EUGENE, Ore. -- In the final strides of his race, Andrew Wheating had already begun to process the disappointment. It was the 1,500 meters at the USA Track and Field national championships Saturday afternoon at storied Hayward Field. (Where, as a University of Oregon sophomore in 2008, he had made the U.S. Olympic team -- and rocked the Hayward house -- with a stretch-running second-place finish in the 800 meters, the most emotional race of that year's Trials).
Three years later, Wheating is gone from Oregon, now a promising professional runner who last year ran the second-fastest 1,500 meters ever by a native American (3:30.90; Alan Webb ran faster in 2007, as did naturalized U.S. runners Sydney Maree in 1985 and the estimable Bernard Lagat, three times, including the U.S. record of 3:29.30 in 2005). Wheating's natural endurance and change-of-pace speed suggest he can become an Olympic and World Championship medal threat. But in the sport of track and field, in these United States, if you want to wear the uniform at major global championships, and chase those medals, you must first make the team.
And the process doesn't bow to potential.
Fifty minutes earlier, 27-year-old Jeremy Wariner had rolled off the turn leading the final of the 400 meters, unmistakable with his slender frame, sunglasses and gold chain sawing across his neck. Wariner won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 at the age of 20 and followed that up with world championships in 2005 and '07 and an Olympic silver, behind LaShawn Merritt, in 2008. Only Wariner's manager, Michael Johnson (three times, including the world record of 43.18 in 1999) and Butch Reynolds (in 1988) have run faster than Wariner. He is among the most decorated quarter-milers in U.S. track history.
But the process doesn't bow to decorations.
The process, which becomes a topic of great heat in Olympic years but is nearly as significant to athletes in the biennial World Championship seasons, is arbitrary and capricious. In Olympic years, you finish in the top three or you do not go to the Games. For the worlds, you can make the team as a defending world champion (not many of those), or through a few other bureaucratic and statistical back doors. But for the most part, you finish in the top three at the nationals or you watch the worlds on television.
This is not a story about failure. Wheating and Wariner will both be going to Daegu as members of Team USA for the meet, which starts Aug. 27. It is, instead, a story about desperation, perseverance and just plain good fortune. The process respects all of these things.
On Saturday, Wheating found himself in a (sadly) typical, grinding, tactical 1,500-meter final. This is what happens often in national (and occasionally world) championship fifteens: Nobody wants to lead. Hayward was windy yesterday afternoon. The field crawled through 800 meters in 2:11 (three seconds slower than women's front-runner Christin Wirth who, notably, fell apart in the stretch and finished fourth). "Pushing, shoving, bumping, boxing,'' said Wheating.
While the pace quickened in the last 700, nobody made killer moves like Chris Solinsky did to break open the men's 5,000 Friday night (assuring himself a spot on the team, behind Lagat and in front of 10,000-meter winner Galen Rupp). The race would eventually come down to a 100-meter sprint. "And everybody can sprint, right?'' says Wheating's coach, Vin Lanana (also the Oregon head coach).
Oregon junior Matthew Centrowitz, Wheating's former teammate and the son of Olympian Matt Centrowitz, powered away from Lagat to win the race. But in the race for third, 2008 Olympian Leo Manzano, a tough-as-nails homestretch miler, slipped past Wheating. At the line, Wheating dove, raking his left elbow and left clavicle across the orange track, turning his skin to hamburger. To no avail, and he knew it, heaving up a half-court shot after the buzzer. "I didn't think I made it,'' Wheating said.
And he didn't. Manzano was third and Wheating fourth (just .01 in front of Will Leer). Despondent, Wheating walked off the track and behind the grandstand. He was there when a meet official found him and said that Lagat wanted to talk with him. It was well known in tracknut circles Lagat could not run both the 5,000 and 1,500 in Daegu (he won both in 2007 in Osaka, but the Korea schedule makes it impossible) and presumed Lagat would pass on the 1,500. Wheating isn't a tracknut. He's a delightful and trippy kid from Vermont.
Here Wheating walked back out onto the track, where Lagat, a 36-year-old Kenyan expatriate who is becoming the track laureate of his adopted land, found him. "He told me, 'I'm running the 5K at worlds,''' recalled Wheating. "I immediately felt about 10 times better than I did right before that.'' Wheating shook his head and smiled crookedly. "Bernard Lagat. Nicest. Man. Ever.''
Lagat remembered a slightly more protracted conversation. "He's a young runner and I wanted to tell him,'' said Lagat. "He came and I saw him right before I got my medal. I told Andrew, "Look man, you're on the team. I'm going to run the 5,000. Now you go get your 'A' standard.'' (To compete in the worlds, even after making the USA team, certain qualifying times are necessary. The rules are more complex than Einstein's theory of relativity, but just know Wheating has to run 3:35, which he has not done this year, but which is well within his scope.
"He got emotional when I told him,'' said Lagat."He's going to do fine, no doubt about it. We're going to see him in the finals [at the worlds]. Three in the finals, Centro, Leo and Andrew. And I hope we have three in the finals in the 5,000, too.''
Wheating, wearing the look of man given new life, said, "Fourth place. Not the way I planned it. But I'm going.''
Improbably, those were nearly the same words spoken by Wariner less than an hour earlier. His fastest time, 43.45, had come while winning the gold medal at the 2007 worlds in Osaka. At the time, he was just 23 and seemed genuine threat to break Johnson's esteemed world record. But in the nearly four years since that night in Japan, Wariner has broken 44 seconds just twice, both in 2008. That was the year when he dumped longtime coach Clyde Hart and eventually was run down by Merritt in the homestretch of the Olympic final.
He subsequently underwent surgery to remove a cyst from behind a knee and has clearly struggled to reach his (very high) levels of '04-'08. "It's hard to be dominant over a long period of time,'' says Johnson, who was with Wariner in Eugene, and coincidentally, was exactly that, a dominant sprinter for more than a decade.
Wariner is the smoothest quarter-miler of his generation. Maybe one of the smoothest ever. But in Friday's semifinal he was herky-jerky down the backstretch, came off the turn in second place and absolutely rigged up in the last 30 meters while hanging on to finish third in his heat. It was borderline embarrassing and left Wariner running from the unfavorable environs of Lane 2 in the final. "I've never had a bad lane in a final,'' Wariner said. (But he also added, cutely, that he trains in Lane 1. As does everybody else).
In the final, he came off the turn first, but again tied up spectacularly, lugging the proverbial piano down the straightaway. He was passed by Florida rising junior Tony McQuay and barely held off journeyman Greg Nixon for second. "My last 100 wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be,'' said Wariner. "I started to tighten up before Tony passed, but I didn't panic.''
Wariner is just 27, hardly ancient even for an athlete who got his career going early by turning pro and winning an Olympic gold medal after his sophomore year in college. But it's worth wondering if he's ever going to run seriously fast again. Or win medals again.
Johnson wonders, too. "It's really hard to say,'' Johnson said Saturday. "Let me put it this way: That's going to be determined by what Jeremy does between now and Daegu and what he does in Daegu. If he doesn't medal there, or run in the 43s, I don't think he'll medal or run in the 43s again.''
Those are strong words, but it's unlikely any living man knows the 400 better than Johnson. (Unless it's Hart, his former coach, who has been back with Wariner since 2009). And Johnson is more than a little mystified by the reality he expresses. I gave him the chance to blame Wariner's relatively intense career, with many battles fought. Johnson wouldn't have any of it. "Not when you're talking about a guy who's still relatively young,'' said MJ. "And the event has not advanced.'' (That's patently true: The top time in the world in 2010 was Wariner's 44.13; only two men went under 44.50. This year the top time in the world is 44.65. Looking at Johnson, ripped at age 42, you wonder if he could come back and win medals on memory. And there's another factor: Merritt is expected to take his worlds wild card sport after a two-year drug suspension. But will he be fast after two years off?).
And here is the beauty of the process. It is not about yesterday or tomorrow. It is only about today. Jeremy Wariner carried his piano across the finish line in second place. "I was able to hang on,'' said Wariner, a humbler version of younger self, "and make the team.''
And on this day, that's all that matters.