Checking in from Berlin – August 18, 2009
Thanks to Sherie’s arrival, we now have the wireless working in the apartment here in Berlin…who knew the difference between a capital C and lowercase c would be our Wi-Fi problem!
So now to send out some of my thoughts on the first few days of the World Championships.
Sunday was truly amazing – probably a night of track & field that may not be repeated in my lifetime. Starting at around 9:20pm and lasting for about 20-30 minutes it was athletics nirvana. First of all the pro-German crowd was already yelling, screaming, and rhythmically clapping for Nadine Kleinert every time she got in the shot put ring. Kleinert is a 3-time World Championships medalist and this is probably her last big meet. With the crowd behind her she was holding down the silver medal. At the same time, German heptathlete, Jennifer Oeser was competing in the last event (the 800) and contending for a medal. With 300 meters to go I heard a loud roar from the crowd. I couldn’t really understand why…Oeser was still in the middle of the pack. Then Malinda tapped me on the arm and pointed (she couldn’t say anything to me because it was too loud to hear her). Usain Bolt and the finalists in the men’s 100 were coming out of the tunnel and heading to the 100 meter start line. Back to the heptathlon, Oeser crosses the finish line in 4th and all eyes go to the scoreboard where they start putting up the cumulative heptathlon results. It got even louder when Oeser’s name appeared in the 2nd place position – a silver for Germany. Then all eyes back to the shot put. The knowledgeable crowd cheered when the Chinese athlete’s last throw did not beat Kleinert, guaranteeing at least a silver for Kleinert. And now ALL eyes went to the 100 meter start line. Bolt was his usual relaxed self, making faces and gestures for the camera. I used my flip video to video the crowd noise in anticipation for the race. It got amazingly quiet for the start, then it was yelling and screaming as the runners barreled down the track. And even though I thought it couldn’t get any louder, it did when Bolt crossed the finish line. I immediately looked at the clock and yelled to Malinda, “9.58, he ran 9.58.” You could see camera flashes going off all over the stadium as Bolt took his victory lap, posing for thousands of pictures along the way.
What an experience! Some day someone (maybe Bolt) will run faster. But it may be hard to ever top the atmosphere in the stadium for those 20-30 minutes thanks to the success the two German athletes had leading up to the 100 meter world record run.
My thoughts on Monday were on how perilous a top level athletes’ stay at the top can be. One year you are the man (or woman) and the next year, you may not even make the final. After the results from Sunday and Monday, I respect the long-term success of athletes like Sergey Bubka and Carl Lewis even more. For the last few years, Meseret Defar, Yelena isinbayeva, and Kenenisa Bekele have dominated their events (five gold medals among them in Beijing). But on Sunday, Defar looked beatable and she was…passed by four runners in the last lap to finish in 5th in the 10,000. On Monday, Isinbayeva passed the first four heights in the pole vault. Then missed at 4.75, passed to 4.85, and then missed again. It all came down to one vault – clear it and she wins the gold, miss it and she “no-heights” and finishes last. Keep in mind that Isi owns the world record at 5.05…4.85 should have been easy. But not on this day. She missed. Bekele made sure that these superstars did not go away empty handed, winning the 10,000 meters for the fourth time. He surged away to a decisive win.
Two Americans competing in what is probably their last international championship after years of success are Stacy Dragila and Amy Acuff. Dragila did not advance to the final in the pole vault, while Acuff lived to jump again, clearing 1.95 meters ( a season best) on her third attempt. It will be weird to not see these two, the poster girls (literally) of the pole vault and high jump, on future USA teams.
I’ve been impressed with the US distance runners. A lot of smart race plans and gutsy, leave it all out there running. First it was Amy Begley getting 6th in the 10,000 on the first night. Then it was Jenny Barringer in the 3000 steeplechase. She was quite a ways back early but the pace was fast and she was smart to hold back early. With about 3 laps to go she started moving up on the leaders and I noticed that the American record was in range. She kept on fighting and moved all the way up to 5th place, setting a new American record by 10 seconds. Then in the men’s 10,000 Galen Rupp and Dathen Ritzenheim showed they will not be intimated by the African runners. The two were in 10-12th place for most of the middle laps of this 25 lap race. Rupp was actually in front and looking strong while Ritz was plugging away. Halfway through I thought this is going to be Rupp’s day and that Ritz was in over his head and would probably fall back. Boy was I wrong. Rupp started to slow while Ritz maintained pace (running 65-67 seconds per lap). Ritz moved all the way up to grab 6th place and Rupp, while clearly looking exhausted and needing some medical assistance at the end, still managed 8th place. I got to give Ritz credit, twice he has been the top American at the international championship after being 2nd at the USA championship (2008-marathon vs Ryan Hall, 2009-10,000 meters vs Galen Rupp).
The US qualified three out of four men to the 1500 final – the L triplets: Leo (Manzano), Lopez Lomong, and (Bernard) Lagat. Let’s see if these three can be competitive in the Final.
The women qualified three runners to the semi-final but it took some drama. I was pretty heartbroken for awhile when Shannon fell in the first 200 of her heat and appeared not to qualify. The fall was right in front of where we were sitting. She did all the right things after the fall – got up quickly, slowly caught back up with the pack (not sprinting to immediately catch up). But when it came time to kick in the last 300 it just wasn’t there. I did not see all of Shannon’s college races, but I believe this is the first time she’s fallen during a race. As we left the meet all we could do was hope the US could appeal that because she fell (even though it was unintentional), she did not get a fair chance to compete and should be advanced on to the next round. This often happens at championship meets (including on Monday with an 800 runner from Kenya), so I knew it was possible…but also that it was not guaranteed. What a relief it was when we heard she was going to be able to race the semi-final on Friday.
This success from the US in the distance races took some of the sting away when Maggie Vessey (and the other women 800 runners) did not qualify for the final. Vessey has had such a roller coaster of a season. She never really attacked in her semi-final, starting the race in more or less last place and finishing in that same spot.
At the track tonight (Tuesday), I was again most impressed with the knowledge and spirit of the German fans. The crowd gets very very loud (and rightfully so) in support of their home country athletes. Tonight it was for Steffi Nerius in the javelin. Nerius was clearly motivated by the raucous crowd and unleashed a big throw early in the competition to take the lead. The world record holder Barbara Spotokova did her best to spoil the German’s party. On Spotokova’s last throw the crowd let out a roar when the spear was still mid-flight…apparently this knowledgeable crowd could tell just by the trajectory that the throw was not good enough to beat Nerius. And the crowd was right. Germany had its first gold medal of the championships.