THEY ASSUMED hewould win. His opponents in the 1,500 meters. The sellout crowd of nearly21,000 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., watching Sunday's final day ofcompetition at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. Track nuts everywhere.Bernard Lagat is one of the best middle-distance runners in history, having wontwo Olympic medals for his native Kenya and, after becoming a U.S. citizen,golds in the 1,500 and the 5,000 last summer at the world championships inJapan. ¬∂ The prerace applause was loud for Lagat, who had won the 5,000 sixdays earlier and now chased a trying double. It was the respect accorded agiant. "I knew that everybody was looking up to me," Lagat would sayafter winning a rollicking, physical final. Admiration, of course, does not buyan athlete a ticket to the Olympics.
This is an article from the July 14, 2008 issue
The final fourdays of trials made that all too clear. U.S. record holder Breaux Greer threwthe javelin miserably with a surgically repaired right shoulder and didn't makethe team. Five-time world or Olympic champion Allen Johnson failed to finish around of the 110meter hurdles. Pole vaulter Jenn Stuczynski qualified forBeijing and even broke her U.S. record with a jump of 16'1 3/4", but sheneeded an agonizing three attempts to clear her opening height of 15'1", orshe would have watched the Olympics from her home in Western New York."That jump," she said afterward, "was more of a relief than theAmerican record."
The star who tookthe most dramatic tumble was Tyson Gay, the reigning 100 and 200 world champ,who had set a U.S. record and won the 100 on the first weekend of the trials.Running the turn in his 200 quarterfinal on Saturday, Gay toppled wildly to thetrack with a left hamstring injury, ending his bid for a 100-200 Olympic doubleand raising concern that he might miss the Games entirely.
By evening,however, an MRI had determined that Gay had suffered only a mild muscle strain,and he was sitting in his Eugene hotel room, eating pizza with his mother,Daisy Lowe, and his stepfather, Tim Lowe, while absorbing a beatdown inPlayStation 3 boxing from his 10-year-old brother, Seth. "By the time hewent to sleep Saturday night," said Gay's mother later, "he had gonefrom being scared and disappointed to relieved that he was going to be able torun the 100 [in Beijing]. And that's big."
Olympicopportunity is precious, and some in Eugene seized it. Allyson Felix and SanyaRichards each had hoped to run a 200-400 double at the Olympics but failed tosecure a change in the Games schedule that would have enabled the attempt. Soinstead each ruled her best event—Richards the 400 and Felix the 200. "I'mrelieved," Felix said after her final on Sunday, already looking to China."But it's not done yet."
The Olympicadventure is just beginning for Walter Dix, 22, who made the team in the 100and the 200. Last year as a junior at Florida State, Dix won NCAA 100 and 200titles and ran a blistering 19.69 in the 200, the eighth-fastest time ever. Hepassed on seven-figure offers to turn pro and instead returned to Tallahassee,graduating this spring with a degree in social science.
Yet Dix alsomissed six weeks of training, in April and May, with a left hamstring pull androunded into shape only at June's NCAAs, where he finished a disappointingfourth in the 100 before winning the 200. "That's when I knew I wasback," he says. Before and during the trials he turned down offers to signwith any of the major shoe and apparel companies, betting that his performancelast week would drive his price up. "I'm happy with my decisions," Dixsaid after winning the 200 final on Sunday in 19.86 seconds. At the end of themeet Dix still had not signed an endorsement deal.
Lagat is at theopposite end of the spectrum, a 33-year-old who moved to Washington State fromKenya in 1996. He won bronze in the 1,500 at the Sydney Olympics and moved upto silver in Athens. In 2004 Lagat gained U.S. citizenship before the Games butkept the news secret and competed for Kenya because the change of status wouldhave rendered him ineligible to compete for either country.
"It was adifficult time," Lagat said last week. "All that was on my mind waswinning that gold medal. The [citizenship] process moved more quickly than Ithought it would. It was this thing that I knew only by myself. I chose tocontinue to pursue my dream."
That dream wasmade more difficult last spring and summer when Lagat fought painful stomachproblems that were still affecting him even as he used his withering kick tocomplete his 1,5005,000 double at worlds. "I was so sick, and I couldn'teven take Imodium for diarrhea," says Lagat.
Doctors told himthe primary reason for his illness was the strenuousness of his training, soLagat and coach James Li have altered his workload. Lagat, who lives in Tucson,has gone on only four runs of 13 miles or more since November but has done moreintense short runs. Most important, he says, "no stomach problems at all. Ifeel very good."
The outcome ofSunday's 1,500 reflects both the liquid nature of international athleticaffiliation and the immigrant tradition of the U.S. Not one of the threeOlympians was born in the country he will represent. In second place, behindLagat, was 5'5" Leonel Manzano, who was born in the Mexican town of DoloresHidalgo and lived there until age four, when his father, Jesus, brought theclan to Texas. "My family believes in hard work and hard labor," saysManzano, 23, a three-time NCAA champion at Texas. "When I started runningin the sixth grade, I guess they thought I was doing a lazy man's job."
In third place wasLopez Lomong, 23, who was born in Sudan, taken by militia members from hisfamily at age six, spent 10 years in a refugee camp in Kenya and went to Tully,N.Y., under a resettlement program for a group known as the Lost Boys of Sudan.Lomong competed at Northern Arizona and won two NCAA titles.
When the race wasover, the three of them held tiny American flags and circled the orange track.It was a rite of privilege, well-earned in a day—and in a lifetime.
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