Next in Line
The season's first major outdoor meet showcased a new wave of U.S. stars who already look primed for the Olympics
A NEW generation of U.S. track and field stars emerged at the 2004 Olympics. Jeremy Wariner won gold in the 400 meters, followed that with a world title in '05, and last year became the fourth-fastest man in history (43.62 seconds). Shawn Crawford won the 200 gold in Athens. Sanya Richards made the Olympic team at age 19 and last year broke the U.S. 400 record (48.70) and was the sport's international female athlete of the year. Sprinters Allyson Felix and Lauryn Williams each won Olympic silver in '04 and world gold in '05. All of them are known commodities.
But with the world championships (this August in Osaka, Japan) and the Olympic Games (in 2008 in Beijing) looming, yet another crop of future stars has sprung up. As the major-meet outdoor season kicked off on Sunday with the Adidas Track Classic in Carson, Calif., some of the emerging talents looked sharp. Here are the best of them.
Tyson Gay (sprints)
With reigning Olympic and world 100-meter champion Justin Gatlin out while appealing an eight-year suspension for steroids, Gay, 24, looks to be the strongest threat to 100 world-record holder Asafa Powell of Jamaica. The Kentucky-born Gay, who won the NCAA 100 title for Arkansas in 2004, took a leap forward in 2006 with times of 9.84 in the 100 and 19.68 (the fifth-best time in history) in the 200, making him the second fastest 100-200 combination sprinter ever, behind only Michael Johnson. "I'm still looking to improve more this year," says Gay, who indicated his fitness with a wind-aided 9.79 to win the 100 on Sunday.
Wallace Spearmon Jr. (sprints)
Gay's former college teammate, Spearmon, 22, won silver in the 200 at the 2005 worlds and was U.S. champion at that distance a year ago. His 19.65 in the 200 last summer in Daegu, South Korea, made him the third fastest in history, and he opened his season with a win in the 200 on Sunday (19.91).
Ryan Hall (distance events)
Once the lesser-known peer of top U.S. miler Alan Webb and distance specialist Dathan Ritzenhein, Hall, 24, has blasted up the distance charts in the past year. In April he ran the London Marathon in 2:08:24, the fastest-ever debut by a U.S.-born runner. "I've known since high school that I could run with the best guys in the world," says Hall, who trains with 2004 Olympic medalists Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. "People just develop at their own rates."
Shalane Flanagan (distance events)
The last U.S. woman to win an international championship-level distance medal on the track was Lynn Jennings, who earned bronze in the 10,000 at the '92 Olympics. Having broken a U.S. record this year at 5,000 meters (14:44.80) and held her own in an indoor battle against superstar Meseret Defar of Ethiopia in the 3,000, Flanagan, 25, seems likely to become a world threat at both 5K and 10K.
Jenn Stuczynski (pole vault)
A former college basketball forward at Division II Roberts Wesleyan, the 6 foot Stuczynski, 25, didn't begin vaulting until 2004. Currently ranked sixth in the world, she cleared 15' 10 1/2" to break 2000 Olympic gold medalist Stacy Dragila's American record on Sunday.
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