DAEGU, South Korea — An American woman hadn’t won the 1500 meters at the track and field world championships since 1983. Those were the very first worlds, in Helsinki. And the winner of that race was the one and only Mary Decker. That’s how long ago it was.
In the high jump, an American man hadn’t won a medal at these championships since 1991. Not just gold, any color. Twenty years.
An American woman hadn’t won the 400-meter hurdles in 16 years.
Jennifer Simpson won the 1500, Jesse Williams won the high jump and Lashinda Williams the hurdles in bang-bang-bang fashion here Thursday night.
The rapid-fire string of victories, while cause for celebration in the American camp, pushing the U.S. into a tie with Russia for the lead for overall medals here in Daegu, with 12, also underscores the incredible conundrum that is the U.S. track and field program.
The United States produces, and keeps producing, world-class track and field athletes. But it does so in about as haphazard a way as one could imagine.
There is no bureau, no directorate, no anything responsible for finding, shaping, organizing a path from high school to college to the world championships to the Olympics. To generalize, it all kinda-sorta just happens.
That explains why, systemically, the United States of America can go 20 years without producing a medalist in the high jump. Why nearly 30 years can pass without a medal in the 1500, which is just astonishing. Anyone ever been to Boulder? Flagstaff? Mammoth Lakes?
There is no federalized sport system in the United States, and this is not to suggest there should be. Instead, the fantastic efforts of individual American athletes on a night like Thursday — which tend to draw comparisons to the glory days of the U.S. track program — obscure the structural problems that get in the way of what could be.
Because if the United States ever got serious, really serious, about winning in track and field — watch out.
As it is, it’s simply a matter of talent and moment.
The men’s shot put here Friday night could be epic; of the 12 guys in the field, four are American. In the long jump, Dwight Phillips went a season-best 8.32 meters, or 27 feet, 3 3/4 inches, to lead everyone in qualifying Thursday morning; that final is Friday night, too. So is the women’s 200; three of the eight in that final are American.
Meanwhile, the women’s high jump on Saturday could be Brigetta Barrett’s coming-out party on the world stage.
Talent and moment.
Simpson is a former steeplechaser. She used to be known as Jenny Barringer; she got married last year. She had the flu earlier this summer and came here with virtually no pre-race hype. In the semifinal, though, she showed was here to run. In the final, she ran easily and fluidly in and then kicked strong to the line, crossing in 4:05.40.
In the moments after she realized that she had won, Simpson looked simply stunned. Later, she asked rhetorically, “Wouldn’t you be if you won a gold medal?”
She added, “I had another little Prefontaine moment,” a reference to the 2009 Pre Classic in Eugene, Ore., when she was still in college at Colorado, and ran a 3:59.9 1500, breaking the NCAA record by more than six seconds.
“You know, I’m coming down the homestretch, and I’m thinking, ‘How did I get here?’ But it was just an incredible feeling, and I knew coming off the curve that I had another couple of gears and I thought, ‘I’m going to be really hard to beat now.’ ”
Williams roared through the early rounds of the jumps without a miss. That proved critical.
Throughout, he knew what he was up against — his own, and American, history.
These were his third world championships — he had also competed in Helsinki in 2005 and Osaka in 2007 — but the first time he had made a final. He is a self-styled high-jump history buff; he also knew full well that the last time Americans had medaled was in Tokyo in 1991, when Charles Austin won gold and Hollis Conway bronze.
Moreover, Williams came to Daegu as the presumptive favorite — his jump earlier this year in Eugene, Ore., of 2.37 meters, or 7 feet, 9 1/4 inches, was the best anywhere.
Until he got to 2.37 here Thursday, Williams didn’t miss; he was clean all the way to 2.35. Everyone else kept missing.
At 2.37, only he and Russia’s Aleksey Dmitrik were left. By the time the bar was raised to that height, Dmitrik had already missed three times. Again, Williams — zero.
If Dmitrik could clear 2.37, it would be a new game. But he couldn’t.
Williams tried to clear but couldn’t. No matter. The gold was his.
“I knew that 20 years ago, Charles Austin won it in Tokyo, and I knew that I could re-live what he lived, today,” Williams said. “It’s unbelievable, because the U.S. has so much talent in the event.”
Dick Fosbury, the 1968 high-jump gold medalist who is now president of the World Olympians Assn., said in an e-mail, “This is fantastic news and I am so happy for Jesse,” adding that he had been asked repeatedly recently about Russian jumpers and pointed out that the Americans, in Williams, had a guy who “could win this or medal.”
He also said, “While we were disappointed in the Beijing results,” Williams finishing 19th and not even making the final, “I really felt we could be back at the top by 2012. And now we are.”
Demus, meanwhile, has been around for nearly a decade. She is a two-time world sliver medalist, in 2005 and 2009.
In 2007, she gave birth to twin boys, Duaine and Dontay. In winning Thursday in 52.47, she ran the best time in the world this year and broke the American record, 52.61, set by Kim Batten at the 1995 world championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Lashinda Demus had a ready answer for her success. “Only the strong survive in this game,” she said, and there’s no one stronger than her mother, Yolanda.
Yolanda Demus is a big fan of games such as Angry Birds. If you practice, Mrs. Demus said, you get better at them. So, she told her daughter, get out there and master the hurdles the way I have mastered Angry Birds.
You want a system? That’s a system.
“She listens to every word I say,” Mrs. Demus said. “That’s one good thing about her. She listens.”