By Rich Sands, @sands
EUGENE, Oregon (21-Jun) -- The brutal nature of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field was on full display this evening when reigning world champion Donavan Brazier finished last in the 800-meter final, missing his chance for this summer's Tokyo Games. Brazier, who hadn't lost an 800 since May 2019 --and hadn't lost to an American since the 2016 trials-- finished last in a charged race here at Hayward Field. Only the top three finishers in each event (provided they have the Olympic Games qualifying standard) will be named to the squad.
IMAGE: Clayton Murphy wins the 2021 USA Olympic Trials 800m (video frame courtesy of NBC Sports)
Instead, it was Clayton Murphy, the Olympic bronze medalist in Rio, who came out on top, edging ahead of the audacious NCAA champion Isaiah Jewett of USC in the closing meters to defend his Trials title. Murphy clocked a world-leading 1:43.17 despite dealing with an injury in the days leading up to the meet.
Behind him, the front-running Jewett (who passed 400 in 50.60) ran a personal best 1:43.85 to make his first Olympic team, and Bryce Hoppel closed well to finish in 1:44.14 and grab the final spot for Tokyo. Brazier, whose final 200 took an agonizing 31.30 seconds, jogged home eighth in 1:47.88.
Murphy revealed that he strained a hamstring less than two weeks ago, which hampered his preparations for Eugene. "I've run about 13 miles total since that Thursday before I left [for the Trials], including racing, cooling down and warming up," he said. Still, he was pleased with his effort through the rounds and credited the atmosphere for getting him back on the team. "The adrenaline of an 800, the crowd, of Hayward trumps any pain or weakness I may have had."
Though he looked strong in the final sprint, Murphy admitted that he could barely stay upright. "I had no idea what was behind me. I was trying to do the good ole look up at the video board thing and I did it once or twice, and I realized that if I kept looking I might fall on my face as heavy as my legs were the last 50 meters," he said. "I wasn't sure what Isaiah Jewett had left in his legs and I went after him. I knew there's gotta be somebody coming with us, but I couldn't tell, I couldn’t hear, lactic acid, head spinning. The stadium was going crazy. So I just kinda pushed all the way through the line."
Brazier, who sprinted through the field approaching the bell, could never quite close the gap on Jewett. "I think I might've made a move a little too early, trying to get in better position that first 300, 350, and paid the price that last 200," he said.
Two women's finals were also held today, with Elle Purrier St. Pierre winning the 1500 and Elise Cranny taking the 5000.
After getting shoved hard enough in the opening strides that she stepped into the infield, Purrier St. Pierre took the lead and went wire to wire with 400 splits of 64.79 and 2:09.19, 3:11.41. Approaching the bell, Cory McGee drew up on her shoulder, sticking there for another 300 meters. But in the final 150 Purrier St. Pierre pulled away for good, winning decisively in a personal best 3:58.03. That broke the Olympic trials record and improved her hold on the No. 6 spot on the U.S. all-time list. The ran the final lap in under 62 seconds.
"Honestly it was just such a blur," Purrier St. Pierre said. "In the first 50 meters I got shoved pretty hard and right after that happened I realized I didn't want to get pushed around so I took it and pushed the pace throughout the whole thing."
McGee lowered her personal best to 4:00.67 to grab the second spot on the team. "My race plan was to stay on Elle from start to finish," she said. "I followed her every step and didn't take my eyes off her back."
Heather MacLean --who was advanced into the final on appeal after being tripped up in the semifinals-- pulled ahead of Shannon Osika down the final backstretch for third. Osika gamely fought to the line, but wound up a mere nine hundredths behind MacLean.
McLean clocked a personal best 4:02.09 to hit the Tokyo qualifying standard (4:04.20) for the first time. Three-time Olympian Jenny Simpson, the bronze medalist in Rio five years ago, finished well back in 10th (4:07.76).
The 5000 turned into a slow, tactical race, not surprisingly given the temperatures soaring past 32C/90F. Taylor Werner set a sluggish pace through 3000 meters (9:35.07), with Lauren Paquette and Josette Norris close behind. After a series of 79-second laps, Cranny threw in a 71.67 to take up the pace at 3800 meters. Her training partner Karisa Schweizer took over a lap later and at that point only Schneider and Abbey Cooper were still in contention.
Cooper lost contact down the final backstretch, and Cranny finally passed Schweizer for good in the final 50 meters, winning in 15:27.81. Schweizer (15:28.11) and Schneider (15:29.56) join her as first-time Olympians.
"It was pretty hot out there so it was definitely tactical and slow in the beginning," said Cranny, who had several high places at NCAA championships while at Stanford, but never won a national title. "The plan was just to stay out of trouble, make sure you have room to run."
The familiarity of running alongside Schweizer, who she trains with every day, was a huge bonus. "It felt like practice, working together, switching off lap by lap and trying to slowly squeeze it down," Cranny said.
Though Cooper (15:31.02) wound up a frustrating fourth, she had won over the Hayward crowd thanks to her gutsy solo effort in Friday's heats. Needing to achieve the Olympic standard and fearing (rightly, it tuned out) that the heat would make the final too slow to hit the time, the Dartmouth grad ran 15:07.80, her fastest since 2015, and under the 15:10.00 needed for Tokyo.
Earlier in the session, preliminaries were run in the men's 3000-meter steeplechase. Isaac Updike (8:21.01) and 2016 Olympian Hilary Bor (8:21.09) finished first and second in the opening heat, which saw the top five plus the next four fastest moving on to Friday's final. Two-time Olympian Donn Cabral (8:24.14) finished sixth and advanced on time.
On the third lap, Sean McGorty, stopped to fix his shoe and lost more than 50 meters to the field. He made a valiant effort to stay in the race, and miraculously his 8:25.95 in ninth place held up as the last time qualifier for the final.
"My race plan kinda got thrown out the window when the second or third water jump I got a flat tire, somebody stepped on my spike," said McGorty, who only ran his first steeplechase in May. "I tried to hurdle a few times, and I thought maybe it was going to be OK, but after two barriers I was like I need to put my shoe back on. He continued: "The pack got a little farther away than I anticipated. From there I just tried to keep squeezing and work my way back up."
Bernard Keter won the second heat in 8:29.04, with Mason Ferlic (8:30.78) looking comfortable in second.
Tuesday and Wednesday will be off days here. Action returns to Hayward on Thursday with the first round of the men's 1500m and 5000m, women's 800m (where Athing Mu is expected to make her pro debut), the final of the women's steeplechase.