The 10 sets of hurdles lining the straightaway at the U.S. Olympic Trials are deceptively neat and precise.Once the gun goes off, it’s bedlam. Elbows fly, hurdles crash and anything goes. With spots on the U.S. team for the London 2012 Olympic Games on the line, the 100- and 110-meter hurdles races are among the deepest, most competitive and — possibly — most unpredictable at the Trials.
“There’s always a surprise, because there’s an obstacle in front of you,” said Renaldo Nehemiah, the former world-class hurdler who is now an agent. “Human error will lead to someone’s disappointment. That’s both the beauty and the frustration of the event.”
In the 100-meter hurdles last Saturday in Eugene, Ore., Dawn Harper, the reigning Olympic champion, won with a time of 12.73 seconds, followed by two of Nehemiah’s clients, Kellie Wells (12.77) and Lolo Jones (12.86).
Action begins Friday in the 110 hurdles with American record holder David Oliver vying for a spot against world champion Jason Richardson, world indoor gold medalist Aries Merritt, two-time Olympic silver medalist Terrence Trammell and a host of others.
“I can’t sleep at night sometimes,” Richardson said. “Sometimes I break out in a light sweat just thinking about the pressure of what it means.”
Jones was the surprise qualifier in the women’s race even though she has received the lion’s share of the hype – much to the chagrin of her rivals – in large part due to her ninth-hurdle stumble in Beijing and her tremendous media exposure.
Coming off of her second world indoor title in 2010, Jones was expected to contend at the 2011 world outdoor championships. She failed to make the final at nationals, later realizing a back problem was leading to a string of injuries, and underwent surgery. At the U.S. Olympic Trials this week, however, Jones narrowly secured a spot on the team for London.
“The sad part about it is there’s going to be some people left off the team who could do some damage if they got to London,” said Gail Devers, a five-time Olympian.
Devers knows the pitfalls of the hurdles all too well. Even though she still holds the American record of 12.33 seconds (set in 2000), won 10 national titles and three World Championships, she never captured an Olympic medal in five tries running what many consider her signature event. Devers’ two individual Olympic gold medals came in the flat 100 meters in 1992 and 1996.
In 1988, Devers didn’t reach the 100 hurdles final. Then in 1992 she was leading when she smacked the 10th hurdle and fell to the track, scrabbling across the finish line for fifth.
Four years later, she missed a medal in Atlanta by .01 of a second, placing fourth. Devers went to the 2000 Sydney Games as the reigning world champion and her time of 12.62 seconds in the first round was the fastest in the competition. But she pulled a hamstring and couldn’t finish her semifinal.
In Devers’ final Olympic Games in Athens, she was again injured and in the first round went under the first hurdle instead of over it.
"You try to do all that you can do," she said, "then you get to the point where it just doesn't work out."
In Eugene, Christina Manning of Ohio State, who had won both her heat and semifinal — beating Jones — faltered in the final. She was fifth (12.92, her slowest time of the Trials), followed by Virginia Crawford, a two-time national champion, in fourth.
Danielle Carruthers, a silver medalist at the 2011 World Championships, and Joanna Hayes, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, did not even advance to the final.
Before competition began, Crawford said of making the team, “It’s fair, but it’s just 12 seconds, and it’s cutthroat.”
The men are on the track approximately one second longer, and their rivalries are from head to toe.
“I definitely have the better hair,” Richardson said, comparing his dreadlocks — seven years in the making — to Merritt’s hair braided in cornrows. “I definitely think that dreads are a commitment to excellence and I find that braids come and go, but dreads last for a really long time.”
He added, "I definitely think I am a kind of Samson. I think there is a lot of power and majesty in my hair.
"I wouldn't feel like myself if I didn't have my hair."
Richardson won the gold medal at the 2011 World Championships in unusual fashion after contact between 2004 gold medalist Liu Xiang of China and 2008 gold medalist Daron Robles of Cuba. Robles, who crossed the finish line first, was disqualified for obstructing Liu.
"I am not going to subscribe to any idea that I have the burden of proof in the track and field court of law of proving that I deserve the (world) championship,” Richardson said.
Of the “Big Three,” Oliver, the 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, is the only one who has dipped below 13 seconds in a legal (non-wind-aided) race. He ran 12.89 to set the American record in 2010.
Merritt, who beat Xiang for the world indoor title at 60 meters, has the best legal mark by a U.S. hurdler this season of 13.03 seconds, set in May, as well as a wind-aided 12.96 run on the same Hayward Field track where the Trials are being held. Oliver ran 13.13 in Shanghai, also in May, finishing ahead of Richardson (13.16), while Dexter Faulk also has a 13.13 to his credit.
“I do think the Trials are harder than the Olympics because there are nine Americans that can run extremely well,” Merritt said. “Any American can make the team so it’s just going to be ridiculous.”
Richardson believes a sub-13-second performance will be necessary to get to London.
“I don’t think it’s possible, I think it’s probable,” he said. “Aries has run some wind-aided 12s, David has run most of the 12s on the record books, I’m tap-dancing in the 13-area. Eugene always provides an amazing environment to run fast and with the added pressure and the importance of the meet, I know that we’ll lock together and put together a great show. I hope all of us are under 13 and that I am lower under 13 than these guys.”
Merritt welcomes the competition. “I don’t think it can hurt us,” he said. “I think it helps us. We try to push each other to the best performance each and every time we step on the track.”
Oliver said the other athletes in the race aren’t his biggest obstacles to success.
“I think as hurdlers, we never really have that big of a problem competing against each other for the simple fact that we’re more or less competing against 10 hurdles,” he said. “We’re not running against individuals. We’re trying to work on what we’re doing in practice in a competitive environment. It’s not like, ‘Who’s the fastest man over 100 meters, mano a mano.’ ”
Merritt carries the confidence of defeating Liu, “whom he called “no slouch of a hurdler” for the world indoor title. “Winning always changes your life,” Merritt said. “If you don’t win, you don’t get the publicity you would’ve gotten if you had won. You get more exposure, and more people want to talk to you after you’ve won.”
Nehemiah, who was the first hurdler under 13 seconds (12.93 in 1981) and used to have epic battles against Roger Kingdom and Greg Foster, said the athletes “are going to have to be cerebrally sound and physically sound and just motivated to run well. But I expect a name or two may not make it.”
Devers said the depth in the United States is a product of athletes becoming more knowledgeable.
“I think people are challenging themselves more by sprinting, really becoming efficient and learning their event.” said Devers, who next month will be inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. “And you’ve seen evidence in what they’re doing out on the track. And I love it because it makes the USA look great.”
However, the United States is not favored for gold in either event in London. World champion Sally Pearson of Australia has run 12.49 already this year in the 100 hurdles.
“She’s really strong,” Devers said, “but you know what? All we have to do is do our part and if we get out and stay in our lanes we can run with her, too. Nobody’s unbeatable.”
On the men’s side, Liu has the fastest times in the world this year, a wind-aided 12.87 seconds in Eugene — which would have tied Robles’ world record if it had been legal — and a legal 12.97 run in Shanghai. Liu, who was injured in Beijing four years ago and could not compete, will be looking for redemption in London, while Robles and a young Cuban named Orlando Ortega will be other threats to American medal hopes.
Richardson intends to stop them.
"I will say that I am a silent assassin ninja and I will sneak in the back door and I will try and steal the entire thing,” he said. “I pity the fool who counts me out or doesn't expect me to show up when it counts."
First, of course, Richardson has to vanquish his fellow Americans.
“There’s a certain focus that hurdling has that sprinting doesn’t have,” he said. “You can’t say a word about who’s in the race because you still have to do what you need to do to get over those hurdles and stay on your feet.
"I think that’s why hurdlers aren’t afraid to compete against each other and aren’t afraid to race because in essence, we already have our own battles inside our two white lines.”