A Sizzling Olympic Trials Chooses Powerful Team USA

Oregon’s magnificient new temple of track & field witnessed a week-plus of sparkling performances. (RICHARD SEOW)

EUGENE, OREGON, June 18–21, 24–27 — From the opening round of the first event, the men’s shot qualifying, which began appropriately for a fervidly awaited showdown at high noon, the “2020” Olympic Trials, delayed a year by a pandemic, spun out performances of remarkable quality. It was Ryan Crouser who lit the fuse, sending what was at the time the No. 3 all-time heave out on his opening effort.

The Rio gold medalist followed some 7 hours later with a World Record — a stupendously long throw nearly a foot beyond the old mark. “Expect magic,” Crouser’s mark seemed to say. “We athletes are pumped and primed.”

The athletes delivered. The rare currency of a WR flashed out again on the meet’s last evening as Sydney McLaughlin obliterated the former 400H standard set by Dalilah Muhammad.

In between there were no more WRs, but throughout no shortage of records. Rudy Winkler threw an American Record in the men’s hammer, DeAnna Price set two in the women’s.

Then there was Athing Mu and her majestic 800 win, in American Junior Record time. Also Erriyon Knighton and a sequence of three blazing-fast 200s in heats, semis & final that broke no fewer than 11 records of the Junior (U20) and Youth (U18) variety including the WJR twice.

And OT Meet Records? Those toppled like dominoes on the men’s side in the 110H (Grant Holloway, just 0.01 off the WR in his semi), 400H (Rai Benjamin) and shot & hammer.

Women knocked off MRs in the 200 (Gabby Thomas, the No. 3 all-time mark knocking on the door of Flojo territory), 1500 (Elle Purrier St. Pierre), steeple (Emma Coburn), 10,000 (Emily Sisson), 400H, pole vault (Katie Nageotte), triple jump (Keturah Orji), shot (Jessica Ramsey), discus (Valarie Allman), hammer and javelin (Maggie Malone).

World leading marks went up in 9 events — 4 men’s, 5 women’s.

The record flurry reflected a number of factors but judging from their distribution across event groups none so much as a pent-up release of competitive juices, athletes at long last vying for scarce Olympic spots with the relish of kids kept away from the cookie jar for a full year.

They did so, of course, in a Hayward Field reimagined and reconstructed from its previous incarnation into a magnificent modern edifice. The track is manifestly fast; just look at the times run during this Trials. Even the much discussed recent advance of the “super shoes” doesn’t explain it fully. The oval is a keeper and beneath it, those who scored tours say, are housed splendiferous training and warmup facilities.

Were there critiques of the new-fangled Hayward? A few. Form and aesthetics may have trumped function at some of the decision points along the way. No elevator to the upper levels? TV crews in the 21st century forced to haul bulky cameras up 40 steeply pitched stairs to their positions?

COVID restrictions and months of uncertainty about the safety of admitting spectators at all made for limited but adoring fan counts. Although local health officials approved head counts of up to 9000 in the days leading up to the meet, ticketed attendance ranged from 3124 on day 1 to 6586 on the final Friday before a heat wave of historical ferocity — a high of 111 (44C) on the last day and a 5-hour schedule pause to wait for the sun to set — dissuaded some would-have-been attendees on the last two days.

No matter, the crowd got loud when it was called for, which was often.

As the oppressive and unusual “heat dome” bore down on the Trials second weekend, as forecasted days earlier, fans with east-side seats baked by the late-setting sun were allowed to circle around to the shaded west-side grandstand. The two walks, the women’s 10,000 and men’s 5000 finals were all rescheduled to earlier start times out of concern for athletes’ health and safety.

But not so the heptathlon, with start times for its 2-day schedule of 1:15 and 1:00 under the scorching sun. For days before the 7-eventer began, retired decathlete Curtis Beach — now an USATF Athlete Advisory Committee event chair for the multis — lobbied federation brass to modify the hept schedule. His emails and texts went unanswered and when Beach made an in-person request for shade tents during the hept long jump, he said he was rebuffed.

Some two hours later after taking a javelin practice throw, heptathlete Taliyah Brooks, in 4th at the time, collapsed from the heat and was briefly hospitalized.

At last, meet management acknowledged the danger and instituted the 5-hour delay.

“Emotional. Traumatic. Overall, Heartbreaking. 💔” So began an Instagram post in which Brooks commented at length on her painful experience. And addressed meet management directly: “@usatf : do better. Not only for myself, but for all of the athletes at the trials. It’s a shame my situation had to happen for the meet to finally be postponed.

“It hurts. Hurts like hell. Not bc i didn’t make the team, but bc I wasn’t able to finish to even find out. I’ve got some new, fresh scars on my back, But I’ll be back. Better, stronger, faster.”

As for the overall cast of the results, it must be said that they bear a more than passing resemblance at the top end to the premeet men’s & women’s formcharts drawn up by Dave Johnson and Jack Pfeifer.

In other words, the favorites came through frequently— certainly to make the team, the overarching objective of the enterprise.

Comethroughs — won’t it be nice to see more of those in Tokyo? Can’t wait!

Following are our by-event stories for each of the Eugene events, written in real time, not reflecting later developments.

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