Track & Field Olympic Hopefuls Compete For A Chance To Go To Rio

Jul 4, 2016
Originally published on July 4, 2016 7:54 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And July 4 came a day early at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore. Veteran athletes and newcomers yesterday unleashed their versions of fireworks - top performances and some glamour events - and the timing could not be better. It's only about a month before the start of the real Olympics. NPR's Tom Goldman was in Eugene, and he joins us now. Good morning.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Renee.

MONTAGNE: It sounds like a banner day in the city known as TrackTown USA. So talk to us about some of the highlights.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, you know, even before the results, this was always going to be a big day. A lot of fan favorite events like the men's and women's 100 and 400 meters, the decathlon with reigning Olympic champion and hometown hero Ashton Eaton from Eugene, and the women's high jump with this breakout star Vashti Cunningham. She's an 18-year-old who recently won the World and American Indoor titles. And she's being touted as the next big thing in high jumping.

MONTAGNE: And the results?

GOLDMAN: A bunch of world bests by some very familiar names. Justin Gatlin, he was 100-meter Olympic champion in 2004. He ran a 9.80 in the final. That's the fastest in the world this year. He's 34. The popular veteran Allyson Felix, 30, a six-time Olympic medalist, she won the 400 meters with a world best time this year. And she did it on an ankle she injured so severely two months ago she couldn't walk then.

And then Vashti Cunningham, who I mentioned - well, youth was not served in her case. She lost to someone almost twice her age, 32-year-old veteran named Chaunte Lowe. She jumped 6-feet-7. That's the best in the world outdoors this year. And she was totally entertaining when she'd come down from her jumps and strike these great celebratory poses. Oh, and Ashton Eaton won the decathlon with - you guessed it - top score in the world this year.

MONTAGNE: You know, Tom, you covered the U.S. swimming trials last week, where there are definitely was a changing of the guard with a new generation of great athletes emerging. But why not so in Eugene?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, although the veterans did shine yesterday in Eugene, there were 12 first-time Olympians who qualified. And there are 25 total so far. For instance, in the men's 100, the two fastest guys after Gatlin - 20-year-old Trayvon Bromell and 22-year-old Marvin Bracy - they talked about Gatlin being a mentor and basically made him feel like an old man. And in the women's 100 the winner, English Gardner, is 24. The third-place finisher, Tori Bowie, is 25. These guys are definitely the next generation of women's sprints.

MONTAGNE: Speaking of sprints, the most famous sprinter in the world - that's Jamaica's Usain Bolt - says he injured a hamstring last week and he's had to drop out of his country's Olympic trials. Are the men's 100 and 200-meter runners in Eugene pretty thrilled (laughter) about the prospect of no Bolt in Rio?

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Well, they might be if there really were not going to be Bolt in Rio. But every sprinter who was asked about it, including Gatlin and Bromell and American record holder Tyson Gay - who didn't qualify in the 100 yesterday - all of them think Bolt will be in Rio ready to run. A couple of them even chuckled and said Bolt may be playing pre-Olympic Games here.

But one U.S. track official I talked to said Bolt has been dealing with nagging injuries, and it's understandable he doesn't want to risk something further before Rio. Even though he didn't qualify at the Jamaican trials, his country allows for a medical exemption. And as long as he shows he's fit and ready at a race later this month, he'll be good to go for the Olympics.

MONTAGNE: All right, Tom, thanks very much.

GOLDMAN: You bet.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's sports correspondent, Tom Goldman, talking about the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore. And they continue throughout this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.