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Team USA takes just 30 minutes to win three gold medals at Worlds

DAEGU, South Korea -- Thirty minutes.

It is the amount of time it takes to watch an episode of Curb, if you don't jump right up off the couch at the end. It's a very fast local 10K race or a pretty slow local five. It's long enough to save 15 percent on car insurance, twice. It's a TV show (1978), a song (2003) and a movie (right now) at various stops on the pop cultural timeline. It's two NFL halftimes. It's not too short and not too long.

And on a warm, breezy night in South Korea on Day 6 of the 13th World Track and Field Championships, it was one of the most memorable half hours in the recent history of U.S. Track and Field. It was a slice of the clock that was historic times three and suddenly elevated a team's performance from acceptable to something that come Sunday night could turn out to be much, much better than that. Two long droughts ended, an American record fell, a racer raced and a mother made her babies proud, even if they can't really understand it yet.

On Friday, Usain Bolt runs again and will overwhelm this event with his presence and his attempt at cramming two races' worth of energy into one (after his false start disqualification from the 100 meters last Sunday night). But for one, last night before Bolt's revenge begins, the night belonged to three Americans.

It began like this:

8:48 p.m., Daegu time (7:48 a.m. in the Eastern United States) -- The crowd inside Daegu Stadium (half full, as it has been throughout these championships) has just finished singing "Happy Birthday" to Tuesday night's 400-meter champion, Kirani James, who received his gold medal in a medal ceremony on his 19th birthday. U.S. high jumper Jesse Williams has missed his second attempt at 7-feet-9 ¼ inches.

Now 27-year-old Russian Aleksey Dmitrik steps onto the apron and prepares to make his third and final attempt at the same height that Williams has just missed. Dmitrik and Williams are the only two jumpers among the 13 who started the event 98 minutes earlier who have cleared 7-8 ½. They will be the gold and silver medalists. But because Williams has missed fewer times (just twice, so far) than Dmitrik (five) in getting to this point, Williams wins the tiebreaker if neither clears 7-9 ¼.

Dmitrik misses. Williams, who will say later that he turned his back on almost every opponent's jump in the competition -- a total of 88 attempts -- watched this one. He does not celebrate, but instead approaches Dmitrik and meets him halfway between the pit and track. They embrace and Williams seems to say "Good job, man," which Dmitrik doesn't seem to need translated. Williams tries to punctuate his gold medal with a make, but narrowly dislodges the bar. All three of his attempts were close. He stands in the pit and raises his fists to the sky.

It is the first U.S. gold medal in the high jump at the worlds -- the first medal of any kind -- since Charles Austin took gold in 1991.

"I was in a zone the entire time," Williams, 28, said later. Indeed, he made his first five attempts, climbing clean from 7-2 ½ to the winning height of 7-8 ½. He had failed to make the finals in the 2005 and 2007 worlds teams and at the 2008 Olympics. He didn't even make the 2009 World Championship team.

"It's been a long road," he said. It has, as it almost is for those who choose this sport. Williams is a surpassing athlete. He played three years of high school soccer then switched to football as a senior. He finished third in his weight class (145 pounds) as a high school senior in the North Carolina state wrestling tournament and cleared 7-3 in the high jump. "I could always jump," he said. He's 6-1, but he was dunking a basketball by his sophomore year in high school.

Williams started his college career at North Carolina State, but transferred to USC and now trains with the Oregon Track Club in Eugene. On this night, he leaves and runs to the spot in the stands where USA Track and Field officials are supposed to give him a flag, but there is no one there. He runs to another section and then another, like Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug in Albuquerque in '83. Finally he finds the flag, drapes it across his shoulders and circles the track in celebration.

8:56 p.m., Daegu time -- Two U.S. women line up for the start of the 1,500 meters at the top of the backstretch. In lane 2, Cornell graduate Morgan Uceny, 26, has been one of the best 1,500-meter racers in the world, leading the Diamond League (the equivalent of the major leagues of track and field) standings with two races left. In the far outside lane, Jenny Barringer Simpson, 25, a 2008 Olympian in the steeplechase (the event in which she is the American record holder) and one of five American women to break four minutes in the 1,500 (3:59.90 in 2009, a college record because Barringer Simpson was still at the University of Colorado). But she missed the second half of 2010 with a stress reaction in her right femur and valuable training time this summer with the flu. But she has looked good in the heats.

On the starting line, she said later, "I was thinking about what this could mean to my family, what it could mean to my life." It seems counterintuitive to the stay-in-the-moment mantra most athletes speak. That's OK by Barringer Simpson. "I think you have to know what kind of athlete you are," she said. "I've always performed well under pressure."

The pace is slow: 69 seconds to the 400 and 2:13 at 800 meters. But then, expectedly, it quickens. With 500 meters to run, Kenyan Hellen Onsando Obiri, 22, gets tangled and falls. Uceny falls over her, ending any chance at a victory or medal. She finishes a hard-luck 10th. Barringer is sitting in the middle of the pack down the final backstretch, but she is outside, with room to run. "I felt like I was very within myself the whole race," she said. "That was more shocking than falling off the back would have been."

Barringer Simpson is fourth on the final turn, when she drops her arms and drives to the lead. "Coming off the curve I had another couple gears and I just thought I'm going to be really tough to beat," she said later. And indeed, she is by far the strongest finisher, hitting the line first in 4:05.40. She breaks an even longer drought than Williams. The last American to win the 1,500-meter race at worlds was Mary (Decker) Slaney in 1983, at the inaugural world event in Helsinki, Finland.

Barringer Simpson's time is the slowest winning time in the history of the meet. But that doesn't matter. And no matter that Olympic champion Maryam Yusuf Jamal of Bahrain is clearly unfit and finished last. They don't stamp an asterisk on the back of the medal (just as they did not on 100-meter winner Yohan Blake's).

"The world championships," says Barringer Simpson, "is about coming here and being top three." (And time, as they say in horse racing, only matters in jail).

In the belly of the stadium, Team USA men's head coach Vin Lanana (also the head coach at Oregon), leaned against a barrier and said, "The 1,500 is back." He was talking about Barringer son and Uceny, but also about the men's team, where his Oregon junior Matthew Centrowitz, the 21-year-old son of two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz, looked like a consummate professional in reaching the 1,500-meter final earlier in the evening. (Centrowitz will be the only American in Saturday's metric mile final, but 2008 Olympian Leo Manzano came here hurt, as did Centrowitz's former Oregon teammate, Andrew Wheating.)

Barringer Simpson, meanwhile, has a request. She was always Jenny Barringer when she was a dominant runner at Colorado and when she made her first Olympic team in '08. On Oct. 8, 2010, she was married to Jason Simpson in Boulder, Colo. "I'm trying to make the transition to Jenny Simpson,'' she would say after her race. "Jenny Simpson would be great."

Consider it done. Jenny Simpson.

9:17 p.m., Daegu time -- In the summer of 2005, 22-year-old Lashinda Demus of Long Beach, Calif., took the silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the world championships in Helsinki. The gold medalist was world record holder Yuliya Pechonkina of Russia. (One year earlier, Demus had made the 2004 U.S. Olympic team and reached the semifinals in Athens before being eliminated). There seemed to be gold medals in her future.

But on June 5, 2007, Demus gave birth to twin boys, Dontay and Duaine. She was in training four weeks later --"My doctor told me six, but I couldn't wait," she says -- but had no chance to compete that year and missed the worlds. She finished fourth in '08 Olympic Trials -- the worst possible spot -- and then 2009 in Berlin, took another silver at the worlds, half a second behind Melanie Walker of Jamaica.

On Thursday night she was back the finals, and Demus, now 28, drew Lane 6, with Walker outside in eight. At the gun, Demus did what she always does: She got out, and was leading the field at 200 meters. On the turn, Anastasiya Rabchenyuk of the Ukraine attacked and passed Demus. No worries. "I'm typically the fastest runner out," said Demus. "If someone comes up to me, they're probably running extremely too fast." Correct. Rabchenyuk faded and Demus took the lead in the stretch.

She would say later that she has improved this year by running more flights of hurdles in practice, and few meets. Her curious inspiration for this change in training is her mother's video gaming. "My mom figures the more you do something, the better you get at it," says Demus. "She said, you know, I play these video games and after about 10 times, I'm the best at it."

Walker gained on Demus. "I'm no fool," said Demus. "I felt her there." But Demus hit the line in 52.47, .14 seconds under Kim Batten's 16-year-old American record. That record was set in the 1995 world championships and Batten was also the last American to win the event.

When it was over Demus outlined her four goals: "American record, world championship, world record, Olympic gold medal," she said, leaving two fingers raised. "Two to go."

With her victory, the U.S. has seven gold medals, 12 overall, leading the gold standings and tied with Russia in the overall. "We have fantastic, talented athletes," Lanana had said late in the 30-minute haul. "And they know how to win in big events." He spoke as Demus ran, and then said, "That's one more."

The time was 9:18 p.m.

***

TIM LAYDEN'S TRACK & FIELD WORLDS COVERAGE

Uceny is ready for the next step in her journeyA look back and a look ahead at worldsCoach returns to the top as two of his runners win goldBolt's DQ illustrated the stupidity of the false-start ruleIs Bolt a fading star or cementing his place in history?Lots of suspense in store for 2011 worlds

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