DEEP IN the night,U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay stripped to a slight pair of running shorts and loweredhis battered body into an inflatable tub of ice water, groaning audibly as thefrigid liquid numbed his legs. Four hours earlier last Thursday night he hadwon the 200-meter gold medal at the 11th World Track and Field Championships,in Osaka, Japan, adding to the 100-meter gold he took on Aug. 26. Two dayslater he would run the third leg on the winning U.S. 4...100 relay, becomingonly the second man in world championship history—Maurice Greene was the first,in 1999—to win those signature events in a single year. For the momentexhaustion consumed feelings of glory.
This is an article from the Sept. 10, 2007 issue
"So tired,man," said Gay, dropping his head back against the rim of the tub. "Andnext year is going to be even harder."
Track and field'sbiennial world championships unfold in a predictable rhythm: In the yearfollowing the Olympic Games they are a curtain call for gold medalists who hopeto validate their achievements. In the year preceding the Games they are aprelude to the bigger show ahead.
Osaka broughtpunishing heat, sparse crowds at Nagai Stadium on many nights and proof againthat the United States remains the most potent force in the sport. Team USA won26 medals, matching its total from the 1991 Tokyo worlds and the '88 SeoulOlympics. Three U.S. athletes emerged as central characters in the yearlongrun-up to Beijing: Gay; sprinter Allyson Felix, who became the second woman inworld championship history (and the first since Marita Koch of East Germany in'83) to earn three gold medals; and Kenyan expatriate distance runner BernardLagat, the first runner to win the 1,500 and 5,000 meters at the samechampionships.
All three U.S.athletes were brilliant. All face fresh challenges in the months ahead.
GAY'Sopening-weekend victory over world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica was anaffirmation of his breakthrough this season, a triumph of speed and techniqueat the highest levels. His 200 win four days later was pure courage. Runninghis eighth race in six days, Gay was beaten off the turn by another Jamaican,Usain Bolt, but rallied to win. "I could have said I've already got theglory race, just take the silver," says Gay. "But I didn't want to dothat."
Gay, 25, is asweet soul, quiet to the point of whispering. He listens to gospel music on hisiPod before races, from a downloaded Kirk Franklin and the Family CD that hehas used since junior college, and while in Osaka he bought a digital camera topreserve his experience. "I want to have some memories," says Gay."I was thinking after the 100, I've got a medal, but I don't have anymemories. I wanted to take some pictures of my friends who I might not seeafter we're all retired."
From the start ofthe season Gay has squirmed in the spotlight, and that glare will soon bebrighter; few athletes attract Olympic hype like the 100-meter favorite."It's one thing to get there; it's another thing to be there," saystrack legend Carl Lewis, who entered at least two Olympics under intensescrutiny. "Tyson will find his time more valuable to everyone. Every timehe runs a bad race, it's 'What's wrong with him?' He has to stay calm."
First up for Gay,who lives and trains primarily in Fayetteville, Ark., is resolving hiscomplicated coaching situation. His longtime coach, Lance Brauman, was servinga year-long prison sentence during the season for embezzlement and mail fraud.Gay relied on a notebook of workouts that Brauman wrote last November, but inApril, Gay also began working on starts and sprint technique with formerOlympian Jon Drummond in Dallas. Brauman was released to a halfway house onAug. 28 and is expected to be freed on Sept. 27. However, he plans to move toOrlando with his wife and daughter.
Gay would preferto remain in Fayetteville but will consider training in Orlando. Beyond that,he will try to balance two coaches. "I couldn't have done it this yearwithout J.D.," says Gay. "But I'd like to show some loyalty to CoachBrauman. I'm going to find a way to make it work."
FELIX, 21,successfully defended her world title with a rout in the 200 (in which she isthe reigning Olympic silver medalist), running a personal best of 21.81seconds; it was the fastest time since Inger Miller's 21.77 eight years ago.Felix added two more golds over the weekend, delivering blistering second legson both winning U.S. relays. In Sunday evening's 4√ó400 she ran a breathtaking48 seconds flat, faster than Florence Griffith Joyner (48.2) on her 400-meteranchor in Seoul in 1988 and faster than Marion Jones (49.4) in Sydney in 2000.Told of her split by writers, Felix, whose personal best in an open 400 is49.70 said, "Oh, wow. I'm happy with that."
She had come toOsaka locked in a battle with Sanya Richards, the U.S. 400 record holder, forwomen's sprint supremacy leading in to Beijing. Both have expressed a desire tochase multiple individual gold medals at the Olympics and both acknowledge thatthey are not friends, adding an edge to their shared quest.
Felix is nowclearly the leader. Not only did she defeat Richards in the 400—Richards'sspecialty—at a Super Grand Prix meet in Stockholm on Aug. 7, but she also leftRichards a distant fifth in the Osaka 200 final. (In fairness Richards has beenfighting illness for much of the season.) Now Felix can chase history; no U.S.woman has ever won four track golds at the same Olympics. "Doing somethingthat no one has done before, that's something that excites me," says Felix.For now, she will skip most of the late-summer European meets to get started onher final semester at USC, aiming for graduation in December, 4 1/2 years afterturning professional in track immediately after high school. "She candominate both [the 200 and the 400] if she wants to," says four-timeOlympic sprint medalist Frankie Fredericks.
MEDALS ARE nothingnew to the 32-year-old Lagat, but he's not accustomed to gold. He took anOlympic bronze in 2000 and a silver behind Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj inAthens; he also won silver at the '01 worlds. In all of those 1,500-meter raceshe competed for his native Kenya, but in Osaka he wore U.S. colors for thefirst time since becoming a citizen in '04. (Lagat attained U.S. citizenshipthree months before that year's Olympics but told no one.)
He won the 1,500in Osaka with a brilliant tactical race, running a relaxed third, off a paceset most of the way by U.S. teammate Alan Webb (who finished eighth) and thenblasting the final 80 meters to victory. "Bernard is a brilliantrunner," says two-time Olympic 1,500-meter champion Sebastian Coe of GreatBritain. "And he's also got a bit of street smarts out there."
Four nights laterLagat was handed the 5,000 by opponents who refused to force a pace that mighthave burned the kick out of a champion miler. The first mile was covered in alaughable 4:47, the second just under 4:30, still painfully slow forworld-class distance runners. Lagat bided his time in the middle of the pack."They didn't drop me with four laps to go, so I said now it's a mile,"said Lagat afterward. "Three laps to go, it's [less than] a 1,500. So it'sall mine, then." He ran his last lap in 52.8 seconds and held off 2003world champion Eliud Kipchoge, who grew up in the same Nandi-tribe village inKenya as Lagat. Behind Lagat, U.S. teammate Matt Tegenkamp missed the bronzemedal by just .03 of a second. The winning time of 13:45.87 was the slowest inworld championship history by more than 13 seconds.
But medals do notcome inscribed with winning times. Lagat, who arrived in the States in 1996 asa distance-running recruit at Washington State, has quickly established majorU.S. milestones: first to win a world or Olympic 1,500 since '08; first male towin a world championship medal in a distance event (5,000 or 10,000 meters) onthe track. If he is a vaguely disconnected figure—a native Kenyan accumulatingmedals for a country that has struggled to be competitive in distancerunning—he is also a symbol of something deeply American. "We're a nationof émigrés," says USA Track and Field CEO Craig Masback.
"My decisionto be a U.S. citizen was not about track and field," says Lagat. "Thisis where I met my wife. This is where I got my education. This is where I wantto raise my family." In the aftermath of the 5,000 he stood wrapped in anAmerican flag and said, "This is for the American people. I would love todo this again for the American people." Consider it a date. For all threeof them. Next summer in Beijing.
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