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
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."
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.