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Track and field Olympic Trials confirm the American “system” works better than ever

Gabby Thomas wins the 200m final at the U.S. Trials in 21.61, breaking Allyson Felix's meet record and moving to No. 2 all-time behind Flo-Jo while Felix settles for fifth.

Saturday evening at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Allyson Felix did something she has done hundreds of times: She raced 200m, half the distance around a standard running track, beginning where only one race in the sport begins and finishing where all of them finish. At the starter’s command, she folded herself into her starting blocks and lowered her head, braids resting on her back. At the gun, she surged forward and into the curve that comprises the first portion of the race. Felix’s was the most accessible story in the race – a 35-year-old Olympic legend, mother and activist seeking to add the 200 to the 400m spot she had already earned in Eugene, ensuring participation in her fifth Olympic Games (even though the event schedule would preclude running those two events in Tokyo).

That narrative dissolved summarily, as 24-year-old Gabby Thomas, running a lane inside Felix, swallowed up the stagger between them in two dozen long strides and drifted away from Felix and, eventually, the rest of the field. Thomas won the race to qualify for her first Olympic team, and ran a time of 21.61 seconds; only Florence Griffith Joyner has run faster, 33 years ago. Felix finished fifth in 22.11 seconds, the same time she ran 18 years ago in Mexico City as a high school senior, announcing herself to the world of track and field. “I just didn’t have it,” said Felix afterward. “Right from the gun.” Thomas, meanwhile, very much did.

Hold that image.

The track Trials are always a rollicking endeavor, rarely hewing to form, 10 days spent rumbling down the tracks, wobbling and weaving, side-to-side, somehow reaching their destination and leaving the entire sport gleefully exhausted. This summer’s edition began with a doping controversy, and overwhelmed that on the first weekend with soaring performances (Shelby Houlihan might not agree fully). There were too many false starts and too few spectators (Covid takes much of the blame for that), and for last two days, competition was so bludgeoned by record-setting intense heat that the meet finished at 1 a.m. Monday in the Eastern time zone, with track fans either sleep-deprived or actually asleep, and it was still nearly 100 degrees in Eugene.

Nevertheless, come the finish in those wee hours, U.S. Track did what U.S. Track does best – it replicated itself. Some older athletes endured, others were supplanted by youth. But the team that alighted from Oregon is the strongest in the world by a wide margin, as it has most often been in the history of the Olympics. And it is one of the strongest assembled by the USA in the recent history of the Games.

This is a remarkable thing. Succession is central to every sport, which is why the NFL Draft, the NBA lottery and college football recruiting are quite nearly sports unto themselves, tethered to their mother ships, but with an entire sustaining culture around them. Track is no different in concept (i.e. replenishing the talent pool is a vital task), but entirely different in construction. Professional sports franchises and major college sports are businesses, with a front office corporate hierarchy. There are perhaps a dozen people in the Cleveland Browns’ draft “war room.”

American track and field is an enterprise that sprawls across the breadth of the country, from tiny rural towns to urban centers. If there was a war room filled with people tasked with facilitating sustained excellence in track and field, it would be the size of Toledo. In times of hand-wringing over the performance of Team USA in global championships, or when medal-hauling superstars reach retirement age; it is often asked whether the “American System” needs an overhaul to keep the victories coming. There is no American system. There are high schools and colleges and local junior track programs. There are thousands of coaches, teachers, volunteers and other supporters, the vast majority (but not all) modestly compensated, a quilt knitted together by a common passion for their ancient sport. (There are also shoe and apparel companies, whose support is evolving, but has historically been concentrated at the highest levels and often of scant value to developing athletes). Nothing needs overhauling.

It is less a system than a leap of faith, yet again and again and again, across time, years, Olympiads and generations, greatness is replaced by greatness, as if on an assembly line; a small miracle – a sports dynasty not manufactured, but left in the sunshine to grow. And damn if it doesn’t. So it was over 10 days in Eugene, where the entire disconnected enterprise came together in a ruthless and dispassionate selection process, because clocks and tape measures do not weep for those left behind.

Thomas’ Saturday night victory over Felix (Jenna Prandini and Anavia Battle also made the U.S. team in that event) was the quintessential Trials passage. Felix is track royalty, with nine Olympic and 18 world championship medals dating back 17 years, but as she has advanced into her 30s, she has spent increasing time in the 400m, a common sense concession to the inevitable loss of explosive speed. Thomas, a Texas native and Harvard graduate, was perfectly positioned to collect on this deficit, but her time was stunning – in the span of those 21.61 seconds, she shot past Marion Jones, Merlene Ottey (Jamaica), Felix, and a long list of former Eastern bloc sprinters, exceptionally fast company. “I cannot believe I put up that time,” said Thomas after the race. “Now I want more.” She is running in a rare place; Flo-Jo’s times have long been considered untouchable for and conceivable future (and to be fair, her world record of 21.34 from the Seoul Olympic final is still far out in the distance, but Thomas now has an obstructed view and a potentially long future).

Yet Thomas’ ascension was neither the first nor the last at these extraordinary Trials. For more than a decade, U.S. sprinters have chased Jamaica to recapture global pre-eminence in the Bolt Era; last weekend 25-year-old Trayvon Bromell won the men’s 100m and 21-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson the women’s 100. Bromell will be the Tokyo favorite and Richardson will test 34-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica in her dotage, and stands in position to succeed her. The helping to swing the pendulum back.

Likewise, U.S. men have historically dominated both the 110m hurdles and the flat 400m, but have been spotty in recent years, winning the hurdles just once in the last five Olympics and the 400m not since 2008. On Friday night, however, 23-year-old Grant Holloway ran the hurdles in a searing 12.81 seconds, just .01 off Aries Merritt’s 2012 world record, and cruised to an easy victory in the final. He will be the favorite in Tokyo, with that record within reach. Michael Norman, 23, ran a quiet 44.07 to win the 400m in Eugene, and could also be favored in Tokyo, pending the health of defending gold medalist and world record holder Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, who has wrestled with injuries since his lane-eight tour de force in Rio. Norman’s former USC teammate, Rai Benjamin, like Holloway, narrowly missed a world record on Friday night, running 46.82 in the 400m hurdles, just shy of Kevin Young’s revered 46.78, which has stood since the 1992 Olympics (and which Young himself never approached again).

All of this was prelude to a surreal Sunday night in Oregon. The historic heat wave which engulfed the Pacific Northwest had been predicted for days, but meet officials plowed through largely on schedule, moving only the women’s 10,000m and men’s 5,000m races to slightly cooler weather in the mornings, while retaining full evening programs. But when temperatures climbed toward 110 degrees on Sunday afternoon, the final four track events were shifted to later in the evening, along with the men’s long jump and the final event of the heptathlon. Athletes’ fragile schedules were tested, along with television fans’ stamina.

The first track event of the late night program brought generations together and produced a sensational – but as yet incomplete – torch passage. Two years ago at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, then-20-year-old Sydney McLaughlin chased a 29-year-old Dalilah Muhammad across the line in the 400m hurdles, narrowly taking silver behind Muhammad’s world record (52.16 seconds) and setting up a rivalry between a leader and a closer, nearly a decade apart in age, one rapidly improving, one nearing her peak.

On Sunday night in Eugene, Muhammad, now 31, went out hard, per usual, but McLaughlin, 21, two years stronger than in Doha, stayed in contact. When the two runners reached the straightaway, McLaughlin was even with Muhammad and floated away to the world record in 51.90 seconds, the first sub-52-second time in the history of the event. It’s tempting to suggest that McLaughlin will never look back, but there is an intriguing subplot: Muhammad was injured early this year and is possibly still short of full fitness, and still not capital-O Old. Another plot point for Tokyo.

There was no such uncertainty in the women’s 800m, where 19-year-old Athing Mu is the future of the event, in America and possibly in the world. Ignoring an early near-fall and the presence of American record-holder Ajee’ Wilson, Mu ran with breathtaking grace and upright power, walking away from the field in the final 100 meters to finish in 1:56.07, the second-fast time in history, behind Wilson’s 1:55.61 four years ago. Wilson is just 27, but the eight years between her age and Mu’s played like decades in this race. The last American to win the 800m at the Olympic Games was Madeline Manning (Mims) at the legendary Mexico City Games of 1968. The last U.S. medal was 33 years ago, Kim Gallagher in Seoul.

Minutes later in the men’s 1500m, another champion found track life coming at him fast. Matthew Centrowitz is among the best U.S. milers in history. He made the 2012 Olympic team at age 22 and finished an agonizing fourth in London, behind U.S. teammate Leo Manzano’s surprise silver. Four years later in Rio, more mature at 26, Centrowitz held off the world for the entire final lap and won America’s first 1500 gold in 100 years. Centrowitz failed to medal in two subsequent world championship appearances but emerged this spring reborn. He controlled his Friday night semifinal until joined the stretch by 20-year-old Cole Hocker, like Centrowitz a University of Oregon runner, but nearly a decade younger, like McLaughlin in her event. (Hocker just finished his freshman year at Oregon).

In that semifinal, Hocker, whose running style is as animated as Centrowitz’s is fluid, ceded first place to his elder, both runners smiling but revealing nothing as they cruised to the finish. In Sunday’s final, Centrowitz took the lead 500 meters out, in control, but Hocker sprinted alongside in the final 100 meters, this time ceding nothing, churning past a grimacing Centrowitz at the finish line, like flipping calendar pages on an older man. Hocker put his fingers to his lips at the finish, as if silencing critics. “This whole year I felt like I was proving myself to the world,” said Hocker. “But also proving my talent to myself.”

(There is a catch here: Hocker has not run the Olympic standard of 3:35. It’s possible he won’t be in Tokyo, although he’s in the mix with a high world ranking in a complex system. But it’s dead certain he’s going nowhere in the long view).

The compression of time was even more urgent for Noah Lyles. Five years ago at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Eugene, he was an 18-year-old high school senior who scared the grown-ups with a fourth-place finish in the final, narrowly missing the team. He was anointed as the future of U.S. sprinting and subsequently ran 19.50 seconds for 200m (only Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Michael Johnson have run faster) and won the 2019 world title. But a drop down to the 100m – and broader supremacy – has proved challenging; he finished fifth in the 100 in these Trials. In Friday night’s 200m semifinal, he was beaten to the line by slender, 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton, whose time of 19.88 broke Bolt’s junior record. “Shut it down the last 20 meters,” said Knighton after semi. Lyles, meanwhile, was living his own ’16 Trials in the body of another sprinter.

The final restored some order. Lyles ran a season-best 19.74, fastest time in the world in 2021, and won the race, with the ever-consistent Kenny Bednarek second. “I don’t think anybody can prepare for the lion you have to slay at the Olympic Trials,’’ said Lyles, both ebullient and relieved. But Knighton rallied from an awful start to finish third and make the team with withering top-end speed to the line. He is the youngest U.S. track and field Olympian since Jim Ryun in 1964. He is also a living metaphor for the entire meet: The future chasing the present. As ever.

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