DES MOINES, Iowa -- At their best, Jeremy Wariner and Sanya Richards-Ross make the very difficult look very easy. Their job is to run once around a track -- 400 meters -- faster than seven opponents. It's painful work, a mix of speed and stamina and more technical execution than you might imagine.
Wariner won the NCAA championship as a Baylor sophomore in 2004 and then continued right on to win the Olympic Trials and the Olympic gold medal in Athens. He followed that up with world titles in '05 (Helsinki) and '07 (Osaka) and ran 43.45 seconds to become the third-fastest man in history (behind world record holder Michael Johnson and Butch Reynolds). Beyond all that, he was way cool, with long slender arms and legs, a smooth stride and omnipresent Oakleys.
Richards-Ross also made that '04 Olympic team at the age of 19, finished sixth in Athens and took a silver at the '05 worlds. In 2006, she ran 48.70 to become the seventh-fastest woman in history in the 400 (and four of the six ahead of her ran for Eastern Bloc nations in the mid- and early '80s, a giant red steroid flag). She was still just 21 years at the time, as ebullient as Wariner was restrained. Both seemed certain to win gold medals in 2008 and maybe many more afterward.
It hasn't happened that way, and plans are very much on hold.
Two images: On the night of Aug, 21, 2008 at the Bird's Nest Stadium in Beijing, Wariner was crushed by LaShawn Merritt in the Olympic 400-meter final, beaten by nearly a full second. Wariner buzzed once through media mixed zone before USA Track and Field officials brought him back. He was angry and embarrassed at his defeat. Merritt had first knocked off Wariner at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore., but this was worse.
"It bothered him, a lot,'' says Wariner's father, Danny. "Jeremy doesn't talk a lot about those things, but you could tell.''
And then Merritt beat him again last summer at the worlds in Berlin.
Another image: Richards reached the home stretch of her Olympic 400-meter final in the same stadium, leading the field. But in the final 100 meters, she tired and would later say that she felt pain in one leg. She settled for a bronze medal. In keeping with her personality, she talked gracefully to anyone with a question, but even a year fighting through illness that caused her to miss the '07 world championship team, a bronze medal is a disappointment. A year later, she finally broke through with a gold medal at the worlds.
Both came this week to the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Drake Stadium in the middle of the long process of building toward gold medals in 2012 in London. Instead, on a hot and windy Saturday afternoon when Lolo Jones (who is also chasing Olympic redemption after falling at the next-to-last hurdle while leading in Beijing) won the 100-meter hurdles in her hometown, and Chaunte Lowe broke her own American record in the high jump (6-8 ¾) and finished second in the long jump, Wariner and Richards-Ross negotiated only a combined 150 meters out of their assigned 800. Wariner fell to the track on the backstretch of the men's final, and Richards-Ross didn't start the women's final after staggering through two rounds. Both are fighting injuries and at the moment would appear no closer to winning Olympic golds than they were two years ago in China.
First Wariner. His path was made easier in April when Merritt tested positive for a banned substance (that he claimed was contained in a male enhancement product) and faces a two-year suspension. He had returned to his longtime coach, Clyde Hart, in 2009 and last fall underwent surgery to remove a cyst from his left knee that had been causing intense pain during races.
"The doctors told him running with cyst was like slamming his finger in a door,'' says Wariner's father. "That was why he couldn't finish anymore.''
However, the surgery set him back several months in training and upon his return he started experiencing pain in the other knee, which, according to Hart, appears to be a harmless bone bruise.
In Saturday's final, Wariner had none of his usual smooth pop through the first turn and then slowed on the backstretch before taking several lurching strides and then dropping to the blue track.
"Jeremy told me he got 150 meters into the race, and then felt his hip go,'' said Hart. "He said the pain was really intense.''
Wariner did not talk to media after the race, but Hart said, "Jeremy said the pain was very sudden and intense. We're calling it a hip flexor issue, but we're going to get Jeremy back to Texas and get him some evaluation and see what's going on. He could be out a week, he could be out three weeks. We just don't know right now. We know his knees are good.''
Richards-Ross was injured during an April training session.
"In Philadelphia, the day before the Penn Relays,'' she said after her first-round race in Des Moines.
The injury is located high in her right quadriceps muscle and, based on Hart's description, looms more ominous than Wariner's.
"It's at the point where it doesn't hurt,'' said Hart, who also coaches Richards-Ross. "And Sanya was getting a lot better in training, but this weekend was the first time she's tried to really sprint on it and she just couldn't get anything out of the leg. She tried to sprint, and the leg just wouldn't fire.''
Richards-Ross struggled to get through the first two rounds of the event. Thursday she ran 51.91 to get past the first round, but afterward during a brief -- and typically cordial -- interview session, repeatedly dropped to a squatting position and put her head down, a stance routinely adopted by high school quarter-milers about to lose their lunch, but rarely by world-class runners.
"This was first race, indoors or outdoors,'' Richards said.
I joked that she seemed to be pretty hurting, and she nodded knowingly. On Friday night she fought through her semifinal and barely qualified in 51.82. She scratched long before Saturday's final, which was won by reborn 32-year-old veteran Debbie Dunn in a personal best of 49.64, despite windy conditions.
Her condition is no less mysterious than Wariner's. Hart said Richards-Ross would go to Indianapolis for testing early this week. She is scheduled to run in next Saturday's Prefontaine Classic, but that is on hold for the moment.
Everything, in fact, is on hold. And nothing, at this point, is as easy as it once was.