Sunday, January 10, 2010

My top track & field moments of the past decade (part 2)...

In part one of my retrospect on the past decade, I covered the Maurice Greene/Michael Johnson showdown in the 200 meters; Nick Rogers’ unlikely ascent to the 2000 Olympic team in the 5000; Alan Webb’s American high school record in the mile; and the dominance in the past decade of distance runner Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia, and Yelena Isinbayeva, the outstanding Russian pole vaulter.

Part 2 of our look back into the first decade of Y2K looks at several of the personalities from the state of Washington and their impact on the national and international track & field landscape.

BERNARD LAGAT’S ASCENT INTO THE INTERNATIONAL SCENE & DOUBLE WORLD TITLE

In 1999, Washington State’s Bernard Lagat won the NCAA 5000 meter title, and was ranked fourth in the world by Track & Field News after running 3:30.56 for 1500 meters,

He made the 2000 Kenyan Olympic team, but was not expected to do anything significant. However, he proved the experts wrong, as he snuck in to earn a bronze medal in the 1500 at the Sydney Olympics.

Lagat followed it up with a second place finish in the 1500 at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, and a victory in the 2002 World Cup in Madrid, Spain. He missed the 2003 world championship meet in Paris while being investigated for taking EPO, a charge that was overturned by the IAAF.

In 2004, he and Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj staged an epic battle for the Olympic 1500 title, with the Moroccan winning in the last 25 meters.



After the Olympics, he revealed that he became an American citizen, and therefore was ineligible to compete in meets like the World Cup and World Championships until August 2007. While sitting out the three-year nationality change period (the Kenyan federation wouldn’t let him compete for the USA any earlier), he remained a force on the world scene, ranking #2 in 2005 & #3 in 2006 in the 1500.

In his first meet wearing the USA singlet, Lagat won both the 1500 and the 5000 meter runs at the 2007 world championships in Osaka, Japan, becoming the first man to turn the trick in world championship history.

After winning that second title, Lagat said, “The double means a lot to me. I'm the first one to accomplish the double, and I feel I'm going to set an example for the young ones. There will be other kids in America who will do what Bernard Lagat did in 2007, no matter how long it will take.”

After his stunning double in Osaka, the Washington State product struggled at the Beijing Olympics with an Achilles tendon injury suffered after the Olympic Trials, but rebounded in 2009, winning bronze in the 1500, and taking Kenenisa Bekele to the wire in the 5000, losing in the last 50 meters.

On his Facebook page, Lagat’s long-time coach James Li recently wrote, “It suddenly occurred to me that Kip must be the longest lasting top miler in the world in history. Ever since organized global racing began a little more than 100 years ago, I don’t think there had been a miler (1500m runner) who have run as fast as Kip and stayed there for as long as he has. He ran 3:30.56 in 1999. At least from this standpoint, one can argue that Kip is the greatest miler ever!”

BRAD WALKER WINS WORLD TITLE IN POLE VAULT IN OSAKA

2007 was a great year for Washingtonians at the world championships, as Brad Walker, a product of University High School in Spokane and the University of Washington, won the pole vault in Osaka, just days after Lagat turned the trick in the 1500.

His gamble to pass at 18-10 3/4 after a first attempt miss paid dividends, as Walker won his first outdoor world championship clearing 19-2 3/4 before a packed house at Nagai Stadium.

I wrote on this blog, “The 2005 silver medalist and 2007 world leader, who attended University High School in Spokane, Walker cleared 18-1 and 18-6.75 easily on his first attempts, but missed his first try at 18-10.75 before passing on his remaining attempts at the height.

A second- or third-attempt clearance at 18-10 3/4 would have been useless, as Steven Hooker of Australia, Yevgeniy Lukyanenko of Russia and Fabio Gomes Da Silva of Brazil all made the height on their first attempts, and several others had passed the height entirely.

The gamble to pass was successful--Walker cleared 19-0.75 on his first try, putting him back in the medal hunt. Eight men remained in the competition at 19-2.75, including three others - Danny Ecker of Germany, Igor Pavlov of Russia and Romain Mesnil of France - who cleared 19-0 3/4 on their first attempts.

Describing the decision to pass after missing 18-10 3/4, Walker said, “It was one of those good misses. I knew I had the ability to clear 5.81 (19-0 3/4), and the first attempt make at 5.81 put me back in the lead. First attempt clearances in a major championship are a huge thing, and it puts stress on the other competitors. I think the 5.86 (19-2 3/4) first attempt clearance knocked the wind out of some people's sails, and I was lucky to get that jump”.


The knockout punch Walker delivered on the competition at 19-2 3/4 made him the first athlete to make the height. Mesnil was the only other vaulter to clear the height on his second attempt, but he was behind Walker based on a earlier miss at 18-6 3/4, which ultimately proved the difference between the gold and silver medals.


In an interview on Friday, Walker revealed that he had not touched a pole, and was unable to train properly between his last competition in Monte Carlo on July 25th, and Thursday’s qualifying round of the pole vault, due to a lingering problem with two bulging discs in his back. “I was gassed, and I had to dig pretty deep because my prep going into this meet wasn't exactly the way I would've liked it. I haven't lifted weights, and I'm a lot lighter than what I normally am. I have a couple of bulged discs, and it's been giving me a lot of pain, and I've had to back off the training,” Walker said after the event.

Walker set an American record at the 2008 Nike Prefontaine Classic, and made the Olympic team a few weeks later. Walker stunningly failed to make the finals at the Olympics, no-heighting in qualifying.

Last season, he won the US national title, and was poised to defend his 2007 world title, but an injury suffered in the Monte Carlo grand prix meet ended his shot at another world championship.

THE RUN BY THE HUSKIES TO THE NCAA CROSS COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIP

In collegiate cross country circles, 2008 was the Year of the Dawg, as the University of Washington women’s cross country capped off an undefeated season by winning the NCAA title in Terre Haute, Indiana.

The seeds for the title run were planted the year before, when the Huskies finished a program-best eighth place in the 2007 NCAA championships, and the members of that squad left Terre Haute feeling that they had shorted themselves.

Bolstered by the addition of Canadian junior champ Kendra Schaaf and Olympic Trials 1500-meter semifinalist Christine Babcock, the Huskies posted the first perfect score of 15 at the Pac-10 championships in Springfield, Oregon, then followed it up with a commanding performance at the NCAA regionals in Palo Alto.

While Schaaf was the Pac-10 individual champion, it was fellow frosh Babcock who led the way for the Huskies, finishing seventh in 20:02 for 6k.

In my story for this blog, I wrote, “Fellow frosh Kendra Schaaf did not get out as hard as many cross country experts had expected and placed twelfth in 20:18.

True to the Huskies’ season long mantra of pack running, sophomore Mel Lawrence finished 25th in 20:33, with junior Katie Follett one place behind, in the same time.


Senior Amanda Miller, running her final race as a Husky, rounded out Washington’s scorers, placing 34th in 20:37, giving the Dawgs a 1-5 split of 35 seconds, one second off their season long average of 34 seconds.
Sophomore Lauren Saylor finished 41st in 20:4, and senior Anita Campbell, a 2007 cross country All American, placing 51st in 20:51.”

After their run to the title, the Huskies were selected as a finalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s 2008 Sports Stars of the Year Award. Their hopes for a second straight national title were derailed in November, as they were beaten by Villanova and Florida State, after repeating as Pac-10 and NCAA West regional champs.

IAN WALTZ/JARRED ROME JOINED AT THE HIP

Discus throwers Ian Waltz and Jarred Rome almost deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence, paragraph, etc., as it seems that the two are almost inseparable when it comes to national and international competitions.

Waltz, who graduated from Washington State University, won three national titles, made three world championship teams, and two Olympic teams in the past decade.

Rome, a graduate of Marysville-Pilchuck High School, who still bristles over the fact that former University of Washington track coach Ken Shannon recruited Ben Lindsay over him, also has three world championship teams and one Olympic team to his resume, along with one national championship.

For both throwers, the beginning of their ascent onto the national and international scene can be traced to their decision to move to Chula Vista, California in 2004 to train together at the US Olympic Training Center, first under Brooks Johnson, then under former University of Washington throws coach Bud Rasmussen, after training together in Boise.

Rome made the finals in two world championships, with a seventh place finish in Helsinki his career best, while Waltz had a career best fifth place finish in that same Helsinki meet.

ARETHA THURMOND : THE MODEL OF CONSISTENCY

After witnessing Aretha Hill make the 1996 US Olympic team as a sophomore at the University of Washington, you sensed that barring something unexpected, she was going to be something special.

Despite winning the Pan Am Games and making the world championship team in Seville in 1999, she experienced a blip at the start of the decade, as she finished fourth at the 2000 Olympic Trials in Sacramento.

In an interview I conducted with her after the 2000 Trials competition, she said, "What being an alternate means is that I'll be sitting home, watching the Olympics on TV, that's what that means. But that's OK," she said, smile still intact.

2000 was the last time she would watch the Olympics at home, as she made the 2004 and 2008 teams, won four national championships, and made three world championship teams in the decade, and added the 2003 Pan Am Games title to the championship she won four years earlier. Thurmond also was elected a captain of the 2006 World Cup team and was a flagbearer for Team USA at the 2005 World Championships in Helsinki.

Even more remarkably during the decade, Thurmond nearly stole a spot on the 2007 world championship team, finishing sixth in the national championships in her only meet that season, weeks after giving birth to son Theo.

USAIN BOLT--MY TRACK & FIELD ATHLETE OF THE DECADE

I can’t end this look back at the last decade without mentioning Usain Bolt, who gets my nod as the track and field athlete of the decade (but just barely, over Kenenisa Bekele).

He first stepped on the world scene in 2002, winning the 200 meters at the world junior championships in Kingston, Jamaica as a 15 year old. He made the Jamaican Olympic team in 2004, but was eliminated in the first round.

As a senior athlete, he first made waves in 2006, finishing third in the 200 at the World Athletics Final in Stuttgart, then following up with a silver medal at the World Cup in Athens over 200.

While he fell victim to American Tyson Gay’s run in Osaka in 2007 (19.91 in the 200), Bolt took a bite of the Big Apple in late May 2008, setting a world record of 9.72. He then made himself an international superstar at the Beijing Olympics setting world records at the 100 (9.69) and 200 (19.30), the former despite celebrating 15 meters from the finish.

I must put Bolt’s double in Berlin last summer as one of my all-time greatest sports moment. As I wrote on this blog after the 100, “Reaching speeds that no man in this sport ever imagined, Bolt made believers of the witnesses attending Sunday night's 100 meter final as he clocked 9.58 in the sport's premier test of who can run the fastest.”

After his run over 200 meters, I wrote, “Once again, Usain Bolt of Jamaica shocked the world with 19.19 seconds that may define his status as one of the world's greatest athletes, with his dash to history, and skipping the 19.2 barrier in the process.”

What will this decade provide track and field fans? If the previous decade is any indication, I believe that someone will take the sport to heights never before imagined. With the internet providing more coverage of the sport than what traditional media can offer, the opportunity is there for a budding superstar to become even more of a household name than ever before.

Let the new decade begin!

NOTE: All photos by Paul Merca.

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