Friday September 2nd, 2011

DAEGU, South Korea -- This is the year when the best track and field athletes plan. They tinker and experiment with training and competing while searching for something that will work -- or ferreting out something that will not -- during the Olympic year that follows. World championships like the ones that have reached their final weekend here are just fine. Or better than fine. Gold medals are awarded and national anthems are played and winning brings unquestionably the second-most important title in the sport. But it definitely ranks second.

The 2012 Summer Games are less than a year away and everything is about the Olympics.

U.S. sprinter Allyson Felix experimented. Already three times a world champion in the 200 meters (and twice, painfully, a silver medalist in the Olympic Games), Felix, 25, decided to run not only her pet 200, but also the more grueling and debilitating 400, with which she has maintained a love-hate relationship over the years.

"I want to take myself out of my comfort zone,'' she said by way of explanation. It would entail running six races in seven days, driving her slender, 125-pound body to places it had never been before.

Carmelita Jeter, another American sprinter, experimented, too. Having risen from mediocrity in sprinting's middle-age (she turns 32 in November) to a place among the world's best, Jeter decided to chase not just her first world championship gold medal in the 100 meters, but to double back in the 200 as well. She qualified for both with her performances at the USA Track and Field nationals at the end of June in Eugene, Oregon, and plunged forward.

And if both Felix and Jeter were like cadavers that med school students slice open for practice, they were also playing a game on another level. It is not just the athletic path that is carved out in the year before the Olympics, but the publicity path, as well. Felix and Jeter wanted to emerge from Daegu with roles to play for the coming year.

Both ran their first finals on Monday night at Daegu Stadium. Felix was narrowly held off in the stretch of the 400 meters, losing by .03 seconds to Amantle Montsho of Botswana. Forty minutes later, Jeter won the gold medal in the 100 meters, holding off Veronica Campbell-Brown of Jamaica at the finish.

And that is where they stood entering Friday night's 200-meter final: Jeter with a gold medal in hand, seeking a double that hadn't been achieved at the worlds in 20 years (Katrin Krabbe of Germany in 1991); Felix trying to win a single gold.

Neither came to pass. Campbell-Brown, who had been left in the blocks in the 100 (one day after Usain Bolt's DQ), got the fastest start in the field (as measured by her gun-reaction time of .151 seconds,) and never trailed, winning in 22.22 seconds and adding a world title to her two Olympic golds (2004 and '08). Jeter ran like a 100-meter specialist, starting explosively but tiring just when it looked like she might catch VCB. Felix, one of the most accomplished 200-meter finishers in history, closed to nearly catch Jeter, but came up just short and took the bronze.

They were separated by just .05 seconds at the finish, but much more in their takeaway from these worlds. (In their flag-carrying post-race celebration, photographers had to coax them to stand together for a photo.)

"I'm very pleased with where I'm at right now," said Jeter. "Nobody even thought that I would medal in the 200 meters.'' (Crass interruption: Actually I picked her to finish second, exactly what she did; check my Twitter account; back to the story...)

It was a breakthrough event for Jeter. "Absolutely she'll double next year,'' said her coach, John Smith. "We'll go back and look at everything and piece her races together. But we learned something here: Let's go for it. What are you going to do, sit around and wait for the relay?''

Jeter will go into Olympic year as the prohibitive U.S. favorite in the signature 100 meters and, for now, a worthy challenger to Felix in the 200. (For more on that, keep reading.)

As for Felix, she learned something, too: That's it damn tough to run three 400-meter races at the highest level and then come back and run three 200-meter races. In the 200, when she reached for her finish, it wasn't there. When the race was over and the scripted "victory'' lap was finished, she did the same thing as after her 400 loss and ducked into a medical tent to compose herself. She never lets us see her cry, if, indeed, that's what she was doing.

"I learned a lot about how my body would respond [this week],'' said Felix. "The 200 turnover, it just wasn't there. I really wanted this one. And I felt like I ran with all my heart, because, my legs, it's kind of all that was left. I attacked it. Coming off the turn, I tried to move, and then I tried to move again to hit my gear and it wasn't there like it normally is."

It's worth nothing that Felix's third-place time was 22.42 seconds, into a -1.0 meters-per-second headwind, essentially the same that's been blowing here every night. According to the Finnish statistical website tilastopaja.org, Felix has run faster than 22.42 seconds 36 times in her eight-year professional career. She ran 22.11 as a high school senior (albeit at altitude, in Mexico City). Some of those were wind-aided and few were into the wind. But four years ago in Osaka, she ran her PR of 21.81 to win her second world title. Her best this year is 22.32, very un-Felixian.

She said after the 200 final that she's been fast in practice. "[The speed] has been there when I have to hit it." And surely the rounds of the 400 sapped some of that juice. But training for the 400 probably did, as well. And after the race, Felix sounded all but certain that there will be no double in 2012, not after the outcome here, and not when she's still seeking her first Olympic gold.

"I feel like this was the year to try something," she said. "Next year I'm going to be more focused on the 200. I'm not so sure about the double, because that 200 is very important to me."

Yet she expressed only fulfillment at trying the double this time. "I pushed myself," she said. "I never would have imagined running a 400 meters on the world stage. That's something that would have terrified me when I first got into track and field. [But] there will be a different mindset next year. I'll talk to [coach] Bobby [Kersee]. It's always different in an Olympic year, everything bumps up a notch. But my biggest thing is that 200."

(One other note here: Back in late June, Kersee made it clear that a worlds double was an experiment and nothing more, but he even said that Felix might consider the 100 meters; whether she would do that in the 2012 Trials or in London is unclear, but it seems very unlikely because that event, too, comes before the 200.)

Next, Felix and Jeter have relays to run here. Both women will run the 4x100-meter relay and battle the mighty Jamaicans. Felix will also run the 4x400. She already has more gold medals (six) than any other woman in the history of the world championships and if she medals in both events, she will have 10 total medals, second only to Merlene Ottey's 14.

Then Felix and Jeter leave and assume their roles for 2011: Jeter as the gaudy sprint doubler, Felix (probably) as the more understated, one-event veteran. It is a role reversal of sorts, from what might have been expected only a couple of months ago.

Jeter will be the presumptive favorite in the Olympic 100 meters (although the Jamaicans loom large, and will be building to repeat their overwhelming Beijing performance). Felix is one of the best U.S. track athletes in history to have never won an individual Olympic gold medal. She would have been bigger had she tried to double, but the result might have been the same as here in Daegu. (There was a lot of buzz that Felix's double bid here was marketing driven, with heavy input from Nike, her sponsor. "We've never said a word to Allyson or Bobby about that," a Nike insider told me).

Jeter will continue to train voraciously with Smith, beating back the clock. (She will be four months shy of her 33rd birthday on the night of the Olympic final; if she wins, she would the oldest women's 100-meter gold medalist in Olympic history.) She will also continue to hear whispered concern (some, like this column I wrote in June, has been openly stated) that she is too fast, too late (no woman has been faster at an older age) to be it doing it without help. That's not fair because Jeter has never tested positive for anything that has been banned, but that's track. Attention cranks up during an Olympic year.

She will have a chance to double, which no woman has done since Florence Griffith Joyner in 1988 (well, Marion Jones did it in 2000, but those wins were vacated when she admitted to taking banned performance-enhancing drugs). Jeter could win the 100 meters and then try to make history in the 200.

Felix will go home to Los Angeles and try to find the speed that was missing Daegu. "Speed work and turnover and all that good stuff," she said after the Daegu 200. "The biggest thing I want to think about very intensely is speed."

Late in the Games, they could find each other again, with Jeter seeking history and Felix seeking validation. They would have company from Jamaica. Calling it now from far away, it would be the race of the Games.

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