Ahh Moments at the Olympic Trials
With seven days of the 2012 Olympic Trials in the books and one to go, I have experienced several “Ahh moments,” that I will remember and treasure in my mind and heart for a long time. These moments involved either an emotional display from an athlete upon realizing their Olympic dream or great sportsmanship from a competitor.
I already detailed one such instance of classy sportsmanship by Curtis Beach at the end of Ashton Eaton’s world record setting decathlon.
In the men’s long jump, coming into the final four jumps of the competition, George Kitchens Jr. was clinging precariously to third place. Kitchens, a 29 year old who works as a personal trainer in Georgia, had already jumped a lifetime best 8.21 meters, seven centimeters better than his previous best and more importantly one centimeter better than the Olympic A standard. When Christian Taylor’s final jump did not beat Kitchens’ mark, Kitchens had clinched his spot on the Olympic team. I turned my head down the runway and saw Kitchens crouched on the runway with his head in his arms. When he got up, you could see tears in his eyes. He finally composed himself to take his final jump and then as he walked away from the long jump pit he was again overcome with emotion and went to his knees again. The crowd became very quiet. When he stood back up, the announcer said “congratulations to Olympian George Kitchens” and the crowd went wild.
The drama in the long jump was just getting started. Marquis Goodwin and Will Claye both had jumps of 8.23 meters (27’0”). Goodwin was in first place on the basis of his superior second best jump (8.21 meters). On his last attempt, however, Claye had a big jump. After leaving the long jump pit Claye ran over and stood in front of the results board to await the measurement. It was 8.22 meters. Claye was now in first place on the basis of their second best jumps, 8.22 to 8.21. At this stage in the competition the five best jumps were all within two centimeters of each other (Goodwin’s 8.23 and 8.21, Claye’s 8.23 and 8.22, and Kitchen’s 8.21).
No sooner had Claye’s mark been recorded that Goodwin got ready for his last attempt. Goodwin called for the audience to rhythmically clap for him and Claye, still standing on the track near the long jump runway, joined in. Goodwin had a big jump and both he and Claye were visibly excited. Claye ran over towards Goodwin to congratulate him and when the mark of 8.33 meters flashed on the board, Claye was the first to hug Goodwin. Claye’s time in first place was shortlived but that didn’t stop him from celebrating Goodwin’s winning jump.
In the men’s 400, Bryshon Nellum grabbed third place and a spot on the team to London. Nellum’s journey to this point is pretty amazing. He was a record setting runner in high school at Long Beach Poly, becoming the first boy in California history to win the 400-200 double at the state meet in back-to-back years (2006 and 2007). However on Halloween night 2008, Nellum was mistaken as a gang member and shot in both thighs and one hamstring. Doctors were unsure he would ever run at an elite level again. After several surgeries, countless visits to the doctors and interview with the police, and sitting in the courtroom while his assailants were sentenced to fifteen years in prison, Nellum has put a lot of those ghosts behind him. He returned to racing for the University of Southern California (USC) in the spring of 2010. He placed third at the Pac-12 Championships in 2011 and then won the conference title in 2012. In the Olympic Trials men’s 400 meter final, Nellum ran 44.80 to place third, edging out his USC teammate Josh Mance by eight hundredths of a second for the final Olympic spot. Mance, however, was not at all upset at losing to his teammate. “Of everybody at the Olympic Trials, he has the best story, the most inspirational,” said Mance, “He should be the headliner of this whole meet. No track athlete gets shot with a shotgun and has three bullets go through both legs and is still out there running 44.8s. He’s a blessing.”
In the men’s 800, the television coverage of the finish is quite touching. Duane Solomon ran 1:44.65 to not only place third but also achieve the Olympic A standard and thus qualify for London. The NBC camera caught Solomon lying on the track after the race crying tears of joy. Race winner (and five-time USA champion) Nick Symmonds came over to Solomon and said, “Stand up buddy, you are an Olympian.” Solomon got up and Symmonds gave him a big hug and said he was proud of him. Seconds later a still emotional Solomon was greeted by his coach American 800 meter record holder Johnny Gray. Gray was extremely excited repeatedly telling Solomon, “That’s what I was talking about” and pointing to the time on the scoreboard.
In the men’s discus, Lance Brooks had by far the four best throws of the competition. His mark during the qualifying around of 64.80 meters was over two meters better than the second best throw of the qualifying round. Brooks first three throws of the final were: 64.13, 64.15, and 64.44. Unfortunately, Brooks had yet to achieve the Olympic A standard of 65.00 meters so despite dominating the competition (no other thrower was within three meters of him), Brooks ticket to London was in serious doubt. Feeling the pressure, Brooks fouled on his fourth and fifth attempts. Jarred Rome threw 63.55 to move into second place in the last round. With only Brooks’ final throw remaining, Rome was second, Jason Young was third, and Ian Waltz (who had been third before Rome’s 63.55) was in fourth. However, Rome, Young and Waltz all had the Olympic A standard. Rome and Young were going to London. Brooks would need to throw 65.00 meters or better on his final throw to join them. Otherwise, Waltz would be the third member of the discus team. Brooks got the crowd to rhythmically clap before stepping into the ring. He unleashed a big throw, well over the 60 meter line. It was clearly the farthest throw of the competition but was it 65 meters? All eyes were on the scoreboard and then came a big roar from the crowd when the mark, 65.15 meters, flashed up on the scoreboard. Brooks was going to London by fifteen centimeters.
Lest you think that all the big emotional moments are being turned in by men, I conclude with the women’s 5000 meters. Seven of the sixteen women had achieved the Olympic A standard of 15:20. Included in that group were Julia Lucas, Molly Huddle, and Julie Culley. The key runners without the A standard who decided to go for it in this race were Kim Conley and Alisha Williams. Those two handled the pacing for the first seven laps before Huddle took over the lead. The leader was at 4:58 at 1600 meters and 9:20 at 3000 meters. They were running 1:15 per lap but with five laps to go would need to run 6:00 (1:12 per lap) to hit the Olympic A standard. It was do-able but they needed to pick up the pace and that didn’t seem to be happening. If things stayed like that, Huddle, Lucas, and Culley seemed destined for London. With slightly more than three laps to go, Lucas surged, running a 1:08 lap and opening up a sizeable lead on the pack. In hindsight, I think this was a tactical error because Lucas was better off if the pace stayed above 15:20 to keep others from achieving the A standard. In any case, Lucas held the lead with a lap to go but was showing signs of slowing. Culley and Huddle would pass her on the backstretch. In a finish that because of what was happening six seconds back in the pack has been overlooked, Culley passed Huddle on the inside in the final strides to claim first place. But all eyes were on the battle for third place. As early as 300 meters to go, I started thinking that Dartmouth’s Abbey D’Agostino might catch Lucas, who was really slowing down (“I felt like I was running underwater,” Lucas would later say). With 100 meters to go Lucas started to look wobbly and that’s when I noticed Conley, one of the women who was doing the work and setting a pace to make the A standard possible early in the race. Conley was making up ground fast. There were two questions, 1) Would Conley catch D’Agostino and Lucas for third, and 2) If she did, would she be under 15:20?
It was too close to call at the finish line. All eyes went to the scoreboard where the result flashed up. Conley in third place in 15:19.79. Third place and the A standard! Conley, a Northern California native who attended Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa and then UC Davis, was going to London! My heart goes out to Lucas, who was fourth in 15:19.83 (.04 behind Conley). She may not have made the best tactical decision to surge with three laps to go but she ran with guts and she showed a lot of class in her post-race interview. It took almost a miracle kick by Conley to beat her.
The fact that the US Olympic Track & Field Trials are a make or break proposition that takes place only once every four years makes for some pretty emotional moments. I’m biased but I am hoping for a personal “Ahh moment,” around 4:23 P.M. on Sunday. Go Shannon!