Thoughts and Comments on the 2009 USA Track & Field Championships, Part 4
Saturday and Sunday:
Saturday – Women’s 1500
I was too nervous for Shannon’s upcoming race to really take in and truly enjoy all the action on Saturday. As her 6:11pm race got closer and closer, I noticed I was talking less and less, tuning out Malinda, John, and Asit, and checking the time constantly. Finally it was time for her race.
There’s not too much to say here about the race since I’ve probably talked about it to death already. But here goes. It was an amazing race. Christin Wurth-Thomas took off with over two laps to go and built a sizeable lead. This was totally expected by all. Shannon waited patiently in the pack until there was one lap to go. Many (me included?) thought she may have waited too long to make her move. But, I’ve seen Shannon pull off some miracles in the last lap of a race before so there was still hope. She closed the gap, and honestly, with 150 meters to go, I felt fairly confident that Shannon would catch Wurth-Thomas. But, I was also worried about Anna Willard back in 3rd place mounting a big kick (I’ve seen her do that, too). In front of 10,000 screaming fans, especially her parents and the Pamakids in Section C, Shannon pulled off the victory. I must add here, that Wurth-Thomas dropping a 62 lap in the middle of the 1500, was a pretty good strategy for her. Making a bold move in the middle of the race was her only chance of winning the race. As suicidal as it may have seemed, she did not cost herself a spot on the team to Berlin and she almost pulled off the upset win. Hats off to her.
Back to Shannon, what a difference three weeks makes. Her disappointment from the Prefontaine Meet was vanquished as she pumped her fists as she crossed the finish line. In the overall picture, she may look back at getting her butt kicked at Prefontaine as the best thing that could have happened. For the last three weeks, she’s been focused and training with a bit of a chip on her shoulder. It paid off.
I am e-mail buddies with 1984 Olympian Ruth Wysocki. Ruth has constantly said that to win international races Shannon needs to be able to run the last 400 in 60 and to break 2:00 in the 800. On Saturday she did #1. I know a major goal of Shannon’s is to get under 2:00 in the 800 and she’ll get her shot at that in some races in Europe in July. I think Ruth is right. Having seen Shannon stay patient and then unleash that big kick makes me feel that she is a step ahead of where she was last year in terms of being ready for international competition. Can’t wait for Berlin!
Sunday – Women’s Pole Vault
Like Thursday during the High Jump, there was a sentimental reason to follow the Women’s Pole Vault on Sunday. Stacy Dragila, a pioneer in women’s pole vaulting (first Olympic Champion, first World champion, 17-time USA champion both indoors and outdoors, and American and World Record holder) has been vague about whether this would be her last year of competition. She placed 3rd to qualify for Berlin. When asked afterwards if this would be her last meet on US soil she was again vague but then thanked a whole bunch of doctors and therapists who helped her with her various ailments. I couldn’t help but think that it’s probably time for her to retire.
Sunday – Women’s 800
I’ve known who Maggie Vessey is since she ran the 400 in 54 for Soquel High School. I remember seeing her come off the track in tears at the 2000 State Meet after what I guess was an awful race (she was 7th). I told Shannon that no matter what happened, she needed to come off the track with her head up because she should be proud of herself for competing at the State Meet. I followed Vessey’s career as she moved up to the 800 at Cal Poly SLO and has had some success as a post-collegiate athlete. The “world” learned who Maggie Vessey is when, with the slowest PR in the field, she came from the back of the pack in the last 200 meters to win the Prefontaine Classic (Pre) 800 three weeks ago. The non-descript uniform she was wearing (i.e. no sponsor) and shocked look on her face told half the story.
Fast forward to this week’s competition. Vessey is now sporting a New Balance uniform so her victory at Pre did net her a sponsor. In both the first round and the semi-finals, Vessey went to the back of the pack for the first lap and then kicked it into gear in the last half lap to qualify. She looked smooth and fast in the last 200 both times and although it was probably nerve-wracking for her camp to watch, she seemed to be doing exactly what she wanted to do.
At the final, she employed the same strategy. After 200 meters, everyone was bunched together around 29 seconds and she was 10 meters back at 30. Then she slowed down even more and came through the 400 in 62 something, now 15 meters back. This strategy of staying in the back to run the shortest distance on the rail and not get boxed in worked well at Pre when the first 200 was an almost suicidal 26. It also works well when you are superior to everyone in the field (a la Yuri Borsakovski from Russia, but even for him this strategy sometimes blows up in his face). It also is an effective strategy in the qualifying rounds because you are running against some inferior competition and you are trying to conserve energy and qualify. But I didn’t understand the strategy for the final. The pace by the front pack was very moderate. She could have been in last place but still in contact with the group. There was no reason to conserve energy for the next day…This was THE DAY! In my opinion, since she doesn’t even have the A standard yet, she shouldn’t have been acting like she was the far superior runner in the field.
She was so far back that I almost stopped watching her. She closed with a fast 28 last 200 and moved up to 4th, but she couldn’t quite get by Phoebe Wright for 3rd place. It doesn’t matter that she had a nice kick. It doesn’t matter that she passed four people in the final straightaway. The goal was to be top three and she didn’t do it. I think her race tactics were the reason.
In Vessey’s defense, this meet was like no other in her career. The expectations and pressure had to be enormous, coming off the win at Pre, now having a sponsor, and being one of the favorites to make the team for Berlin. It is no wonder that she was quoted in the newspaper the next day saying that she only got an hour sleep the night before the race and that, “ I was in a different position than what I’ve been in, and I let the pressure get to me a little bit.”
Another Shannon connection who was in the 800 final was Alysia Johnson, who placed 7th. Johnson, who ran at Cal, was the 2007 USA Champion in the 800 meters and has run under 2:00. She’s known for wearing a flower in her hair. Malinda and I got to talk to her as we walked to lunch the day after the meet ended. She seemed to be limping so she might have been injured. There is a picture on Shannon’s website of Shannon and Alysia at the beach together in San Diego on an off-day from training, so they must have gotten to know each other. Back in 2001, Shannon was a junior and the favorite to win the California State Meet 800. Johnson, only a freshmen, was in the race. Out of the eight competitors Shannon had in that race, Johnson worried me the most. On that June day back in 2001, Shannon won her first high school state championship and Johnson placed 8th. Who knew then that their paths would keep crossing in the world of track & field?
Sunday – Men’s 800
The main story of the Men’s 800 was hometown hero Nick Symmonds taking 1st and the other hometown hero Christian Smith being unable to dive at the finish line to get 3rd like he did last year at the Olympic Trials.
Lost in the sentiment of “this race can never live up to last year’s Olympic Trials 800,” was the early leader, Karjuan Williams. I noticed Williams’ name earlier in the meet but had to wait until I got home to confirm that he was who I thought he was. Williams was a high-level junior athlete from New Orleans. At one junior meet he crossed paths with track fan Nick Sparks who ran on some fast relay teams for Bella Vista High School (Sacramento area) in the early 1980’s. Sparks, who ran at Notre Dame University collegiately, has gone on to fame as an author (five best-selling books, including “The Notebook”) and he is still active in the track & field scene in his hometown of New Bern, North Carolina (he has donated a lot of money to help track over the years). When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Sparks and his family wanted to do something to help. They wanted to do more than send money or food and blankets. Sparks remembered that this kid Williams was a great 800 runner (1:50) and that he lived in New Orleans, so he started searching for him. Williams, his mom and two sisters had re-located to Arkansas. Things were tight with money for them and despite some initial hesitation, they eventually accepted Sparks’ offer to move to New Bern and live with the Sparks family. A full re-cap of the story behind the man leading the men’s 800 for the first lap can be found here: http://www.dyestatcal.com/news/xc2005New/November/09KWilliams.html
Williams was running unattached so I don’t know if he went to college or what has happened to him since the move to New Bern. Williams faded to 7th, but it was a real treat to see someone that I had read about in a track human interest story four years ago competing at USA Nationals.
Sunday – Men’s 1500
Now that the drama to cut down from 51 athletes in the first round to 12 in the final was over, we could settle in and just enjoy the men’s 1500 final. Despite all the qualifying procedure complaints, there really wasn’t anyone missing from the field of 12 that I felt would have been a factor to medal in Berlin. The big guns were 2008 Olympians Leo Manzano and Lopez Lomong, and if they were there, in my mind, the US’s best were there. Leo trains with Shannon so naturally I root for him. Before the Prefontaine Classic I met him at a group dinner and I really enjoyed talking to him. Lopez, if you recall, was the US flag bearer at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies last year in Beijing (I said to him, “nice job carrying the flag,” when Malinda took a photo of me and Lopez together outside the Bird’s Nest). Lopez is also somewhat famous for being one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. ESPN has a great article about the Lost Boys of Sudan at: http://sports.espn.go.com/oly/trackandfield/columns/story?id=3468567. I felt that no matter who won, it was likely that a “good guy” would win the race.
The Pamakids Pick The Winner Game became the new drama. It all came down to this event. I had Leo and I was leading with 46 points. Tomas was 2nd with 44 points and he had Lopez. Tomas would win the game if Lopez won the 1500. Any other result meant that I would win. Such drama!
The wind was pretty strong and I knew I was in trouble when Leo led for much of the first three laps. In a race that was going to be close, Lopez was gaining too much of an advantage by sitting on Leo’s shoulder while Leo took the wind. Sure enough, with 200 to go, Lopez surged to the lead and despite a valiant effort, Leo could not answer back. Lopez-1st, Leo-2nd: Tomas-49, Andy-48.
Maybe the biggest news from this race was the absence of Alan Webb. Webb, who had to kick furiously during the first round to pass Cal’s David Torrence to just barely qualify, apparently injured his calf and decided not to race. In terms of the final result, I don’t think it mattered. Something has happened to Webb over the last two years and he is just not at the same caliber that he once was (it was only two years ago in July 2007 that he set the American Record in the mile). After the 2007 World Championships, this is what I had to say about him and championship racing:
In my opinion, fast times are nice but a runner’s place in American distance running history is really determined by how well you can race at a championship meet like the Olympics or World Championships (that’s why you may or may not know who Steve Holman is). It’s about racing not time trialing. When Webb left the University of Michigan after his freshman year of college to turn pro and go back to his high school coach, I was often asked if it was a good idea or not. My answer then was, we won’t know until 2007 in Osaka or 2008 in Beijing or maybe even 2012. Clearly that is what Webb was focused on and he was willing to sacrifice short term college glory to obtain his goal of “championship success.” At the 2005 World Championships, his tactics were questioned because he surged to a big lead with 700 meters to go and then faded to 9th. This past week at the 2007 World Championships, Webb came into the meet as the world leader for the year. He appeared confident and based on his American record in the mile, a couple decisive victories over Bernard Lagat, and some fast times in the 800 & 1500, he was considered one of the favorites. He seemed intent on being up front to force an honest (decently fast) pace. Watching the race, I don’t think he went out too fast. And when 18 year old Kiprop of Kenya took the lead on the 3rd lap, things seemed perfect for Webb. But when it came time to drop the hammer, time to throw tactics aside and run all out for a medal, Webb did not have the same gear to go to as the others in the race. He didn’t fall off badly. But at the world class level, you have to be able to put it into a certain gear to be successful. Whether it was peaking at the wrong time, over-confidence, poor tactics, the prelims tiring his legs out (you must run two qualifying races and then the final in five days), or still his youth, the fact of the matter is he was a disappointing 8th. Lagat, who earlier this year lost to Webb twice, became America’s first 1500 World Champion since 1908. And the jury still remains out on Webb. Can he develop into a championship racer to go along with his fast times?
Unfortunately, he’s done nothing to prove himself as a championship racer since then. And now his time trialing ability seems also to have disappeared, leaving Webb as just an also-ran at the USA Championships. Someone who isn’t even missed when he scratches from the final. It is really sad because his previous fast times suggest he has talent. Will we see a return of Alan Webb to championship level and American record setting times? Or will the answer to the question, “Was it a good idea or bad idea to leave Michigan after freshman year?” become: a bad idea.