David Oliver, Mr. Sub-13

EUGENE, Ore. — David Oliver knew it from the start Saturday.

Literally, he knew it from the start of the 110-meter hurdles at the Pre Classic here at historic Hayward Field.

This was an entirely different race than the one three weeks ago in Shanghai. There, an ugly start had cost him the race. He’d come to Shanghai having won 18 in a row. The bronze medalist at the 2008 Beijing Games, he was the world’s hottest hurdler. But just like that — yech. He lost in Shanghai to Liu Xiang, the 2004 Olympic champion.

On such instants do races turn.

David Oliver won Saturday’s 110 hurdles in 12.94 seconds, best in the world so far in 2011. Liu took second, in 13-flat.

David Oliver and Liu Xiang at pre-Pre press conference

All the work, the sweat, the grind, the stuff that nobody sees because nobody wants to see practice — it all goes into such instants, when all anyone cares about is the gun and the flash and the color and the noise and the guy in the blocks, the one who has been putting in the time and the work, has to take all that nervous energy and redemptive energy, and pour it into focus and calm.

And doing what he knows how to do.

In Shanghai, Oliver was saying after this race Saturday in Eugene, a botched start put him out of balance. Three steps down the track — his leg buckled.

That quick, for him the race was essentially done.

Oliver is not only professional enough, he’s good enough, that he managed to recover enough to come in second in Shanghai, in 13.18. Liu winning in 13.07.

After coming home from China, Oliver said, he went home to Florida, and smoothed things out. Switching from eight to seven steps had changed his power leg; that meant a variety of adjustments, including at the start, where he was doing way too much thinking instead of simply letting his body do what it knew how to do; that’s what he needed to fix after Shanghai.

In Eugene, he made it look clean and easy.

When an athlete is on his or her game, it’s obvious. “I know it from the first couple of steps,” Oliver said.

On Saturday, Oliver knew it.

Before yet another standout crowd here in Eugene, Liu started well. Better than Oliver, probably. But no matter.

Oliver’s start was solid, so good that by the third hurdle Oliver caught Liu. The race was his.

Liu, speaking through a translator, said he was satisfied with his time Saturday but not with his speed and power, particularly the critical final third of the race. He also said his foot — a nagging concern — was still maybe a little sore.

“Close to the finish, I feel very bad,” Liu said. “I can do better next time.”

The thing is, David Oliver can do better next time, too. Though 12.94 in early June is fast, particularly for early in the season, this was not the best field he’s going to face; though Liu was here,  2008 Beijing gold medalist Dayron Robles of Cuba, for instance, was not.

The U.S. nationals are back here at Hayward Field later this month. Then come the world championships in South Korea at the end of the summer.

“You can run all the 12s you want to if you don’t take care of business at the championships,” David Oliver said Saturday, adding a moment later for emphasis, “It’s the difference between winning and being successful.”

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