BIRMINGHAM, England -- The first two tears came in unison, not from the sides of Jeneba Tarmoh's brown eyes, but straight from the bottom. They rolled down her cheeks, paused on her chin as if considering whether to jump off, and then fell to the floor at her feet. Others followed with some urgency, until Tarmoh began blotting them with the sleeve of her sweatshirt, a losing battle that she waged intermittently. Public tears can be relentless when they've been denied freedom for more than three weeks, like Tarmoh's had. Because tears are the truth.
Thirty-one days earlier Tarmoh, 22 years old and a professional track and field athlete for less than a year, had crossed the finish line in the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. She had thrown her right shoulder toward the finish line, regained control while decelerating and then stopped to look at the towering green scoreboard that lay beyond the finish line, awaiting posting of the final results. Long seconds passed before Tarmoh's name was illuminated as the third-place finisher with a time of 11.067 seconds, .001 faster than fourth-place finisher Allyson Felix, Tarmoh's training partner and, at that moment, a two-time Olympian.
What transpired in the ensuing minutes, hours and days will be remembered by many as one of the most unusual and embarrassing periods in the recent history of U.S. track and field. In short, Tarmoh's "victory'' (which, unbeknownst to her and most others, was unofficial) was changed from a Tarmoh qualification to a dead heat for the final position on the 100-meter Olympic team. After eight days of lingering controversy, incomplete explanations and non-decisions by officials of USA Track and Field, Felix and Tarmoh "agreed'' (more on this later) to a runoff race in Eugene on a Monday night after the trials were finished. But within 12 hours, a distraught Tarmoh withdrew from the runoff and Felix was given the final spot in the Olympic Games that begin here Friday night (track and field competition begins a week later).
And there it was left. Athletes moved on to their training sites and European tune-up meets. The controversy faded; Tarmoh spoke infrequently and when she did speak, it was with a broad, disarming smile and in conciliatory language, as if everything was just fine. Even as recently as Monday evening here at Team USA's training center at Alexander Stadium, Tarmoh finished a workout and stopped to speak with a small group of reporters. When she was asked if the events in Eugene were behind her, she answered: "Yeah, it's behind me. I'm kind of looking forward.''
And there's truth in that. She is looking forward, to running the 4x100 relay in London. To the rest of what has been a solid first, full professional season. To a long career beyond 2012. But the other part, about Eugene being behind her? That's not even close to true.
This is much closer to Jeneba Tarmoh's truth: "I'm always going to remember my first Olympics as the year when my 100-meter spot was taken away from me.''
She spoke those words while sitting in a Birmingham hotel lobby, crying those honest tears and reliving the events of late June with SI.com in her first extended interview on the subject since the dead-heat controversy overwhelmed the Olympic Trials. It has been an agonizing month for Tarmoh, one in which she not only lost an individual Olympic berth that she thought was hers, but was subsequently derided as a quitter -- for withdrawing from the runoff -- on message boards, a cruel and incongruous label for a woman who at the age of 6 escaped from civil war in Sierra Leone while crouched in the back seat of a truck with her younger sister and at one point lived in California in a two-bedroom apartment with 11 family members.
The controversy began on a sunny late Saturday afternoon in Oregon, when Tarmoh lined up in Lane 1 for the final of the 100. She was not expected to finish in the top three, and thus not expected to make the Olympic team in the 100. A year ago, Tarmoh had finished second in the NCAA 200 as a junior at Texas A&M, but then took a surprising third in the USA nationals to earn a place on the U.S. team at the world championships in Daegu (four American spots were available because Felix was the defending world champion). But in the trials 100, reigning world champion Carmelita Jeter was a prohibitive favorite and converted long jumper Tianna Madison was an equally prohibitive second choice. Though Tarmoh had run well in the rounds of the 100 (including a PR of 11.10 in the semifinals), Felix, Bianca Knight and Alexandria Anderson all were considered more likely to finish third.
Instead Tarmoh ran what she calls "the race of my life,'' one in which she seemingly held off Felix at the wire. After the times were posted on the scoreboard, Tarmoh did a victory lap around Hayward Field.
"It was amazing,'' she said Tuesday. "They announced my name and for the first time in my life, I was JEH-neh-ba, not Jeh-NEE-ba or that girl who looks like Carmelita. People wanted my autograph. It was the greatest thing in the world.''
Tarmoh, in fact, did her victory lap celebrating an "unofficial'' decision. This is not a well-known fact, to fans, media or apparently to USA Track and Field officials, who gave Tarmoh a red Nike team jacket and allowed her to attend a top-three press conference (although none of the women were given medals or placed on the medal stand; Tarmoh says she was told that the medal ceremony had been pushed back to Sunday, because it was late in the day).
In the crow's nest above Hayward Field, a situation was unfolding that would alter the course of Tarmoh's and Felix's careers.
It would be useful to read this story that I wrote three days after the women's 100 final. It's a piece that would become part of the controversy itself and ultimately inform some part of Tarmoh's ongoing anger and disappointment. The most important fact to understand is that chief photo finish judge Roger Jennings determined that Tarmoh was the third-place finisher, but then because of the gravity of the race and importance of the third-place finish in the Olympic Trials, "protested'' his own decision and asked for a review. That review would result in the race result being changed to a dead heat. But neither Team Tarmoh nor Team Felix was made aware that a protest had been called.
Hence Tarmoh knew nothing of what was taking place behind the scenes. She was asked in the press conference about a possible dead heat and demurred, genuinely knowing nothing. From the press conference, she went to drug testing with her manager, Kimberly Holland. En route, she passed Felix, who was sitting on the steps outside the building, distraught. "Allyson was so sad,'' says Tarmoh. "She could hardly talk, because she was so broken up. [Felix's brother/manager] Wes said to me and Kimberly, 'We're not protesting the result.''' Cellphones are not allowed in drug testing, but as Tarmoh was waiting to provide a sample, Holland was called outside and says she was informed by a USATF official that the race result had been changed to a dead heat. (This would soon be officially true; USATF spokesperson Jill Geer would inform the media that the race was, indeed, a dead heat, and that, shockingly, the organization had no procedure for breaking that tie.)
Holland called a higher-ranking USATF official and asked for clarification and says she was told, at this point, that meetings were ongoing and that Holland would receive a call back in an hour.
Tarmoh came out of drug testing and began calling family members.
"I called my mom and said, 'Mom, I made it. I'm gonna fly all you guys to London.' I decided I would surprise my younger sister on her birthday [July 30, during the Games]. I'm gonna see my brother [John Mannah, 37, who lives in London].''
It's important to understand Tarmoh's personal journey. She was born in September 1989 to the former Grace Macavoray and Victor Tarmoh, natives of Sierra Leone who had immigrated to the United States less than a year before the birth of Jeneba, their third child. At age six, Jeneba's mother sent Jeneba and her younger sister, Watta, to Sierra Leone, "to learn the culture from our father.'' It was supposed to be a short trip, but the girls stayed for a year that Jeneba recalls as riven by "marriage drama between my parents,'' and left surreptitiously during a civil war than lasted 11 years. "I remember a red truck, and seeing rebels outside,'' says Jeneba.
Other family members left Sierra Leone and the household in San Jose swelled to a dozen, whom Tarmoh's mother, a nurse, supported by working multiple jobs. Eventually, when Jeneba was in sixth grade, Tarmoh's mother remarried another immigrant from Sierra Leone named Prince Kobba, who became Jeneba's stepfather.
"It was some life,'' says Jeneba. "But my mother made sure we had everything. It was fun. All the memories are good.''
She was recruited from gym class to be sprinter and her coach, Jeff Nelson, came to Jeneba's home and told her mother that Jeneba could win a scholarship to college. "Sold,'' says Jeneba.
All of this experience Tarmoh took back to her hotel on the night of the 100, still joyful, but vaguely worried. Holland didn't get a call from USATF officially confirming the dead heat until 11:30 p.m., long after the media had been informed of the dead heat in Geer's press conference. Tarmoh was crestfallen, and doubly so when recalling her emotions Tuesday night in England.
"It would have been so different if they had called it a dead heat from the start,'' said Tarmoh. "When I crossed the line and saw my name on the board, it was like a dream come true. It was like a woman on her wedding day. It was like a mother who struggles to give birth and it's the happiest day of her life and all of sudden somebody says, 'Sorry, that baby isn't yours.' It hurts. It hurts so much. And people want me to just accept that, just say, 'Oh, it's OK?'''
Tarmoh says she spent that Saturday night alone in her room at a Hilton Hotel in Eugene.
"I read the Bible,'' she says. "I think I went from Psalm 1 to Psalm 68. I read Ezekiel, I read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.''
A day later USA Track and Field announced its procedures for breaking the tie. Tarmoh met with coach Bob Kersee, who also coaches Felix, and Kersee told both athletes to concentrate on preparation for the 200 meters.
"Bobby told me, 'I'm going to protect you guys,'' says Tarmoh. "Sunday I started looking a little at Twitter and then there was so much, I just said 'I better close this and worry about the 200.'''
There was speculation about tension between Tarmoh and Felix at practices between the dead heat and the 200 meters. In fact, says, Tarmoh, they practiced just once.
"There was no conversation about the 100,'' says Tarmoh. "None at all.''
Felix won the 200 in a blazing 21.69 seconds, the sixth-fastest time in history; Tarmoh was fifth. The 100 would be her only chance to make the Olympic team in an individual event. She says she went back to her hotel room after the 200, knowing that a decision on the 100 would come the next day. She began reading the Internet for the first time in a week and found the SI.com story linked above, in which Jennings explains the dead heat and says to me, "If I went back and read that photo 100 times, I would call it the same way every time." (That is, he would call Tarmoh the winner, based on an interpolation of where her torso was at the finish.)
The words had been published three days earlier, but Tarmoh hadn't seen them. She called Holland. Then she called Felix and they talked.
"I said to Allyson, 'I feel like if this was the other way around,'' that is, if Felix had initially been declared the winner, "this wouldn't be the situation. There's something fishy about this.''
Tarmoh said Felix seemed intrigued, and said she wanted to talk again, which they did. But they did not reach a resolution and both athletes were called into a meeting with USATF officials at noon on Sunday, July 1.
This is the way Tarmoh recalls that meeting.
"I asked them for an explanation of why it was a dead heat when this finish judge said he would call me the winner 100 times,'' says Tarmoh. "They said 'Jeneba, it's a dead heat. You have to decide, run or concede.' I kept saying, 'I don't want to run, I don't want to concede.'''
The tiebreaker rules mandate three options:
a. If both athletes choose the same option, that option will be utilized as the tiebreaker.
b. If the athletes disagree on the tiebreaker, the tie will be broken by a run-off.
c. If both athletes refuse to declare a preference regarding the method between a run off and coin toss in regards to how the tie is broken, the tie will be broken by coin toss.
There seems to be no provision to break the tie if one athlete refuses to express a choice, although that could, in one reading, be construed as Option B. Tarmoh says officials -- according to her, the meeting was run largely by USATF President Stephanie Hightower and CEO Max Siegel -- kept pressing her to make a decision.
"They were saying, 'There's a lot of money invested in this runoff, it's the next big thing for track and field.'''
Tarmoh recalls being intimidated by the prevailing feeling in the room and by the personalities around her. When Tarmoh left Texas A&M in 2011 with a year of eligibility, Holland had negotiated a contract with Nike, and Holland and Nike together had arranged for her to be coached by Kersee, after an original attempt to work with John Smith fell through.
"I didn't want to step on any toes,'' Tarmoh says. "I didn't want Nike to be mad. I didn't want USATF to be mad. I didn't want Allyson to be upset at me. I never wanted to run, but there I was in that room and at some point I just decided, you know what, I'll just go and do it. You guys have a lot of money invested. They were saying they had a TV schedule in the middle of the swimming trials. So I'll just go and run.''
USATF officials convened a 2 p.m. press conference in Eugene and announced the runoff. But Tarmoh was already in crisis.
"We went to the meet, to watch the men's 200 meters,'' says Tarmoh. "And all I could do was cry. I wasn't at peace with it. When I step on the track to run, I pray. God, give me the strength to run this race. Let your will be done. And then I put it all on the line. That's what I did in the 100 meters, the first time. This time, for the runoff, I couldn't find anything. I prayed for that spirit and there was nothing, I was just flat. I wasn't running away from running, I'm a competitor. I can't explain it. I needed to find a way to cope. When I decided not to run, I found peace.''
On Sunday evening, Tarmoh was asked by USATF to draft an e-mail agreeing to withdraw from the runoff. Tarmoh wrote an email and sent it to Holland, who forwarded it to Jon Drummond of USATF. Tarmoh's email was included in USATF's official announcement on July 2, which Tarmoh says she hadn't approved.
"I thought it was just something I sent to J.D. to make it official,'' says Tarmoh, "And then I woke up Monday and saw it on ESPN.''
The ensuing weeks have provided little comfort.
"Nobody has said to me, 'Hey are you OK?''' said Tarmoh. "It was just back to business.'' Nobody from USATF? "No.'' Felix? "No.'' (Tarmoh reconsidered after a moment and said, "Actually Bobby gave me a hug the day after the meeting and asked me if I was OK.'')
In a sense, that is the reality of professional sport, even a minor sport like track and field. Felix is training to win four medals. Tarmoh actually gets that part.
"Track and field is my job,'' she said. "When I step foot on the track, it has to be all business.'' But her feelings have changed little with regard to Eugene. "I thought it was fishy,'' she said. "And I think it still stinks. But I can't put my finger on what it is. I don't think it should have been a dead heat. You can see from the photo.''
Now she faces the biggest challenge of all: Moving forward. Relay lineups are very liquid, but it is expected that Tarmoh will the run third leg of the 4x100 relay, taking the baton from, fittingly, Felix, and then passing it to Jeter for the anchor. At a relay in Monaco last week, the Felix-to-Tarmoh pass was shaky and the Tarmoh-to-Jeter pass was not completed. It was unclear who might have been at fault.
"I still have the four-by-one,'' said Tarmoh. "So in a small way, I'm OK. I get to see London for free. I get to see my brother. But it's bittersweet. It will always be bittersweet.''