Panic Speed

July 07, 2008
July 07, 2008

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July 7, 2008

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Panic Speed

Racked with worry that he would blow his chance to make the U.S. team, Tyson Gay scorched the track with the fastest 100 ever

THERE WOULD be noeasy sleep. Tyson Gay fell into his hotel bed just after midnight last Saturdayand stared into the darkness, wide awake. Late the next afternoon at venerableHayward Field in Eugene, Ore., Gay would win the 100 meters at the U.S. OlympicTrack and Field Trials in the startling time of 9.68 seconds, faster than anyman has ever run the distance (yet ineligible for world-record considerationbecause of a stiff tailwind). More to the point, Gay would become an Olympianfor the first time. ¶ None of that seemed certain the night before, as Gay sawfailure awaiting him the way a small child sees monsters in his closet. InSaturday's first round he had tried to conserve energy but had misread markinglines on the track, slowed too soon and barely advanced. He'd bounced back torun a U.S.-record 9.77 seconds in the second round but then received a textmessage informing him that his good friend and winter training partner VeronicaCampbell-Brown, the world's No. 1--ranked women's 100-meter runner, hadfinished fourth in the Jamaican Olympic trials and most likely would not runthat event in Beijing.

This is an article from the July 7, 2008 issue

Gay's coach, JonDrummond, tried to relax him by giving him chocolate chip cookies from a nearbystore. "Eat these," Drummond said. "And run fast tomorrow."

It was no help."I was just lying in bed, thinking about the way I ran in the prelims, howclose I was to losing my dream," Gay would say later. "And I wasthinking about the Veronica situation, how that could be me, and I was justreally nervous." On Sunday morning Gay's mother, Daisy Lowe, took him outfor a pancake breakfast. Still Gay fretted, imagining the worst.

This is thenature of the trials, an unforgiving test with no margin for error: The topthree in each event go to Beijing (provided they have met Olympic qualifyingstandards); the fourth-place finisher goes home and waits four more years."There is nothing to prepare you for the pressure," says shot putterAdam Nelson, a two-time silver medalist who qualified for his third Olympics bythrowing a 16-pound steel ball 3 1/2 inches farther than fourth-place DanTaylor.

"It's worsethan the Olympics," says Lauryn Williams, the silver medalist in the 100 inAthens, who qualified for her second Games with a third-place finish—behindsurprise winner Muna Lee and runner-up Torri Edwards—.03 of a second in frontof Marshevet Hooker. The four top finishers stood together on the track,staring at the towering scoreboard, awaiting their fate. Said Williams, "Itwas the most nervous-wreck feeling I've ever had in my life."

On Sundayafternoon alone the trials served up a meet's worth of harsh reality andredemption. Sixty-seven minutes apart, 2004 gold medalists Tim Mack (polevault) and Dwight Phillips (long jump) were eliminated from the '08 team. Onthe same day, Bershawn Jackson won the 400 hurdles four years after he bangedthe final barrier so hard at the pre-Athens trials that he went from firstplace to fourth in the final 20 meters.

Pole vaulter JeffHartwig, who made the team in 1996 then missed it in 2000 and '04, despiteholding the American record, made it again on Sunday at age 40. He will be theoldest U.S. vaulter in Olympic history and is duly imbued with perspective andappreciation. "Had I made those teams, who knows whether I'd be here rightnow," says Hartwig. "You see athletes who make teams year after year,but our process is never easy. It's always difficult."

THE DRAMA beganlast Friday, on the first night of the trials, which returned to the athletichome of the late Steve Prefontaine for the first time since 1980.Appropriately, it started with a distance race, the women's 10,000 meters, inwhich two competitions unfolded.

In the firstShalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher ran to win. Flanagan has broken the U.S.5,000 and 10,000 records in the last two seasons, and Goucher won agroundbreaking bronze medal in this event at the world championships lastAugust in Osaka, Japan. Both aspire to challenge the mighty Ethiopians, whichis akin to chasing the Soviets in hockey three decades ago.

"My goal isto win a medal in Beijing," says Goucher, who lives in Portland and iscoached by distance great Alberto Salazar. She had logged nine 100-miletraining weeks in preparation for the trials, and three weeks ago ran sixrepeat miles in 4:53 each at 6,000-foot elevation in Provo, Utah. With eachpassing day she became stronger.

Flanagan ran30:34.49 for 10K (6.2 miles) on the track in May, crushing 2004 Olympicmarathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor's U.S. record by nearly 16 seconds. Shehad taken down the 5K mark in April '07. "Records are nice," saysFlanagan, "but that's just paper. I'm constantly thinking about how I canbe the most prepared for a championship race." A chronic left-foot problemwas alleviated by surgery in April '06, and Flanagan has ascended steadilysince.

In the secondaryrace the rest of the 23-woman field chased the third spot. Whoever earned itwould also need to meet the Olympic qualifying standard of 31:45. Two womenbeyond the big two—Molly Huddle and Katie McGregor—had met the Olympic standardbefore the trials; if no other woman attained the mark in Eugene, the faster ofthose two at the trials would go to Beijing. Amy Yoder Begley knew all this.She also knew that this was almost certainly her last chance to make an Olympicteam.

The 30-year-oldYoder Begley had been a high school star in Indiana and an NCAA 10,000 championat Arkansas, yet as a runner she describes herself as "the equivalent of astarving artist." She had been frequently injured in her postcollegiatecareer, and in January '07 moved to Beaverton, Ore., to train with Goucher andSalazar. It was a last grasp at something big, and even that move seemed fornaught after January surgery to relieve plantar fasciitis in her left foot. Shecame to the trials off just 15 weeks of steady training, and much of that hadbeen in a swimming pool, on a stationary bike (while watching Food Network) oron an antigravity treadmill. "I'm going to have to try a triathlon whenthis is over," she says. "I'm already training for it."

The field wentthrough 5,000 meters in 16:10, 18 seconds off the pace to match the Olympicstandard. Yoder Begley bravely seized the race and sped it up. She led thefaster Flanagan and Goucher for five laps, and even when they left her, YoderBegley hung on to finish third in 31:43.6, less than two seconds under thestandard. She ran her second 5K in 15:33, only nine seconds over her personalbest for that distance. Then she danced a silly dance with Goucher under thelights. "She ran the race of her life," Flanagan would say two dayslater. "That's what happens here."

SATURDAY'SWOMEN's 100 had been projected as one of the most unpredictable races of thetrials, and in the final it was Lee, an '04 Olympic 200 finalist, who won in10.85 seconds, .12 under the personal best she established in May. A26-year-old who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., and ran at LSU, Lee has theslender arms and legs of a marathoner (she carries just 111 pounds on her5'8" frame), and she did not have a smooth journey to the trials.

Lee moved to LosAngeles in the fall of 2005 to train with coach Bob Kersee. She adapted tolonger intervals and more technical work in her training but struggled off thetrack. "I was living with a boyfriend who then became my ex-boyfriend,"says Lee. "And Los Angeles was expensive. I had always been happy. I wasn'thappy anymore." At the end of the track season last fall, Lee went to hermother's home in Little Rock and told her, "I'm not happy, and I'm notgoing back."

Instead, shemoved to College Station, Texas, and began training under Vince Anderson, anassistant at Texas A&M to Pat Henry, who had been Lee's college coach. Thepairing clicked.

Yet few knew thatLee had been involved in an automobile accident on June 16. She says a carturned left into the path of her Ford Explorer at an intersection in CollegeStation, and she broadsided the vehicle. "I felt like my whole upper bodywas tingling," says Lee, who suffered no serious injuries. "I jumpedout of the car and started walking down the road. The paramedics were tellingme to lie down on the stretcher, but I was just yelling, 'No, I have to keepmoving! I have to run next week!'"

Like Flanagan andGoucher, who will also compete in the 5,000 on Friday, Lee has more work to doin Eugene. She will run the 200 this weekend. Yet no athlete came to Oregonwith more to do—or to prove—than Gay.

He had won worldtitles in the 100 and the 200 last summer in Japan and entered 2008 as thepresumptive Olympic favorite in both events. That was before the stunningemergence of 21-year-old Jamaican Usain Bolt, who on May 31 in New York Citysmoked Gay in the 100 and set a world record of 9.72 seconds. Michael Johnson,the retired world-record holder in the 200 and the 400, said in Eugene, "IfI'm Tyson, I just hope for the best for myself, and hope for the worst forBolt." It was a harsh analysis.

Gay went back towork. His pride was stung by the New York trouncing. Together he and Drummondmade several technical corrections, and Gay's 9.77 U.S. record (betteringMaurice Greene's 9.79 from 1999) in the second round was a thing of beauty. Hadhe not slowed slightly to save energy at the finish, he might have approachedBolt's record. (Of course after that race Gay watched a YouTube clip of Bolt'svictory in the Jamaican trials 100 in a very easy 9.85. "He shut it downthe last 20 meters," said Gay. "He definitely ran fast.")

In the final Gaywas clearly the best, ahead of Walter Dix, the 2007 NCAA 100 and 200 championat Florida State, and veteran Darvis (Doc) Patton. Almost three hours later Gayrose from a rubbing table in a tennis pavilion next to Hayward Field, the lastathlete left on the grounds. The 200 lay ahead, next weekend, and a long summerbeyond. Gay's shoulders and hips ached from his efforts. "But I'mhappy," he said, and that made perfect sense. Because these are the Olympictrials, where pleasure walks in lockstep with pain.

Flanagan and Goucher both aspire to challenge theEthiopians, which is akin to CHASING THE SOVIETS in hockey decades ago.
"The paramedics were telling me to lie down,"says Lee, "but I was yelling, 'No, I have to keep moving! I HAVE TO RUNnext week!'"
PHOTOPHOTOBILL FRAKESFORGET ME NOT Gay, the reigning world champion, showed that he will still be a threat to new world-record holder Bolt.PHOTOBILL FRAKESHANGING TOUGH In her last chance at the Games, the gritty Yoder Begley (right, trailing Flanagan and Goucher) turned in the 10,000-meter race of her life.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERJUST ENOUGH Nelson made his third Olympic team—by 3 1/2 inches.PHOTOJASON REED/REUTERSMUNA-FICENT The underdog Lee (3) outstretched Edwards (4) and Williams (2) for the biggest victory of her career.PHOTOPETER READ MILLERWELL-SEASONED Hartwig, 40, will be the oldest U.S. vaulter in Olympic history.