and, with Carol Lewis thankfully far more restrained than usual, giving me reason to hope for quality Olympic coverage. There was a dark BALCO cloud hovering over everything as the news of drug allegations and failed test provided a slow drip drop of Chinese water torture. While I am sad for the disruption and the black eye this causes, in the end, I believe it will make the sport better and the playing field more level. The U.S. will send one of its best overall teams to face a world filled with more talented and well trained athletes than ever before. There was an 19 year old (Allyson Felix) burning up the 200 to qualify for her first Olympics and a 37 year old (Jearl Miles Clark) taking the 800 for a spot on her fifth team.
And there was a 21 year old former high school phenom who caused Steve Prefontaine to sit up in his grave and scream “this is what I have been waiting for” with his performance in the 1500. The mile and its metric cousin, the 1500 meter race, grab the U.S. public’s imagination like no other event. Alan Webb smashed Jim Ryan’s 36 year-old high school record on May 27, 2001 when ran 3:55.3. ESPN cut away from it regular programming to cover it. But then he disappeared for a while the victim of injuries and who knows what else. He has returned with a vengeance this year running PRs in both the mile (3:50.73 – the fastest time ever for an American on U.S. soil) and the 1500 (3:32.73), while beating some of the world’s best in European meets. In the trials though he began creating a legacy the front running Steve Prefontaine would have loved. Despite temperatures of over 100 degrees, when the field in the finals of the 1500 began to slow, he bolted just after the 800 mark. The crowd, which had begun to boo, erupted as Webb slammed the accelerator and immediately took a 15 meter lead. He never looked back, not even as Marty Liquori explained to the TV audience that “you can’t do that.” The final time (3:36) was not awesome, but the statement was. Charlie Gruber lagged well behind in second place in a time of 3:38.45. He had neither an A nor a B time and looked destined to stay home rather than go to Athens. That all changed with a big PR in Belgium when Gruber ran 3:34.71 – a time good enough to give him an A qualifier and a place with Alan Webb on the team. The last place will be filled by the only other athlete with an A time, Grant Robison, who did not make the finals at the trial. There is enormous talent in this event though out the world. It will be very tough for any of them to medal, but Webb could surprise and I have strong hope he will be in the finals.
If you are into love stories there’s a pretty good one of those, as husband and wife team Alan and Shayne Culpepper cheered each other to spots on the team. With Khalid Khannouchi (American record holder and former world record holder) out with an injury, Alan Culpepper stepped into the mantle of best U.S. marathoner when he won the marathon trials a few months earlier, just nipping Meb Keflezighi. Shayne Culpepper ran the race of her life in Sacramento while Alan and their son, two and half year-old Cruz, watched from the stands. North Carolina star, Shalane Flanagan, went to the front early in a courageous and determined effort to make the team. She busted the pack up cranking her race leading pace down to a 66 second lap late in the race. It worked for all but the bell lap where Marla Runyan took charge. Runyan who had never lost to an American woman in the 5K seemed to have the race put away as she rounded the last bend and headed down the last 100 meter stretch. But with a little extra push from husband Alan, Shayne Culpepper stayed focused on Runyan and began reeling her in with a sprint to the finish line. As they pounded the final 25 meters, Runyan’s legs tied up just enough for Culpepper to lunge past for the win, edging Runyan 15:07.41 to 15:07.48 at the line. The two women ran the last quarter in 63.2 seconds. Flanagan refused to fold and followed in third place grabbing her spot on the team. All three have a qualifying time and barring injuries will head to Athens. Perhaps the most amazing thing about this race was that USA TV showed it start to finish with no commercial breaks. Runyan probably remains the best hope for getting a participant into the finals in a very tough event on the world stage.
The women’s 1500 began falling apart even before the final started. Suzy Favor Hamilton, finally out of the shadow of Regina Jacobs (who agreed to a career ending drug ban) was a clear favorite. However, she developed a hamstring problem after the semi and being one of the few women with an “A” time (4:05.80) decided to roll the dice and skip the final, hoping she would make it through on the basis of her qualifier. But the rules get complicated when the top three don’t have “A” times and her decision would turn out to be costly. Marla Runyan, doubling back from the 5K became the pre-race favorite. The 5K had taken its toll though and two races (with multiple heats) in the scorching heat of Sacramento left Runyan exhausted with an empty gas tank. She stepped off the track after two laps. That left the final battle to Carrie Tollefson, who had just missed making the team in the 5K, Amy Rudolf, who had also run the 5K, and Jen Toomey, who unsuccessfully tried to make the 800 team. The finish was furious, with four runners (Carrie Tollefson, Jen Toomey, Amy Rudolph and Jenelie Deatherage) finishing within one second (4:08.32 for first place and 4:08.71 for fourth). But the race did not settle much as none of these women have the A (4:05.80) or B (4:07.15) time. Tollefson ran 4:06.30 in Europe to get the B standard, and all of the top three ran the 1500 in Zurich, with Toomey getting the B standard and Tollefson running 4:06.13. As the winner at the trials, Tollefson’s B qualifier trumps Favor-Hamilton’s A time. Zurich looks to be the last chance for any of them to improve their times and so only Tollefson will run for the US in Athens. It is also unlikely the US will have a representative in the finals.
The 800 is, in my view, perhaps the most fun race to watch. It is an all out sprint and things can change completely in the last 150 meters. The men’s team will have three members with no Olympic and almost no World Championships experience. Jonathan Johnson won the trials and was the 2004 NCAA champ in the event. He is young and talented, but he has had a long college season and staying sharp for the Olympics is a tall order. Khadevis Robinson and Derrick Peterson have the most experience, but not the times to predict medals or trips to the finals. For the women, 37 year old Jearl Miles-Clark has both the experience and the talent to have a chance at not only the finals, but also a medal. She is a five time Olympian. She is joined on the team by her younger sister Hazel Clark, who was 7th in the 800 at the 2000 Olympics. She will need a break through at the games to improve on that though. The last runner is Nichole Teter who is bouncing back from an injury.
For some dumb reason, the steeple chase is limited to men in the 2004 Olympics. That is too bad because there are a lot of really talented women out there. On the men’s side, the US fields a strong team. Daniel Lincoln, an Arkansas Alum with four NCAA titles during his college career, appeared in control of this race running behind Famiglietti and Gary. Anthony Famiglietti and Robert Gary set a fast pace early and separated the top three from the field, leaving only the order of finish in doubt. Lincoln took control with a lap to go to take the title, while Famiglietti and then Gary followed behind, all in times (8:15.02, 8:17.91 and 8:19.46) well under the A standard. It is probably as good a team as anyone’s out there except for the Kenyan team, a team good enough to sweep the medals though.
It is the rare Olympics where an American man is a factor in the 5000 and 2004 is not likely to be different. Going into the race only one participant had achieved the A standard, Jonathan Riley. It was Tim Broe though, overcoming a year of injuries, who took control of the race and won with a time of 13:27.36. That was only the first step though as he had neither an A nor a B qualifying time. He crossed the ocean though and found a fast 5K where he got an A qualifier at Norwich Union (Britain) of 13:18.61, fast enough to make sure that both he and Riley get to compete. Meb Keflezighi broke the trials record in the 10K by running 27:36. He plans to run the marathon though. Second and third place finishers, Abdi Abdirahman and Dan Browne also have A qualifying times and will run the 10,000. Browne also plans to run the marathon. The third spot will be filled by Dathan Ritzenhein, who limped through the trials while recovering from a stress fracture. The 2003 NCAA cross country champion for Colorado was the only other runner, except for Culpepper, with an A time. The women’s 10K was the Deena Kastor show as she ran the second fastest 10K time for an American woman (she also has the fastest) on a hot night to win in 31:09.65. The race though was only a “workout” for her as she is committed to running the marathon in Athens. She looks ready based on this effort. With Kastor skipping this event in the Olympics, the US will only have two participants as only second place Elva Dyer and third place finisher Kate O’Neill have A qualifiers.
The marathon teams were decided much earlier in the year and the US will have at least four very capable runners. For the men, Alan Culpepper, Meb Keflezighi and Dan Browne represent one of the strongest men’s teams in a long time. Culpepper has run a 2:09:41 marathon PR and a 27:33.93 10K. Culpepper ran the 10,000 meter race in 2000 Olympics and has been the most consistent U.S. distance runner since Bob Kennedy fell prey to injuries. Meb is the American record holder at 10K with a 27:13.98 best. He has run a 2:11:47 marathon, but I suspect can run much faster under the right conditions. Browne may be the sleeper. The West Point graduate just ran a 13:16.02 PR for 5K and seems to be flourishing under the coaching of Alberto Salazar. He finished third at the trials, but seems to have made a lot of improvement since then. All of these men could be top 20 finishers and with a little luck one or more might crack the top ten, with a long shot at a medal. Deena Kastor has a marathon PR of 2:21:16 (the American Record) and the mental toughness to take two World Cross Country silver medals. Colleen deReuck is a tested veteran and Jen Rhines will round out the team. The Olympic women’s marathon has a deep field, but Kastor, if things go well, could be a top ten finisher and maybe have a shot at sneaking in for a medal. As is often the case in Olympic marathons, a big key will be who can do well in the heat.
There are of course lots of other stars in many other events. All are worth watching. Stacey Dragila in the Pole Vault, Jeremy Wariner in the 400 (who breaks the color stereo types for short distances), Mo Greene in the 100, Tom Papas in the decathlon to name just a few. Here is a complete list of the US team and here’s hoping for lots of good coverage!