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Veterans lead the way at U.S. Track and Field national championships

Bershawn Jackson, Allyson Felix, Dawn Harper-Nelson and Matthews Centrowitz were among the veteran runners that took the glory at the U.S. Track and Field national championships on Saturday.

EUGENE, Oregon – At shortly before three in the afternoon Saturday at Hayward Field, Dawn Harper-Nelson coiled herself into a set of starting blocks to race the final of the 100-meter hurdles at the USA Track and Field national championships. It was the last event of the afternoon. At stake was a national title for the winner and a place on the U.S. team for the world championships in August in Beijing for the top three finishers. The temperature was just a tick above 100 degrees and the pressure equaling stifling.

Harper-Nelson is 32 years old. To her right, in lane four, was Jasmine Stowers, 23, who this year has equaled or bettered the universally accepted magic mark of 12.40 seconds three times (Gail Devers is the only other American to have done that…in an entire career). To Stowers’s right was Sharika Nelvis, 25, who this weekend in Eugene ran 12.34 seconds in a semifinal race, missing Brianna Rollins's American record by .08 seconds. And beyond Nelvis was Keni Harrison, 22, an NCAA indoor champion. (Beyond all of them, out in Lane eight, was the venerable Lolo Jones).

It was enough make Harper-Nelson feel mighty old. “You know who is in there,” Nelson would say after the race, “and you know they’ve been running world-leading times every week.” Nelson’s best time is 12.37 seconds, slower than both Stowers and Nelvis, but Nelson is also a two-time Olympic medalist, gold in 2008 in Beijing (when Jones crashed late in the race, while leading) and silver (behind Sally Pearson of Australia) in 2012. She has proven herself under duress. “I would like to say that’s my signature,” she says.

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This is the way it works in all sports, where one generation tries to push aside another, which stubbornly refuses to leave. They meet somewhere in the middle, if only for a moment. This phenomenon is particularly stark in track and field, where the old and the young, the accomplished and the still-chasing, line up in such close proximity to each other, inches apart. Saturday was a day in Eugene when veterans prevailed, extending careers into another global championship.

First came Bershawn (Batman) Jackson, 32, in the men’s 400-meter hurdles. Jackson first made a U.S. team in 2003 at age 20, and two years later won the world championship in Helsinki. He won a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics and another bronze at the 2009 world championships. At 5-7 and 150 pounds, he is seemingly too short to succeed in his chosen event, but he takes 15 steps between hurdles (most take 13) and saves himself for a blazing finish. However, he missed the U.S. Olympic team and struggled with injuries from late in 2013 through the 2014 season.

“It felt like maybe last year my time was up,” said Jackson. “I couldn’t break 49 seconds [his personal best is 47.30, from a decade ago]. But I was hurt a lot.”

Healthy now, Jackson ran down Johnny Dutch in the final straightaway to win in 48.29 seconds, a modest time, but a huge accomplishment–his seventh national team and his fifth national title. Behind him, similarly reborn, was Kerron Clement, 29, twice a world champion and once an Olympic bronze medalist, clinging to third place at the line.

Next came the men’s 1500 meters. Matthew Centrowitz is not old in biological years, just 25, but he came into the race with two U.S. titles, two world championship medals (bronze in 2011 and silver in 2013) and an agonizing fourth in the 2012 Olympics. He is an old man in racing terms. 

He is also the best miler in America by a comfortable margin, and accordingly, he blew open a close race just under two laps from the finish, closed his final 800 meters in 1:48.60 and won while celebrating, in 3:37.25. “I knew I was the fastest, I knew I was the strongest,” said Centrowitz. “I wanted to make a move 500 or 600 meters out and not leave it to a kick. There were a lot of kickers in the race.”

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The win was also cathartic for Centrowitz, who is a member of the embattled Alberto Salazar’s Nike Oregon Project training group. "It doesn't affect me directly," he said. "But Galen is a close friend, Alberto is a like a second father to me. I wanted to win this for our team,” he said. “I didn’t want to just win, I wanted to dominate.”

The women’s 400 meters was expected to be a showdown between Francena McCorory, 26, a 2012 Olympian and 2013 national champion, and the much-medaled Allyson Felix, three-time world champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the 200 meters, making one of her occasional forays into the longer 400.

But it was not McCorory who battled Felix; she faded to an agonizing fourth. “It just wasn’t my best day today,” she said afterward. It was Natasha Hastings, 29, the U.S. champion two years ago, who led Felix by a solid five meters coming off the final turn. “I would have liked to be up a little closer there,” said Felix afterward.

But Felix, 30 years old in November, yet 13 years on the international stage, for all her graceful movement, has long proven herself a dogged competitor. Driving her slender arms past the Hayward grandstand, she caught Hastings just before the line and won in 50.19 seconds. Her personal best is 49.59 from 2011, when she finished second at the world championships. It is unclear now if Felix will run the 400 or the 200, in which she is eligible to compete as a wild card entrant, in Beijing. She said after Saturday’s final that she and her coach, Bob Kersee, will make a decision soon. She ran both events in 2011 in Daegu, South Korea, but the Beijing schedule doesn’t make the double practical.

Kersee has long wanted Felix to consistently run the 400; Felix has long done so only grudgingly. Post-race Saturday, she would not fully embrace the chance–perhaps her last–to win a 400 on the global stage. “I feel like I still haven’t reached my potential there, I’ll say that,” said Felix. “But I still love the 200.”

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At last came Harper-Nelson, who trains every day at UCLA with Kersee and Felix. The women’s 100-meter hurdles is one of the strongest events in U.S. track and field, and one of the most difficult in which to make an Olympic team or world championships team. This year, Brianna Rollins was granted a wild card into the Beijing championships by virtue of winning the world title in 2013. (Rollins ran two rounds in Eugene and qualified for the final, but withdrew).

Stowers came to Eugene as the favorite. USA Track and Field officials brought her to a formal, pre-meet press conference, where Stowers sat alongside Justin Gatlin and appeared visibly–and understandably–nervous throughout. Nelvis, meanwhile, took over that favorite’s role with her blazing 12.34 in the semis. “I told her, `Hey there missy, you’ve got to slow it down,”’ said Harper-Nelson. (Maybe she said that to Nelvis and maybe she didn’t, but she said she said it, and it sounded funny, so there it is).

In the final, Nelvis started poorly, while Harper-Nelson and Harrison came away sharply. Stowers was fine, but faded. Nelvis closed throughout, but Harper-Nelson never wavered and won in 12.55 seconds. It was her fourth U.S. title to go with those two Olympic medals and a world championship medal in 2011. “You’re with those young girls in there,” Harper-Nelson said. “You wonder if you still have it.”

On another hot afternoon in Oregon, that was asked and answered multiple times.