Zoila Gomez, Khalid Khannouchi, Blake Russell, Trent Briney. What do those four runners have in common? They were the fourth place finishers at the 2008 and 2004 US Olympic Marathon Trials. Fourth place. When talking about Olympic spots, fourth place is the most painful place….in essence, the first loser. The top three go on to compete in the Olympics. Fourth place just leads the hundreds of others who must wait four more years for another chance.
For Dathan Ritzenhein (aka “Ritz,” who was a 2008 Olympian) and Amy Hastings (no Olympics yet), they reluctantly add their name to the Gomez, Khannouchi, Russell, and Briney list. If it’s any consolation, four years after her fourth place finish, Russell qualified for the next Olympics in the marathon. In addition, both Ritzenhein and Hastings can still race at the 2012 US Olympic Track & Field Trials in June to try to make the Olympic team on the track. Both of them have pretty solid chances of making the team in either the 10,000 meters or 5,000 meters. Ritzenhein is a former American record holder at 5,000 meters and was sixth at the 2009 World Championships in the 10,000 meters. Hastings is coming off a season in which she made the World Championship final in the 5,000 meters in Daegu.
“Trying out for the olympics (sic) is being willing to serve your heart on a platter along with a knife and carving instructions.” That was US professional runner, Lauren Fleshman’s Facebook status the other day. Fleshman would know. Although she has been the USA Champion for 5,000 meters twice (2006 and 2010) and competed at three IAAF World Championships (2003, 2005, and 2011), she has endured two disappointing “tryouts for the Olympics” (also known as the Olympic Trials). In 2004 she was injured and unable to compete. In 2008, she faded to a non-Olympic team qualifying fifth place.
The US has a very objective system to qualify for the Olympics. Four years of training comes down to one race. It’s all or nothing. It insures that the US Olympic marathon and track & field athletes have earned their spot on the team, having endured the pressure that accompanies the Olympic Trials. Before the 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials, I read a line that stuck with me, “trying to add the word Olympian to their name.” By placing in the top three, one qualifies for the Olympics and does have the word Olympian associated with their name for the rest of their life. That’s quite the reward, but with such a mighty reward comes pressure and the potential for disappointment – thus “serving your heart on a platter with a knife and carving instructions.”
As it turned out, of the six qualifiers (three men and three women), only one truly added Olympian to their name. That would be Desiree Davilla. For the other five, this is a return trip to the Olympics. This will be Meb Keflezighi’s third Olympics, Ryan Hall’s second, Abdi Abdirahman’s fourth, Shalane Flanagan’s third, and Kara Goucher’s second.
It is no wonder that Ritzenhein and Hastings were so distraught at the finish line of the Olympic Marathon Trials. Both of them shed tears as the reality that they did not miscount, they were fourth, set in.
Ritzenhein, who was only eight seconds behind Abdirahman for the coveted third place spot, was described as disconsolate at the finish by bloggers covering the race. Despite running a PR, in post race interviews he said things like “Obviously being fourth is the worst place to be, and I’m trying not to react in the completely negative, but the marathon has been a continued problem. I’m not saying that I will never run another marathon but I am going to shift my focus back to the track. I am really going to focus on the disciplines and distances that I am good at.”
Hastings, who finished over 70 seconds behind Goucher, said in a Runners World interview that she had known for the last two miles that she was not going to finish in the top three but that she held back tears for miles 25 and 26 because crying then would affect her breathing. But the tears rained down when she finished. Still, she composed herself to attend the post-race press conference as the official USA Olympic Marathon alternate. That takes some class.
There’s something noble about being fourth at the Olympic Trials. I wish I were the fourth best at something out of everyone in the USA. If that something happened to be an Olympic event, all the better, but I’d settle for being fourth American at anything. The sting of fourth place will be there for a while for Ritz and Hastings but hopefully over time they will be proud that they gave it their best and they will rebound to battle for an Olympic spot in the future.