Track and field, by nature of its schedule and physical demands, is often a high-stakes endeavor. At any given meet, athletes only get one race to prove their worth. That's only one oppportunity. An 800m runner in the Olympic Trials often can't shake off a bad preliminary round performance with a revival in the finals because, in most cases, he or she didn't make the finals. In the NBA playoffs, LeBron James can come back from an 0-for-5 first quarter on a new page in the second. In track, if you lose a show in the first half of a 10k or someone trips in front of you on the final turn of the 800m final, that's usually that. Come back in a year and try to make a World Championship team.
The only hope for that sort of redemption is to come back in a different event, but even then, the toll taken, both physically and mentally, by the first event puts the athlete in search of redemption at a clear relative disadvantage compared to his or her more well-rested peers, who did not already race. But, yesterday, that sort of unusual redemption occurred in both the women's 1500m and 5000m.
Entering this meet, Kim Conley was hardly considered a favorite to make the U.S. team in either of the two events she was entered in. That isn't to say that she had no business making a team, just that smart money wasn't really on it. So, when she lost contact early in the race after her shoe got clipped, it was disappointing because seeing anyone's dreams go unfulfilled causes disappointment, but it certainly wasn't tragic because the result--Conley not making the team--was the likely outcome in a perfectly fair race.
Because Molly Huddle was on brand and set an honest early pace, the field didn't have the same chance to bunch up that they did in the 10k. Just a couple laps in, the field was mostly strung out in a line two abreast. As a result, Conley was able to stay out of trouble and run the relatively even pace required of her to make the team. At the front, Huddle further removed any doubt that she's the class of this field for the United States. If she didn't lead wire-to-wire, she was certainly close to it. She controlled the race, running 71 and 72 second laps until kicking into gear for a 63 last lap. For the first 150 meters of that last lap, it looked like Huddle was ready to run away from the field, but a late kick by Shelby Houlihan brought her into a close second.
After the race, it was confirmed that Huddle would not run the 5000m in Rio in an effort to concentrate her energy on the 10,000m. Emily Infeld, the fourth place finisher in the 5k, announced her intentions to do the same. With those announcements, the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th place finishers--Houlihan, Conley, D'Agostino will represent the United States in the 5k in Rio.
If the 5000m was an opportunity for redemption for Kim Conley, the 1500m was even more an opportunity for Brenda Martinez to come back. After looking fantastic in the 800m rounds, she was caught in the fray of falling that occurred with 150m to go in the 800m final. Though in such a deep 800m field, no one could properly be considered a heavy favorite to make the team, Martinez's exclusion was certainly a bit of a surprise, to say the least. The relatively weaker--or at least shallower--field in the 1500m provided an opportunity to make a team after all.
The race largely played out as it should have up front, with Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury showing the gap they have over the rest of the Americans, going first and second easily enough. With 100m to go, Martinez looked to have the third spot on lockdown. However, Amanda Eccleston showed that her strong kick in the semifinals was no fluke as she came up on Martinez over the last 50m to force a diving finish, ultimately losing by only .03 seconds.
Martinez making the team makes this the strongest team the U.S. could have assembled in the event.
Women's 400m Hurdles
While the women's 5000m and 1500m provided stories of redemption after early-session disappointment, the 400m Hurdles and 200m featured women shooting onto the scene to make their first teams. Entering the meet, we all knew about Sydney McLaughlin, the 16 year old who had set a national junior record at the New Balance High School National Championships last month. We knew, based on her times, that she was talented enough to run with any women in the event. What we didn't know was whether, after a high school season of dual meets and championships, she would have enough left in the tank to compete with women who had been training specifically for July and August.
After a win in the semifinals of the event, it was clear that McLaughlin was a real contender for the team, a belief she proved correct with her third place finish yesterday. Even if we saw it coming as a distinct possibility, a 16 year-old (she’ll be 17 at the Olympics) making an Olympic team, particularly in a strong event like the 400m hurdles, is nothing short of astounding.
But focusing exclusively on McLaughlin making the team would be to do an injustice to the winner of yesterday’s 400m Hurdles—Dalilah Muhammad. Muhammad ran away from the field, winning by over a second and setting nearly a one-second PR on a wet track on a chilly day. That’s not how you set PRs in the sprints, but it was just that kind of crazy day in Eugene.
The men’s 200m got a lot of attention—and rightfully so—for having two high schoolers in the final, but the women’s race, with three collegiate runners, didn’t lack for youth in its own right. Tori Bowie continued her weekend of dominance in the 200m in winning the final, but behind her was a bit of chaos as Oregon sophomore Deajah Stevens took second, the same position she finished in a month ago against much weaker competition at NCAAs.
Third place, once again on this day, came down to a diving finish between Jenna Prandini and Allyson Felix. Felix had been able to compensate for poor starts this entire Trials with strong back halfs of both the 400m and 200m, but in the 200m final, Prandini had enough to hold off Felix’s late charge.
It’s certainly a disappointment that Felix will not get a chance to do the 200-400 double in Rio, especially after the schedule was changed to accommodate it, but you can’t argue that Prandini and Bowie aren’t deserving Olympians. Stevens was a bit of an unknown entering this meet, but she had strong performances throughout the preliminary rounds, making it hard to argue that she isn’t peaking at the perfect time for a successful bid in Rio.
In the two days between the trials and the final for this event, there was a lot of speculation about whether Jordan McNamara would get other athletes on board with his bid to make the race fast enough to get a shot at hitting the Olympic qualifying standard. With so many athletes in the field lacking the standard, it certainly made sense for them to all work together for a fast pace given it represented their only chance to travel to Rio. Still, with Andrew Wheating publicly expressing no interest in chasing a time, the growing feeling was that no one was going to push the pace.
From the gun, it was clear McNamara had found some support from Izaic Yorks and Eric Avila as all three shared the lead through about the first 800m. But, with a lap to go, it was clear that only the expected contenders could work off the fast early pace. Throughout the race, Matt Centrowitz sat right on the leaders, letting them do the work until the final kick. That strategy paid off as he outkicked Ben Blankenship over the last lap for the win, holding off a charging Robby Andrews. For Blankenship’s part, he found himself stuck in a last 100m kick against Leo Manzano, but was ultimately able to hold him off.
In terms of medal chances in Rio, you could argue that Manzano’s kick would set him up better than Blankenship to medal, but in a vacuum, Blankenship proved in both the trials and finals that he’s the better runner at this stage in their careers. And, let’s be honest, neither has a real chance at an Olympic medal in 2016.