Grace Emerges As Winner In Race Marred by Accident
By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
EUGENE, OR (04-Jul) -- There is a saying that the USA Olympic Trials are more about heartbreak than happiness.
PHOTO: Chrishuna Williams, Kate Grace and Ajee' Wilson in the final sprint to the line in the 800m final at the 2016 USA Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
Such was the case this afternoon in the women's 800m, where a pair of Olympic contenders were tripped up while three others sprinted their way to glory. The trio smiling after two laps were Kate Grace, Ajee' Wilson, and Chrishuna Williams. The unlucky duo: Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montano.
Through 400 meters in 57.46, Montano held a solid lead with Oregon's Raevyn Rogers and Wilson behind. Executing her plan to stay out of trouble, Montano appeared strong as she rounded the curve and headed down the backstretch. Behind her, the field was shifting like chess pieces. Strategies were unfolding left and right.
Wilson moved up, as did Molly Ludlow, and Martinez began her patented slingshot move on the outside through 600 meters.
The Bowerman Curve --which has seen so much magic over the years-- claimed two victims in a matter of seconds.
Montano began to tighten up as she hit 250 meters to go, yet kept pumping with hopes of keeping the lead. Going by on the outside was Wilson, then Rogers on the inside. When Martinez followed Wilson, she gradually moved to her left and gained two steps on Montano. Yet reaching the curve's apex, Montano's momentum carried her into the heels of Martinez. The pair tangled.
Martinez flailed her arms and managed to stay upright, but her momentum was halted. Montano tumbled to Hayward Field's maroon surface with a thud. With that, both of their Olympic 800m dreams went up in smoke.
Managing to avoid the mayhem were Grace, who was well-placed in the inside line, Wilson, and Williams. They'd power down the stretch to finish first, second and third in 1:59.10, 1:59.51, and 1:59.59, respectively. Yet most of the 21,713 fans in Hayward Field kept watching Martinez and Montano.
"I think I executed the plan but I got clipped and lost my momentum. I felt great, but that's track and field," said a heartbroken Martinez, first to speak to reporters. Tears formed in her eyes. "I trained so hard and it just didn't come together that last 150m... I just couldn't regain my composure I guess. That's what I've been practicing in the rounds, just slingshotting off the turns."
While Martinez still has an opportunity to qualify for the Olympic team in the 1500m later this week, her best shot was likely the 800m. Husband and coach Carlos Handler was visibly frustrated and upset, saying that it was entirely Montano's fault for the mix-up. Though he did file a protest, it was denied by meet officials. She wound up seventh in 2:06.63.
Taking more than a minute to make her way down the final straight, Montano fell to the track multiple times out of sheer heartache. Last in 3:06.77, she spent 30 minutes trying to compose herself before entering the press center with daughter Linnea by her side. Tears flowed down both cheeks.
"I was really, really focused on executing my race, and part of that execution was staying mentally in it, mentally strong," she said. "I stepped out there and so perfectly executed my race. I knew that the girls were going to panic and were going to start going crazy with 200 to go. I just needed to stay on the outside of lane two, and at 150 turn on the jets. We've practiced it a thousand times. At 150 I was in the most safe position so far out. You can't predict what happens with someone else..." Her voice trailed off.
Montano's emotion was pent up not just because of the race's outcome, but also because of the tumultuous months she's had to go through to get to this point. With the revelation of the Russian systemic doping in athletics, it came to light that Montano was cheated out of multiple global medals, including one from the 2012 Olympics.
Having no faith in the IAAF system, Montano said she'd focused all her mental, emotional, and physical energy into today's final. Today's final was supposed to be her time to shine and return to the Olympic stage again, an Olympics where the Russians were banished and she'd have another shot at taking a lap of honor.
With the fall, however, all hopes of redemption were gone.
"It doesn't really set in at that moment in time, especially when it's like, 'this is it,'" Montano said. "You get up and you're really far away. Your heart breaks."
"I felt like my biggest struggle has been staying emotionally intact with everything in the sport, finding peace in why I am even trying for an Olympic team knowing what the IAAF has done, what it means to even go for a medal. That was my biggest struggle this year. And I made it, I made it all the way to the final with all of that emotional baggage carrying with me. Yeah, I guess in a way I felt like if I could get through that this would be the easy part."
For more than ten minutes Montano answered question after question, her voice quivering at points because of the heartache. Yet to her credit she didn't run off or deflect the hard questions. She answered straight on, taking a few seconds here and there to look at her daughter and pull her close. Husband Louis stood behind the pair.
At the end of the day, though, there were three deserving women who qualified for Rio and the Olympic Games. For Grace, she picked the perfect time to finish on her first championships podium; the Oiselle and NorCal Distance Project athlete had never before placed in the top three at a high school, NCAA or USA Championship.
"It's surreal and I'm ecstatic. I can't believe it," said the Yale University alum. With the support of family and friends in the crowd, many of whom have been by her side through injuries and tough spots, Grace said the win even more meaningful. "It's been a long, long road."
Neither Wilson nor Williams let the fall enter their mind in the final straight. Both knew their first Olympic team berth was at stake. Williams, interestingly, only trains on the track, and does not do the typical mileage of an 800m specialist. She only converted to the event at the University of Arkansas where she was a 400m runner.
Summing up the two lap race with maturity beyond her 22 years, Wilson was candid.
"With our race, everyone wants to be in the optimal position. Everyone's coach tells them to try and be towards the front, third, fourth, on the outside of lane two. When you have everyone trying to get that position, there are going to be casualties. People are going to bump into each other or go down," she said. Wilson has been a victim of similar incidents before. "It sucks when it's you, but at the end of the day it's part of the game."
Heartbreak wasn't reserved for Martinez and Montano. Ludlow --fourth at both the 2012 Trials and 2014 U.S. National Championships-- took fourth once again in 1:59.63.
Murphy, Berian, Jock Comprise Men's Olympic Team
Martinez's Big Bear Track Club teammate Boris Berian was the American leader in the 800m and entered tonight's nine-man final with a purpose. Off of an unusual waterfall start (six back and three up), he moved up through the race's first lap then hit the bell first in 50.60. Berian took control and began opening his stride up a la the Prefontaine Classic (where he won in 1:44.20).
Early front runners Brandon Johnson and Isaiah Harris seemed to pay the price for their aggression, as Berian continued to press out front. This came all the while Murphy and Jock slowly picked competitors off one by one; Murphy was second to last at the bell.
With 200 meters left Murphy knew he'd have what it takes to finish in the top three and lock up an Olympic spot. Only after he passed Berian with ten meters left and approached the stripe did he think he'd win. Crossing in 1:44.76, Murphy took home his first USA national title.
"It's overwhelming. The Olympian part over-weighs the national championship part for sure because the goal was to get top three going in. To be an Olympian and to be able to represent Team USA is something I've dreamed of since I started running. I can't wait to get to Rio," said Murphy, 21. The former Akron Zip has been on a tear for the last 12 months: he competed at the '15 IAAF World Championships, making the semi-finals; won the NCAA Indoor Championships 800m crown; ran to a first place in the NCAA Outdoor Championships 1500m at Hayward Field, and now is booked for the Olympic team thanks to a victory here.
"The big goal was to be an Olympian at the top of the list and second goal was to win an NCAA title. I've checked off those two goals," he said. "I'd say everything's gone to plan so far, to come out on top both times. But there's still one large meet left to run well at. Like I said, there's one month to get ready and the goal is to try to make the final there."
Murphy will be joined by Berian (second, in 1:44.92) and Jock (third, 1:45.48) in Rio de Janeiro. Fourth place went to Ole Miss Rebel Craig Engels, a late addition to the field after officials allowed him to advance after he fell in the semi-finals.
"It's a big relief. It's a stressful four days, but it's all worth it," Berian, the 2016 world indoor champion, said. "I'm just so proud right now."
The most blue collar fact to come out of the 800m was that Jock, a Nike Oregon Track Club Elite member based in Eugene, had ridden his bicycle to and from Hayward Field today.
"Like dawg I woulda given you a ride," tweeted his Nike Oregon Track Club Elite teammate Pat Casey.
Wild Last Lap Concludes Men's 5000M Prelim
It would take a final circuit in the 53-second range to advance to Saturday's 5000m final. In section one, Portland's Woody Kincaid took the field by surprise, surging ahead of Ryan Hill and Ben True. Kincaid managed to hold his pace around the track and into the stretch, finishing the final lap in 53.72 seconds to take the win in 13:47.86.
"We were jogging for most of it, and it was nice to be able to close hard," said True, third in 13:48.11. "But man, the Portland guy Kincaid, he has some wheels. I think we have to make the final a little bit quick to zing all the kick out of these young guys."
Hill was second in 13:47.89, while 10,000m Olympian Shadrack Kipchirchir was fifth. All will advance to the final.
The entire field surged at the bell of the second section, though it was the wisest and most seasoned vet in the field crossing the line first: 41-year-old Bernard Lagat. Lagat ran 53.64 to close the race, bouncing back strong from a DNF in Friday's 10,000m.
"I was composing myself to make sure I was out of trouble and ready to go fast that last lap," said Lagat. "What happened in the 10,000m was something, it's a new event for me... I thought I was ready to come back in the 5000m because I've been resting in the hotel, doing nothing really, just jogging, and I felt like I was ready coming into the stadium today."
Other notable finishers in the heat were Lopez Lomong in second, Eric Jenkins third, Hassan Mead fourth, and Paul Chelimo fifth (despite mistakenly taking a Tylenol PM --the drowsy kind-- rather than regular Tylenol before the race). Galen Rupp drew a loud cheer from the crowd when his name popped up on the video board after a long delay, securing the sixth and final automatic qualifying spot in 13:48.50.
Among those not to advance were 10,000m Olympian Leonard Korir and Nike Bowerman Track Club member Chris Derrick.
Favorites Easily Advance In Steeplechase
All favorites advanced with ease in both the men's and women's steeplechase prelims. Olympic veterans Emma Coburn and Donn Cabral had the fastest times on the day, running 9:35.28 and 8:26.96, respectively.
"Any steepler will tell you rounds still don't really feel easy. It's definitely a different effort than an all out race, but we're still navigating barriers," said Coburn. "It felt as comfortable as a steeplechase can feel I think, and I'm just ready to rest up and get ready for Thursday."
Olympian Bridget Franek took the first section in 9:39.93 over Courtney Frerichs (9:40.98), while Leah O'Connor ran 9:35.77 to edge Stephanie Garcia (9:35.95) and Colleen Quigley (9:37.03) in heat two.
American record holder Evan Jager and NCAA champion Mason Ferlic finished one-two in the second men's heat.
"I wanted to get through that as relaxed as possible," said Jager, who led the second half of the race after staying tucked in the main field. "My main focus, only focus, this year has been coming here, being fit and making the team and hopefully, if I make the team, do well in Rio."
Action on the track pauses for the next two days before distance races resume on Thursday, July 7, with the women's 5000m prelim, men's and women's 1500m prelims, and women's 3000m steeplechase final.