EUGENE, Oregon – There is much to like about track and field. There is the variety among events—from mesomorphic throwers to lithe distance runners, from powerful sprinters to graceful jumpers. There is the simplicity of outcome: He or she who runs fastest, jumps farthest (or highest) or throws furthest is the winner. There is the dedication; track and field has long receded to an obscure corner of spectator sports in America, a place where all niche sports go, and so many of those who excel do so in relative anonymity, save for the quadrennial publicity explosion of the Olympic Games. There are endless stories of perseverance and drive, of passion overcoming hurdles and of families striving together. It’s all very inspirational, as Olympians like to say.
It’s also usually pushed aside by the onslaught of very real and very genuine controversy, usually surrounding the broad and ugly medical and chemical underbelly of the sport.
The USA Track and Field national championships closed Sunday afternoon at Hayward Field, with a team almost selected for the August world championships in Beijing (almost, because some athletes who have ostensibly qualified must still meet certain statistical standards to compete). The crushing, record-breaking heat of Friday and Saturday gave way to clouds weeping occasional rain, though still plenty warm in the air and in the headlines.
Before noon, distance runner Kara Goucher had met the media after racing in the 5,000 meters and fired another volley in the ongoing controversy surrounding coach Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project team for which Goucher once competed. "I don’t like being called a liar" said Goucher, in reference to Salazar’s response to a ProPublica/BBC report in early June reporting abuse of medication rules. "I just know that the rules as they stand have been broken." Goucher promised more specifics later this week, ensuring the story will endure (as it should, to a satisfactory conclusion). Half an hour later, Salazar’s star pupil, Galen Rupp, also blandly answered media questions after a third-place finish in the men’s 5k.
More than three hours later, it was Justin Gatlin who commanded the stage. Gatlin is currently in a match race with Salazar to determine the most controversial figure in the sport, because he served a four-year steroid suspension from 2006-’10 and is currently running faster than ever at age 33 (and much faster than Usain Bolt), setting off alarms across the track world. On Sunday Gatlin won the 200 meters (he has a wild card entry into the worlds 100) in a personal best of 19.57 seconds, only four men have run faster, including Bolt’s ridiculous 2009 world record of 19.19 seconds. "I wanted to go out and make a statement today," said Gatlin. "And that’s what I did."
A truth remains: Gatlin can’t yet take down the otherworldly Bolt of 2008-’12. But the current model Bolt? That guy, Gatlin can beat.
So there was plenty to feed the beast for another day.
Yet what happened between Goucher’s defiance and Gatlin’s discomforting (to some) speed cuts much more sharply to the soul of track and field. A breastfeeding mother won the 800 meters. A shot-putter who learned his sport from his mother won his event. The most outspoken middle distance runner in the game returned to the top, a year after nearly quitting. A sprinter who always cuts it too close made a national team at the site of her most crushing disappointment.
Alysia Montano. Joe Kovacs. Nick Symmonds. Jenebah Tarmoh. They are the sport, too. They are the best of the sport.
A year ago Montano came to Sacramento to run the 800 meters, her specialty. She was by then a five-time national champion and a 2012 Olympian, an ebullient woman who ran gutsy races from the front, the hardest place of all, and did it with a flower in hair to remind everyone that that determination and grace are not mutually exclusive qualities. She was also more than seven months pregnant with her first child and 30 pounds over racing weight, running to make a point. "I wanted my [unborn] daughter to know [someday] that it’s not all about winning. It’s about doing your best." She also didn’t want to get lapped, which is almost impossible in a two-lap race, but still…. She ran 2:32, 35 seconds over her personal best but astonishingly quick, considering her condition. (Go try running 2:32; they try it with a 30-pound sandbag on your belly).
On Sunday Montano came back and did what she does. She ran from the front and won her sixth national title in 1:59.15 (props to Ajee Wilson, who finished third and made the U.S. team despite losing a shoe with just under 200 meters left). Montano ran with a yellow flower, and also with a road map of argyle-themed tape on her abs, helping combat a condition called diastasis recti, a separation of abdominal muscles caused by Montano’s pregnancy (and in men, sometimes by getting too fat). "When she was growing," Montano said after the race, holding her 10-month daughter, Linnea Dori, in her arms, "I went out."
Montano, 29, ran throughout her pregnancy, including a five-mile, 80-minute treadmill run on the day before giving birth at 2:30 a.m. She slowly resumed training almost immediately afterward, but with a fresh approach. "I had to scale back a little," Montano says. "I had to go a little slower, which is hard for athletes who want to be under the hammer all the time." Now, she says, "Every day, one step at a time."
While Montano was running pregnant a year ago, Symmonds was barely running at all. A five-time U.S. champion, two-time Olympian and with his 1:42.95 fifth-place finish behind David Rudisha’s world record at the 2012 Olympic Games, the third-fastest American in history, Symmonds was 30 years old, banged up and abandoned by Nike, his primary sponsor. "I was on my couch," he said, "ontemplating retirement. I was 30, and my body was broken."
A year later, Symmonds has a new sponsor (Brooks) and a new support team in Seattle (he had been living in Eugene, where he has deep roots and connections). He is healthy again and on Saturday he did what he has often done, laying off a fast pace (Duane Solomon’s crazy-fast sub-50-second opening lap) and then kicking home to win in 1:44.53, his fastest time in two years. "I hate being a sit-and-kicker," says Symmonds. "But you play the cards you’re dealt. These guys can run 45 seconds for a quarter mile, I’m lucky if I can break 48."
In addition to his success on the track, Symmonds has developed into one of the most forthright advocates in the sport for overhauling ancient systems of sponsorship. He launched a product called Run Gum, an a chewable energy source, and on Sunday, raised his arms at the finish line to display temporary Run Gum tattoos on the insides of his biceps. It’s uncertain whether international sponsorship rules will allow Symmonds to display the tats in Beijing. "But my legal team is working on it," he said.
Kovacs, who celebrated his 26th birthday Sunday, also made his first national team. He was fourth in the 2012 Olympic Trials, missing the U.S. team by one spot (It was 2008 Olympic silver medalist Christian Cantwell who bumped him off the team; keep reading for more Cantwell). After missing the team, Kovacs, a native of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania who threw for Penn State, signed on with veteran throws coach Art Venegas; his mother, Joanna, a former high school thrower who first taught Kovacs the shot, drove with him to Chula Vista, California to make the switch.
In 2013, Kovacs finished sixth in the Trials to select the U.S. team for the Moscow world championships but last year won the U.S. title and was ranked No. 3 in the world. This year he has the three longest throws in the world and with a toss of 73 feet, 4 inches in April, became the seventh-best U.S. shot putter in history.
On Sunday, his first three attempts left him only in seventh place, but his fourth, 71 feet, 8 inches, put him into the lead and kept him there. There was a minor controversy surrounding that effort; after the meet, Cantwell complained that Kovacs had taken two practice throws in the customary break between throws 1-3 and 4-6, when the field is reduced to eight men. "That was kind of bush league," Cantwell said. Cantwell also confronted Kovacs on the field at the time.
However, since one member of the first flight of throwers had attained a top-eight mark long before Kovacs, Cantwell and other top throwers, he was allowed a practice—or warm-up throw. Kovacs and others inferred that if one thrower is given warm-ups, everyone was eligible. And that Cantwell was just being a pest. "Christian gets mad about everything," said Kovacs. "He said to me: `Those practice throws are the only reason you started throwing far.’ I said 'I’ve been throwing far all along.' That’s Christian. I’m flying with him to Europe tomorrow [Monday] and we’ll be staying together over there."
Kovacs’s former coach, his mom, was in attendance, but offered minimal advice. "She said, 'Good luck, and happy birthday,'" says Kovacs. "And that was a huge help to me."
Then there is Tarmoh. The last time she contended for a U.S. national team in Eugene was in 2012, when she finished in a notorious dead heat with Allyson Felix for third place in the 100 meters and, distraught over what she considered unfair treatment, pulled out of a runoff race scheduled for the Monday evening after the meet ended. (A year later, in the 2013 nationals at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Tarmoh finished fourth in the 100 meters and qualified for her first U.S. worlds team with a third-place finish in the 200 meters. She finished fifth at the worlds).
This weekend, in her return to Eugene trials, Tarmoh finished fourth in the 100 meters in 10.93 seconds, equaling her personal best but missing the U.S. team by an agonizing .01 seconds behind Jasmine Todd. On Sunday, Tarmoh ran the 200 meters and rallied from behind in the stretch to finish third by .03 seconds over rising high school senior-turned-professional Kaylin Whitney. But Tarmoh knew nothing of whom she beat or by how much.
"I just looked up," she said, "and saw that I was third."
And sometimes, though not often enough, track and field is as simple as that.