The U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials are a unique experience in sports. The competition is brutally precise. Athletes who finish in the top three of their event make the U.S. Olympic team. Miss the top three, and you’re out.
Take, for example, Brenda Martinez. Brenda was a favorite in the women’s 800M run but finished 7th in a wild, crash-marred race. Her Olympic dreams were temporarily dashed. Six days later, she returned to place third in the 1500M race with a gutsy dive at the finish. She’s going to Rio, and she has the scars to prove it.
Conversely, there’s hurdler Aries Merritt. He won gold in the 2012 London Olympics but shortly thereafter, he suffered health problems which ultimately required a kidney transplant (his sister was the donor). Amazingly, Aries worked his way back in less than a year and competed in the Trials last week. He finished fourth in the 110M hurdle finals by one hundredth of a second. He won’t be going to Rio.
It’s no wonder that the U.S. Olympic Track & Field squad has been called “the world’s toughest team to make.”
Occasionally, even a top 3 finish at the Trials isn’t an automatic ticket to the Olympics. This was the case for the top 3 men in the hammer throw, including Rudy Winkler, a.k.a. Clark Kent. Rudy’s modesty and his glasses begot his nickname. None of the top three hammer throwers achieved the Olympic standard of 77 meters. But after a week of nervous anticipation, they were invited to Rio based on their global ranking.
My first visit to the Trials was four years ago, in 2012. Hayward Field, the historic venue, accommodates more than 20,000 spectators. But even when the stadium is at full capacity, the connection between fans and athletes feels intimate. At Hayward, nearly everyone becomes fully immersed in the competitors’ successes and failures.
Racing meets reality
At this year’s trials, current events comingled with competition. Beneath a Hayward Field flag that flew at half mast, athletes tried to put their Olympic aspirations into context with the spate of tragedies in Minnesota, Louisiana and Dallas.
Kristi Castlin made the Olympic team in the 100M hurdles, then dedicated her performance to survivors of gun violence.
Justin Gatlin won a dramatic 200M race, then gave a moving call for people to love each other.
Their words were poignant and memorable. Here are a few more unforgettable moments from this year’s U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials:
Chaunté Lowe’s celebration. Chaunté, a 32-year-old veteran of 3 Olympics, finished first in the women’s high jump and achieved the highest jump in the world this year. Perhaps best of all, her celebration dances were solid gold.
Noah Droddy. Jen and I watched a long-haired, neon-clad dude with a backwards hat finish dead last in the 10K race. Then he got famous. He’s original, funny and totally legit as a runner.
Boris Berian. There are so many reasons to like @borisgump800. He went from McDonald’s employee to U.S. Olympian. He fought Nike and won. And his reaction to making the U.S. Olympic 800M team is genuine joy.
Youth. Sydney McLaughlin earned a spot on the U.S. 400M hurdles Olympic team. She is 16. Vashti Cunningham made the team in the high jump. She’s 18. Noah Lyles and Michael Norman, who both just finished high school, competed in the final of the 200M race. They barely missed making the team but gave a glimpse at two future track stars.
Experience. My favorite moment was Bernard Lagat, aged 41, coming from behind to win the 1500M race. His victory lap with his kids was priceless.
The trials are over. It’s unknown whether they will return to Hayward Field in 2020. If they do, I hope to be there.