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Athletics Notes: Tales of glee and misery

8 July 2008

By Dave Ungrady

Since its first meet in 1908, the U.S. Olympic track and field trials has not lacked for melodramatic appeal. It has provided an emotional mix of triumph and tragedy, of jubilation and crushing disappointment. Its simple formula that requires finishing among the top three to qualify for the games is unrivaled by any other global track and field federation.

The 2008 edition completed July 6 provided the expected twists of harsh fate and turns of good fortune. Here's a collection of highlighted reflections with a spice of perspective.

Banner day: Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix captured most of the pre-trials attention in the 100 and 200 meters. But with Gay's injury in the 200 meters and Felix's disappointing performance in the 100 meters, will Walter Dix and Muna Lee, the only two runners to qualify in both sprints, now become the banner boy and babe of the Beijing games?

Their pain is Payne's gain: David Payne competed in the 2007 world championships as an alternate after Dominique Arnold dropped out due to injury. He arrived in Osaka, Japan, one day before competing in the heats and eventually won a bronze medal. As he approached the last hurdle in the 110-meter hurdle final at the trials, he was in fourth place. Anwar Moore, in third place, fell after clearing the last hurdle, allowing Payne to move up one spot and finish third and make his first Olympic team. Will he win a medal in Beijing after much of the final field drops out from food poisoning?

Sudanese peace spokesman: Few stories from the trials resound as profoundly as the tale of Lopez Lomong, who fled militia attacks in Sudan at age 6 and, after being separated from his family, lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for 10 years. A U.S. citizen since July 2007, Lomong, 23, finished third in the 1,500 meters and will compete in Beijing, which has aided the Sudanese government's support of militia fighting against rebels in the Sudan's war in Darfur.

Will Lomong speak out against China's support of the Sudanese militia? He recently signed a petition with Team Darfur supporting an Olympic truce that calls for a cease-fire in the fighting during the Beijing games.

"I need to send the message as an athlete from Sudan," Lomong said in the Chicago Tribune. "I am worried about the kids who are dying in Darfur, kids who don't have the dream they could be good athletes or Olympians or doctors."

But Lomong is a young, first time Olympian and it is unlikely he will create a disruptive stir about Darfur in Beijing. For most Olympic athletes, especially rookies, competing supersedes political posturing.

Immigration nation: Speaking of the 1,500, the other qualifiers are also U.S. immigrants. Bernard Lagat, the winner, was born in Kenya and Leonel Manzano, who finished second, is from Mexico. They're the only non-American born qualifiers from the trials.

Torres? How about Hartwig? Yes, 41-year-old Dara Torres performed the most impressive feat over the two weeks of Olympic trials by winning both the 50 meters and 100 meters in swimming and she will take part in her fifth Olympics. But she's not the only quadregenerian who will compete for the U.S. in Beijing. Jeff Hartwig, who turns 41 in September, finished second in the pole vault and will compete in his second Olympics -- his first since 1996.

Hartwig breeds snakes. Torres bore her first child two years ago. Whatever works.

Family planning: Michael Carter won a silver medal in the shot put at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. His 22-year-old daughter Michelle won the shot put and will compete in her first Olympics. If Michele wins a medal in Beijing, anything papa Carter did in his career would appear irrelevant in comparison. Michele set a personal best in Eugene, but it ranks 18th in the world this year.

Relevant resurgence: Bunion surgery last fall helped 2004 Olympic 200-meter champion Shawn Crawford recover from nagging foot pain that affected his performances since the Athens games. He finished second Sunday in the 200. In late 2006, Crawford left Trevor Graham, his coach of three years who in May was convicted of perjury in the BALCO scandal. Bobby Kersee now coaches Crawford, who was ranked 16th in the world in 2007.

Wow! It's Wheating: No other athlete exhibited such unbridled glee at finishing as Andrew Wheating, the surprise second-place finisher in the 800 meters.

Wheating, a 20-year-old rising junior at Oregon and an elite runner for a little over two years, improved his personal best by close to four seconds in four months, an amazing feat in the 800, and along the way finished second at the NCAA outdoor championships in mid-June. But his finish in the trials was historic.

He was near the back of the pack coming off the last turn and passed six runners in the final 100 meters. If you're able to watch a recording of the race, focus on Wheating's facial expression with about 40 meters remaining in the head-on, ground-level replay. His mouth starts to open and he seems to say, 'wow' as he realizes that he was about to become an Olympian, and his expression grows more animated as he approaches the finish.

For historical perspective on great 800-meter finishes, find Dave Wottle's come-back-from-the-dead win at the 1972 Olympics on YouTube. Wow, indeed.

Good thing she didn't try out for the U.S. diving team: Lauryn Williams, who finished third in the 100 meters and qualified for her second Olympic team, lost a similar qualifying spot in the 200 meters by .01 seconds after Marshavette Hooker fell across the finish line. Or was it a clumsy dive. Hooker said she thought it was a fall but was not sure. We're pretty sure it was unplanned.

No triple lundy, more like a single lungey: There were several finish-line dives at the trials but none more emphatic than Christian Smith's planned descent in the 800 meters that helped him grab third place by .06 seconds over Olympic veteran Khadevis Robinson. As the triple lundy gave Rodney Dangerfield the respect he deserved, Smith's single lunge qualified the Oregonian for his first Olympics.

Rehabbed: 2000 Olympian Torri Edwards in the 100 meters and Damu Cherry in the 100-meter hurdles are the first U.S. athletes to qualify for an Olympic track and field team after serving drug suspensions. Both missed the 2004 games while serving their penalties and are legitimate medal contenders in Beijing.

Wary about Wariner: Used to be Jeremy Wariner was unbeatable. But LaShawn Merrit has beaten Wariner twice in 33 days, the more profound of the two in the trials of the 400 final. Merritt dedicated his race to the memory of a brother who died tragically in 1999 after he fell eight floors out of a college dormitory to avoid assailants. According to press reports, Wariner did not join the group of 400 qualifiers for the traditional post-race celebratory lap and skipped the post-race press conference as well. Who will you root for in Beijing?

Bye-bye Breaux?: We've come to expect anything from the eccentric Breaux Greer, the eight-time U.S. champion and two-time Olympic javelin thrower. But not advancing out of the qualifying rounds at the trials? Hardly. He says doctors told him not to throw because of a shoulder injury, but Greer typically defied convention and tried anyway. So what's next for the affable Greer, who recently made his debut as a Hurricane on the network television show Gladiator? He said body-building or porn. More seriously, he also said he may even still compete.

Woe is Webb: Have we come to expect too much from Alan Webb? No. He's got the talent to be a world or Olympic champion. It was unsettling to watch Webb finish fifth in the trials after running another final with dubious tactics. Except for one year, Webb has spent his entire life near his home in Reston, Va. Perhaps it's time to change his environment, move west -- where most of the top U.S. runners live and train -- and find a new coach. He's still young and could compete in two more Olympic games, if he wants to. The way he reacts to tough losses, I wonder if he wants to.

It matters only on this day: 2004 Olympic champions Joanna Hayes finished seventh in the 100-meter hurdles, Dwight Phillips finished fourth in the long jump, missing third by .75 inches, and Tim Mack finished sixth in the pole vault. Michelle Perry, 2005 and 2007 world champion in the 100-meter hurdles, injured a hamstring in June and finished sixth in a semifinal.

Further, LaShinda Demus, a 2004 Olympian who entered the trials with the best time in the world in the 400-meter hurdles and missed the 2007 season to have a child, finished fourth in the final.

"There's not really words for what just happened to me," Perry said, likely echoing the feelings of Hayes, Phillips, Mack and Demus.

Words are often insufficient to adequately capture the drama that typically unfolds at these trials.

Canada's team sets humble goals: Athletics Canada announced its Beijing Olympic team Monday with humble ambitions of replicating the two medals it won at the 2007 world championships, when Perdita Felicien in the 100-meter hurdles and Gary Reed in the 800 meters won silver medals.

Felicien missed the Olympic trials that ended July 6 in Windsor, Ont., due to injury but was named to the team that will compete in Beijing. Reed won the 800 meters for his fifth Canadian title and will try to improve on his last-place semi-final finish in his Olympic debut at the Athens games.

Tyler Christopher, the 2008 world indoor champion in the 400 meters, won the 400 meters at the trials and qualified for his first Olympic games. He won the event at the 2004 trials but did not satisfy the Olympic qualifying standard.

The team will feature about 30 athletes, including Jim Stacey in the men's hammer throw. Stacey will be the first Canadian Olympian in the event since John Murdoch placed eighth at the 1924 games.

USATF seeks world championship events: USA Track and Field president Bill Roe said last week that the United States wants to bid for the 2010 or 2011 world cross country championships to increase American interest in athletics. Roe told a news conference at the Olympic trials last week that New York City, Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Diego are among cities to express interest in the event.

"My goal before the end of the year when my term as president expires is to place a world cross country championship [in the United States]," Roe said.

He added that IAAF president Lamine Diack wants the United States to host a world championship in track and field before he retires as IAAF president in 2011.

The U.S. has not staged a major International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) event since the 1992 world cross country championships in Boston. Los Angeles was awarded the 2006 World Cup of Athletics but withdrew when organizers could not guarantee taxes would not have to be paid on prize money. Athens hosted the meeting.

Russian hurdles world champ to miss Beijing Olympics: Yulia Pechyonkina, the world record holder in the 400-meter hurdles, will miss the Beijing Olympics due to a heart problem, her personal coach said Monday.

"I don't think she'll be able to recover in time and compete in Beijing," Valentin Maslakov was quoted as saying by the All Sport news agency. "She started having health problems in April. She first had sinusitis, then, which is much more serious, heart problems."

Pechyonkina, 30, won a world title in 2005 and also finished second in 2001, 2003 and 2007. The Russian, who also competed under her maiden name Nosova, had a disappointing 2004 Olympics in Athens, where she finished last in the 400-meter hurdles. She set the world record of 52.34 seconds in 2003, beating American Kim Batten's eight-year-old mark of 52.61.

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