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THERE WOULD be no easy sleep. Tyson Gay fell into his hotel bed just after midnight last Saturday and stared into the darkness, wide awake. Late the next afternoon at venerable Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., Gay would win the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in the startling time of 9.68 seconds, faster than any man has ever run the distance (yet ineligible for world-record consideration because of a stiff tailwind). More to the point, Gay would become an Olympian for the first time. ¶ None of that seemed certain the night before, as Gay saw failure awaiting him the way a small child sees monsters in his closet. In Saturday's first round he had tried to conserve energy but had misread marking lines on the track, slowed too soon and barely advanced. He'd bounced back to run a U.S.-record 9.77 seconds in the second round but then received a text message informing him that his good friend and winter training partner Veronica Campbell-Brown, the world's No. 1--ranked women's 100-meter runner, had finished fourth in the Jamaican Olympic trials and most likely would not run that event in Beijing.
Gay's coach, Jon Drummond, tried to relax him by giving him chocolate chip cookies from a nearby store. "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, how close I was to losing my dream," Gay would say later. "And I was thinking about the Veronica situation, how that could be me, and I was just really nervous." On Sunday morning Gay's mother, Daisy Lowe, took him out for a pancake breakfast. Still Gay fretted, imagining the worst.
This is the nature of the trials, an unforgiving test with no margin for error: The top three in each event go to Beijing (provided they have met Olympic qualifying standards); the fourth-place finisher goes home and waits four more years. "There is nothing to prepare you for the pressure," says shot putter Adam Nelson, a two-time silver medalist who qualified for his third Olympics by throwing a 16-pound steel ball 3 1/2 inches farther than fourth-place Dan Taylor.
"It's worse than the Olympics," says Lauryn Williams, the silver medalist in the 100 in Athens, who qualified for her second Games with a third-place finish—behind surprise winner Muna Lee and runner-up Torri Edwards—.03 of a second in front of Marshevet Hooker. The four top finishers stood together on the track, staring at the towering scoreboard, awaiting their fate. Said Williams, "It was the most nervous-wreck feeling I've ever had in my life."
On Sunday afternoon alone the trials served up a meet's worth of harsh reality and redemption. Sixty-seven minutes apart, 2004 gold medalists Tim Mack (pole vault) and Dwight Phillips (long jump) were eliminated from the '08 team. On the same day, Bershawn Jackson won the 400 hurdles four years after he banged the final barrier so hard at the pre-Athens trials that he went from first place to fourth in the final 20 meters.
Pole vaulter Jeff Hartwig, who made the team in 1996 then missed it in 2000 and '04, despite holding the American record, made it again on Sunday at age 40. He will be the oldest U.S. vaulter in Olympic history and is duly imbued with perspective and appreciation. "Had I made those teams, who knows whether I'd be here right now," says Hartwig. "You see athletes who make teams year after year, but our process is never easy. It's always difficult."
THE DRAMA began last Friday, on the first night of the trials, which returned to the athletic home of the late Steve Prefontaine for the first time since 1980. Appropriately, it started with a distance race, the women's 10,000 meters, in which two competitions unfolded.
In the first Shalane 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 a groundbreaking bronze medal in this event at the world championships last August in Osaka, Japan. Both aspire to challenge the mighty Ethiopians, which is akin to chasing the Soviets in hockey three decades ago.
"My goal is to win a medal in Beijing," says Goucher, who lives in Portland and is coached by distance great Alberto Salazar. She had logged nine 100-mile training weeks in preparation for the trials, and three weeks ago ran six repeat miles in 4:53 each at 6,000-foot elevation in Provo, Utah. With each passing day she became stronger.