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Five Things We Learned From the Olympic Trials

With the Trials firmly in the rear-view mirror, we look for major takeaways from Eugene.

Track and Field: 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With a couple days now to process what happened over the past two weeks at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, we have the proper distance to coalesce our initial reactions—OMG, did you see that kick/amazing finish—into more cohesive, sweeping narratives about the state of U.S. Track and Field and the team USATF will be sending to Rio next month. With the caveat that one track meet—even one that stretches over 10 days—provides only a small snippet in time and any conclusions drawn from it must be limited in scope, we can feel confident now saying some things with some level of emotional distance.

Talent Doesn’t Care About Injury

Injuries were the story entering the trials. Nick Symmonds had an ankle so injured that not even an overdose of RunGum could power him through the pain. Emily Infeld’s first race of the season was going to be the final of the women’s 10,000m and her third race of the year was set to be the final of the 5000m. Though he wasn’t exactly injured, Boris Berian had been similarly sidelined from racing for months as Nike decided that having the rights to underpay America’s premier 800m runner was a HUGE FREAKING DEAL. Allyson Felix had an ankle sprain—like Symmonds—but planned on running both the 400m and 200m through it—unlike Symmonds.

We mentioned all these things in our race previews because popular opinion was that they mattered. They had to, right? You can’t race well against the best of the best coming off sub-optimal training. Except, it turns out, you can. Berian won his heats of both the first round and semifinals of the 800m and nearly won the final were it not for a Clayton Murphy kick. Emily Infeld had no place getting second place in her first race of the season. It’s true: Allyson Felix did not make the women’s 200m team going to Rio, but I’m not convinced it was because of injury. She, as always got a bad start, but ran into a field that was on a roll—Bowie was unstoppable all weekend; Prandini was on a mission after the 100m; Stevens had the Hayward Field boost. Her ankle may have taken some wind out of her sails, but it was not the sole or even primary reason she missed out on the 200m team.

In short, talent matters. Michael Jordan was still the best player on the court even during his flu game. The same principle applies to track. The best runners will win more often than not as long as they make it to the start line.

Experience Matters...Except when it Doesn’t

It’s cliche to note that, especially in tactical races, experience provides a material advantage. But, while we got some compelling evidence to confirm that preexisting bias in the form of Lagat’s dominance of a tactical 5000m final, we also saw Leo Manzano fail to make the team in a fast—but not crazy fast—1500m final. We’re forced, then, into the axiom established above: talent trumps all. Lagat was just better than Eric Jenkins and Ben True. Blankenship was better than a 31 year old Leo Manzano.

By the same token, Sydney McLaughlin and Deajah Stevens, two athletes with little, if any, experience navigating elite fields put on shows in the second session while Cassandra Tate, Allyson Felix, and Candyce McGrone faltered. I guess the conclusion, then, is that experience doesn’t matter. It might be a more interesting study to test the effects of experience across distances and tactical-ness of races, but that’s beyond the current scope. Suffice it to say that there are a lot of reasons certain people win races, and what makes sports so compelling is our attempts to fit narratives to thos outcomes.

Kicks Win Medals

The middle distance and distance events at the Trials revealed the power of the kick in championship races. The easiest example is Bernard Lagat, but Robby Andrews is perhaps even more interesting. Throughout the preliminary rounds of the 1500m, Andrews hung out toward the back of packs, in 10th or 12th place, waiting until 150 meters to go to make a kick. That got him on the team. Hell, it got him 4th in the 1500m indoors. Kate Grace essentially did the same thing in the 800m. World Championship races, especially in recent years, have sat at the extreme end of tactical and that the U.S. Trials largely followed a similar course created a team of kickers that should play well in Rio.

The Guard Changes Slowly

While we got some of the changing of the guard we expected with McLaughlin, Vashti Cunningham, Stevens, Clayton Murphy, and Devon Allen making the U.S. team, the change wasn’t sweeping. Plenty of familiar names like Lagat, Gatlin, Molly Huddle, and Kim Conley will be traveling south to Rio as well. So, while the last couple weeks didn’t quite signal the overwhelming arrival of the next generation of American Olympians many anticipated, it was encouraging nonetheless. From the teenagers who did make the team to those like Michael Norman, Donavan Brazier, and Noah Lyles who nearly did (to varying degrees), the upswing in track talent we’ve seen in the last decade or so doesn’t appear set to go away any time soon.

The U.S. Can Medal in Any Event

Looking at the teams, especially on the track, that emerged out of Eugene, it’s hard to find an event where the United States seems prohibitively unlikely to medal. The only fields where one could be legitimately pessimistic are the women’s 5000m (Molly Huddle) and men’s 5000m (Lagat, Mead), but even there, you’re only slighting the American team because the international field is insanely strong in those events at the moment. Many events have athletes who already own Olympic or World Championship medals and even those that don’t have runners with either the skill set (strong kick) or age where that lack of pedigree isn’t itself a disqualification. Despite the surprises and excitement, this is a strong team we’re sending that has a chance to build on the success the U.S. had at World Indoors in Portland.