Devon Allen

The ups and downs of 'hardest team to make'

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EUGENE — As Sunday’s final-day action at historic Hayward Field got underway, the crowd was told — this is the mantra of the 2016 Trials — that the U.S. Olympic track and field team is “the hardest team to make.” It’s not. The swim team is way harder. But more on that in a moment.

What is indisputably true: the 10-day run of the Trials is a study in emotion. One, two or three in Eugene is typically cause for joy. What, though, about four, five or farther down?

Amid all the celebrating, and there was plenty of it Sunday with nine finals that saw the likes of teenager Sydney McLaughlin (third place, women’s 400 hurdles, first 16-year-old on the U.S. team in 40 years) and 21-year-old Byron Robinson (second, men’s 400 hurdles) secure Rio spots, the real story of the Trials is, and always will be, disappointment.

And how to handle it.

Track and field’s global governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations, had reconfigured the Rio 2016 schedule so that Allyson Felix could try for the 200-400 double. Here, Felix won the 400. On Sunday, though, she finished fourth in the 200, one-hundredth of a second out.

Just after the finish in the 200: Tori Bowie, left, is the winner; Jenna Prandini, on the ground, is third; Allyson Felix, in blue, fourth; Deajah Stevens, right in green, second // Getty Images

“Honestly, I’m disappointed,” Felix said. “All year I planned for this race, and for it to end here, it’s disappointing. But when I look back and see everything that happened,” in particular an ankle injury this spring, “I still think it’s quite amazing that I was able to make this team. I feel like everything was against me.”

The tension and drama of the Trials makes for a once-evey-four-years study in how to handle what life gives you — or throws at you.

As Jenny Simpson, the Daegu 2011 world championship gold medalist who on Sunday won a ferocious women’s 1500 in 4:04.74, put it, “On the starting line, you have that balance of confidence and doubt,” adding that track and field is, and has to be, a "really selfish sport — it’s you against the world.”

She added, “The selection process makes you go through the fire,” adding in a reference to the Trials, “The gift we get from this really horrible and brutal experience is that when we get to the Games we have a sense we have done something difficult already and we are prepared.”

Erik Kynard, the 2012 Trials runner-up in the high jump, went to London and won silver. Here Sunday, he won the 2016 Trials. Asked what he learned from 2012, he said, with a laugh, “Jump higher.”

Robinson, after the 400 hurdles, “I’m shellshocked. I’m overcome with joy.” He also said, “I just wanted a chance, you know?”

Generally speaking, top-three at the track and field Trials go to the Games. Everyone else stays home.

With all due respect to Charles Barkley, and his assertion that sports stars are not role models — sorry, they are. That’s the case all the more in track and field; participation in track and field in high school and college remains robust.

“Knowing we’re doing it right, knowing we’re doing it the right way — hopefully we’re inspiring young women,” said Shannon Rowbury, the Berlin 2009 worlds bronze medalist who took second in Sunday’s women’s 1500 in 4:05.39.

Math makes plain that roughly nine of 10 of those who showed up here to compete in Eugene will not be heading to Rio. But it’s even harder to make the U.S. swim team.

Some numbers:

The swim Trials, in Omaha this month, held 52 spots. In swimming, moreover, qualifying is, again speaking generally, not top-three; it’s top two.

Because of doubles or even triples — the likes of Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Maya DiRado will each compete in multiple events in Rio — the field of 52 going to Rio will actually be 45.

That’s out of 1,737 entries, according to USA Swimming.

Math: 2.5 percent of those in Omaha are heading to Rio.

In track and field, there are 141 spots, including relays.

Not all spots get filled because Americans will not have met qualifying standards set by track’s global governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations.

By meet’s end, per USA Track & Field, there were 1,077 declared entries, 879 individual athletes.

To make the math as apples-to-apples as possible, and acknowledging that 141 is a loose number — 141 over 1,077 is 13.1 percent.

When you’re part of that magical 13 percent, it’s easy.

“I couldn’t ask for more,” Tori Bowie, the women’s 200-meter winner, said after Sunday’s racing. She took third in the 100, and now gets to double in Rio.

“I can’t believe this is happening right now,” the teenager McLaughlin said, adding a moment later, “My mind was on finishing the race and eating a cheeseburger.”

When you’re not?

Compare and contrast:

In the women’s 800 last Monday, Alysia Montaño fell on the final backstretch. She wailed. She fell to her knees. She cried.

This made for great TV.

At the same time, if a junior-high or high school athlete did this, what would the likely reaction be from his or her coach?

Meeting the press after with 2-year-old daughter, Linnea, in tow, Montaño said, “This is it, you know. You get up and you’re, like, really far away and your heart breaks.”

From there, it turned into something akin to a therapy session, Montaño saying her “biggest struggle this year” had been “finding peace and why I’m even trying for an Olympic team,” calling it all that “emotional baggage.”

Montaño was justifiably lauded two years ago when, 34 weeks pregnant, she ran the 800 at the U.S. national championships — a role model, for sure, on many levels.

Here?

“Eight years of my life as a professional runner, my entire professional career, has been a farce, basically,” she said. “Now everyone’s talking about the Russians not running in the Olympics but they’re missing the point. The IAAF is a corrupt institution that is still running the Games.”

It wasn’t until a day later that Montaño — who is active on social media and says her fans help her “pick up the pieces” — filed this to Twitter, congratulating Kate Grace, Ajee’ Wilson and Chrishuna Williams, who finished 1-2-3 in the race:

https://twitter.com/AlysiaMontano/status/750476446796124160

The sequence that sent Monaño to the track also took out Brenda Martinez. She won bronze at the 2013 Moscow worlds in the 800.

Martinez would say after the 2016 Trials 800, “I felt great but I got clipped from behind. That’s track and field. I’ve got to get ready for the 1500. Some days it doesn’t go your way. Today it was me.”

Left to right: Shannon Rowbury, Brenda Martinez, Jenny Simpson after the 1500 // Getty Images

Instant-karma department: on Sunday, Martinez got third in the 1500, by three-hundredths of a second, finishing in 4:06.16. She got there with a finish-line dive.

“However people want to take it,” Martinez said. “I feel like it had to happen for a reason. That’s the way I believe life works, you know: you’re going to get tested. If people can see what I went through, then maybe they won’t doubt themselves the next time something happens to them.”

Make no mistake: Martinez’s third was very popular, with the crowd, with Rowbury and Simpson and with many others.

Simpson made a point of saying she had reached out after the 800 to Martinez. And for all that there is in, and justifiably, in being “selfish,” Simpson said, “I went to the starting line with a little bit more love … and a litttle bit less selfishness than in the past.”

Emma Coburn, the steeplechase winner here, posted to Twitter:

https://twitter.com/emmajcoburn/status/752293842729054208

In London four years ago, Leo Manzano won silver in the men’s 1500. He was the first American to medal in the 1500 since Jim Ryun in 1968.

On Sunday in the rain, Manzano, battling Ben Blankenship for the third and final spot in the 1500, reached for a gear he had often found before. It wasn’t there. Manzano took fourth, in 3:36.62 — not even half a second behind Blankenship, 3:36.18.

Matthew Centrowitz won the race, and easily, in 3:34.09. Robby Andrews got second, 3:34.88.

The race proved the fastest Trials 1500 ever, Centrowitz breaking Steve Scott’s 1980 Trials mark, 3:35.15, and the top-four putting down the Trials’ quickest top-four times.

In the London 1500, Centrowitz took fourth. “I'm ready for whatever they throw at me in Rio,” he said Sunday. “If it’s a 3:33 race, I’m ready for that.”

Manzano: “I wish the result had been different. Unfortuantely, it’s not. You’ve got to face the facts, and congratulte your teammates. They fought hard today. It wasn’t my day today.”

In the men’s 110-meter hurdles, Aries Merritt won bronze at last year’s world championships in Beijing, running on kidneys that were so bad he underwent a transplant — his sister the donor. Merritt is the 2012 London gold medalist and, as well, the world record holder in the event, 12.8.

In Saturday’s 110 hurdle final, Merritt finished fourth — like Felix in the 200, exactly one-hundredth away from third. He crossed in 13.22 seconds. Jeff Porter and Ronnie Ash went 3-2, both in 13.21; University of Oregon star Devon Allen ran away with the event, 13.03.

Merritt afterward: “Given the circumstances, I did the best I could with what I had and I came up a little bit short. I’ve come to grips with it. But it couldn’t be worse than being told you’ll never run again. I’ve been to the Olympics, I’ve won the Olympic Games, I’ve broken the world record. I mean, someone else can have a turn.”

In that same race, Jason Richardson finished fifth, in 13.28. He is the London silver medalist and the Daegu 2011 world champion.

His reaction:

https://twitter.com/JaiRich/status/751951488054808576

Jillian Camarena-Williams, a two-time Olympian, is 34. She and her husband, Dustin, 38, who will be the head trainer for the U.S. track team in Rio, married after the Berlin 2009 world championships. They moved to Tucson after the 2011 worlds. Their daughter, Miley, was born on the very day of the women’s shot put event at the 2014 championships in Sacramento.

“Our relationship is all about track meets,” she said, laughing.

The thing is — it’s not.

Camarena-Williams herniated her back at the London Games. She needed surgery. Then she had to decide — should I try to come back? If so, why?

The answers:

“I missed the sport and the people that are in it, the people that have helped me throughout my career,” she said in a quiet moment Sunday.

She also talked about what she called “my journey.”

Track brought her a husband and now a family: "It’s more about the places we were able to go, people we were able to meet than the outcome. I have talked to young people and brought my medals,” including a third in Daegu in 2011, the first medal of any kind for an American woman in the shot in the history of the track worlds.

“I love these medals. They represent that journey to me. But they just sit in my drawer. They don’t hang in our house. We’re porud of them. But we’re way more exicted about the things we were able to do along the way than the actual hardware.”

After the third throw — of six — here, in the rain, Camarena-Wiilliams stood third. But she knew it wouldn’t be enough.

Dustin, Jillian and 2-year-old Miley

Heading out for her final throw, in round six, Camarena-Williams’ sister, 36-year-old sister, Christi, a nurse in Sacramento, told her, “Just smile. Go out there and enjoy yourself.”

Michelle Carter, on her sixth and final throw, won, in 19.59 meters, 64 feet, 3-1/4 inches. Raven Saunders and Felisha Johnson finished 2-3. Camarena-Williams ended at 18.81, 61 8-1/2.

A lot of family was here in Eugene for Jillian and Dustin. Her mother. Two of her three siblings. A cousin with her two daughters. His brother. Two sets of his aunts and uncles.

Coaches.

And, of course, 2-year-old Miley.

“It’s a village that supports us to get [to the Olympics] in the first place,” Rowbury would observe. “It’s a commitment to trying to be the best you can be, a commitment to the people who support you along the way and a commitment to honor your country.”

"No matter what I do in life," Robinson said, "if the people back home aren’t proud of me I know that I didn’t really live up to expectations. Knowing that they are behind me, I know I can achieve anything."

After Jillian Camarena-Williams' final throw, no tears. She went looking for her husband and their daughter.

“Sometimes,” she said Sunday, holding the baby, “you are overtaken with emotion. So much can happen. I feel like I’m in a really good place with our family and where we’re at. It was disappointing, but I have to put a smile on my face and be grateful for what we have, outside the track.

“And we have a lot.”

 

Speaking up about what is so obviously right

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EUGENE — The women’s 100 hurdles here Friday at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track Trials proved one of those rare sports events that truly lived up to expectations. It was the race of the meet: Brianna Rollins winning in 12.34 seconds, the second-fastest Trials final ever.

The second- through seventh-place finishers made for the fastest finishes for place in Trials history. Kristi Castlin took second, in 12.5, Nia Ali — just 14 months after giving birth to a son, Titus — 12.55.

The immediate aftermath made the race all the more memorable. Castlin, given a moment on NBC, said this:

"I really just want to dedicate this race to every single family, every person who has to go on after losing someone they love to gun violence," adding,  "It really was heavy on my heart, so I really wanted to dedicate that to everyone in the world who's had to deal with that.”

Brianna Rollins, left, and Kristi Castlin in the instant after crossing the line in the 100 hurdles final at Hayward Field // Getty Images

Many will say that sports are, or ought to be, separate from politics. Indeed, it’s tempting here in snug little college-town Eugene -- and, more, within the track and field bubble that is historic Hayward Field, with a stadium-record 22,847 jammed in on Saturday -- to deem events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas far away.

This ignores reality.

As the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach put it in a speech in South Korea in 2014, “In the past, some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business. And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we can not afford anymore.

“We are living in the middle of society and that means we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world.”

He also observed, in a speech at the United Nations in November 2013, that it “must always be clear in the relationship between sport and politics that the role of sport is always to build bridges,” adding, “It is never to build walls.”

To that end, sports stars can have a powerful impact in advancing precisely the sort of dialogue we — all of us — need as we head further into the heat of a summer that, with two potentially volatile political conventions coming up, increasingly seems to evoke the discord and discontent of 1968.

Across the United States, Saturday saw protests tied to police shootings of black men: in Baton Rouge, San Francisco, Chicago, West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Newport, Rhode Island.

The flag at the southern end of Hayward Field has been flying this second half of these Trials at half-mast — in unspoken testimony to our country’s unhealed wounds connected to race and policing.

The flag at half-mast

If anyone needs a living reminder of how far we have come and how far we have yet to go — John Carlos, whose black-gloved left fist along with Tommie Smith’s right made history at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, has been here in Eugene this week, a powerful reminder of how we can all do better.

If Friday's women's 100 hurdles was spectacular, so too was the bang-bang-bang sequence that closed Saturday's run: the men's 5000, won by 41-year-old Bernard Lagat; the men's 200, won by Justin Gatlin, who earlier in the meet had taken the 100, with 400 winner LaShawn Merritt running second; and the men's 110 hurdles, won by University of Oregon star Devon Allen.

Punctuating that brilliance: an appeal from Gatlin, over the Hayward loudspeakers that we all do better by each other.

"There is a lot that has been going on in America the last couple days," he said a few moments later, in the press tent. "It's sad that it happens around the 4th of July, when we should all be proud to be Americans.

"I just told everyone in the stadium, I said, I challenged them: 'Love someone. Leave the stadium, because there's so much love in this stadium the last couple days. Take that love with you. Just give it to somebody you have never loved before.' Go up to them and say, 'Hey, I love you for being an American.'

Justin Gatlin after the 200 // Getty Images

"We need that as Americans. When we are overseas, sometimes you don't see an American flag. Maybe sometimes you see one American flag. Those people holding up American flags are so proud to be Americans. And I want everybody to understand that when we go down to Rio, we are representing the United States of America. We want to represent with pride. It's just so sad to see everything that is happening right now. I just want everybody to be happy."

Gun violence has been a scourge on the American landscape for far too long.

In Kristi Castlin's case, the issue is deeply personal.

Her father, Rodney Castlin, was shot to death on December 7, 2000. He was the night manager of a motel in Kennesaw, Georgia, killed in a robbery that produced $304. He was just 36.

Just weeks ago, James Lorenzo Randolph, now 34, was convicted of multiple felonies in connection with the shooting, including murder, and sentenced to three consecutive life terms plus 35 years. He was connected to the case in 2012 by a fingerprint finally run through the FBI's national database.

Kristi Castlin turned 28 on Thursday. She was just 12 when her father was murdered.

"I definitely know first-hand now it feels, not just to be a child but to lose someone you love to gun violence," she said in an interview, adding, "Things that money buys, all the material things -- when you lose someone that you love,  it’s really hard. It’s just sad whether black, white or indifferent, people treating lives like they are disposable."

We need more of this.

More stories about the real-life impact of gun violence.

More real people -- and that includes athletes -- to speak up about what's so obviously right.

We need initiatives like the one the NBA launched last December — with stars such as Stephen Curry, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Joakim Noah lending their voices to a pubic-service announcement in support of Everytown for Gun Safety. It ends with Curry, the Golden State Warriors star, saying, “We can end gun violence.”

In the same vein, LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers star, has been outspoken on the matter. He took to Twitter Thursday with this:

https://twitter.com/KingJames/status/751288463375233025

Serena Williams, the tennis star, won the Wimbledon women’s singles title on Saturday, a record-tying 22nd Grand Slam; later Saturday, Serena and sister Venus Williams won the Wimbledon women’s doubles championship, a 14th Grand Slam doubles title together.

Here was Serena Williams a few months ago in Wired magazine:

"So to those of you involved in equality movements like Black Lives Matter, I say this: Keep it up. Don’t let those trolls stop you. We’ve been through so much for so many centuries, and we shall overcome this too (see “Get Up, Stand Up”). To other people, I say: When someone’s harassing someone else, speak up! J.K. Rowling spoke up for me this summer, and it was an amazing feeling — I thought, 'Well, I can speak up, too.' ”

To be clear: it’s not that every athlete, whether on the Olympic team or not, has a responsibility to speak up.

No one is saying that is an imperative.

But it’s also the case that the U.S. track team, along with the U.S. basketball teams, makes for the picture of the diverse and multicultural America that we genuinely are in these early years of the 21st century.

With that comes opportunity.

"We have a voice," Gatlin also said. "We should be able to use that voice with love and caring."

And unlike the basketball teams — in particular, the NBA stars — track and field athletes are way more often built like most of us, meaning the intimidation factor for the average fan is way lower. Also, the track stars tend to be remarkably accessible.

Before Saturday’s action at Hayward, the distance standout Mary Cain was walking down Agate Street, stopping — just like everyone else — at the long light at Franklin Boulevard.

A few minutes later, Matthew Centrowitz — it would be shocking if he isn’t top-three in Sunday’s men’s 1500 final — went jogging by on Franklin, out for an off-day slow run.

DeeDee Trotter, the three-time Olympian at 400 meters, bronze medalist in 2012 and two-time gold winner in the relays (2004, 2012), saw her 2016 bid get as far as the semifinals.

On Saturday, she posted to Twitter:

https://twitter.com/DTrott400m/status/751858033832046592

Similarly, Hazel Clark, three times an Olympian at 800 meters, said on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/hazelclarktv/status/751887521513177089

Michael Tinsley, London 2012 silver medalist in the men's 400-meter hurdles, said Friday after posting the top qualifying time, 49.15, in the event semifinals,  “I want to start off saying that black lives matter. My condolences to the people who lost their lives to cops and condolences go out to the cops that were killed in Dallas.”

Jason Richardson, London 2012 silver medalist in the 110-meter hurdles, gold medalist in the event at the 2011 world championships, took to Twitter earlier this week to tell a story about how, when he was 17, he was stopped by police and given a traffic ticket.

Richardson posted: “Only after closing the truck did I realize the officer was standing at his door, hand on gun …” And: DON’T tell me what to wear, how to speak, or what to do until something like this happens to you.”

And this:

https://twitter.com/JaiRich/status/750930222111797249

The next day, Thursday, he posted a follow-up:

https://twitter.com/JaiRich/status/751081933535227904

Like Trotter, Sanya Richards-Ross, the London 2012 400 gold medalist (five medals in all over three Games, four gold), saw her competitive career come here to an end. Battling injury, she started but could not finish the first round in the 400.

She has already made the smooth transition to broadcasting. On Instagram this week, she posted this:

The flag fluttered softly in the breeze Saturday at Hayward.

Before the Olympic Games in Rio comes the Republican convention, the week of July 18 in Cleveland, and the Democratic convention, the week of July 25 in Philadelphia.

We all — athletes and the rest of us — have the chance to speak up.

Just as Robert F. Kennedy did on April 4, 1968, in Indianapolis, upon learning of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Here is what the senator said, just two months before he himself would be killed by gun violence:

“Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love, and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, this difficult time for the United States, it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are, and what direction we want to move in.

“For those of you who are black — considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible — you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

“We can move in that direction as a country and greater polarization, black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another.

“Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, [with] compassion and love. He died in the cause of that effort.

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

“So I shall ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King, that’s true, but more importantly, to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love — a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past but we — and we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it’s not the end of disorder; it’s perhaps well to ask what kind of nation we are.

“But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

“Dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world," a reference indeed to the Olympic ideal.

“Let us dedicate ourselves to that," Senator Kennedy said in conclusion, "and say a prayer for our country and our people.”