There are always exuberant victories and painful defeats in sports, but few moments are more gut-wrenching and soul-crushing than falling in an Olympic or world championship final. Or in Morgan Uceny’s case: both.
With about one lap to go in the women’s 1500-meter final at her world championship debut (in 2011, in Daegu, South Korea) and a year later in her first Olympic Games in London, Uceny was in medal contention when she tripped and fell to the track.
London was particularly harsh because no American had ever captured an Olympic medal in the women’s 1500, and Uceny, then 27, had been ranked No. 1 in the world.
This week, however, at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, the Indiana native will try to qualify for another shot at the world championships. To do so, Uceny doesn’t have to win her third U.S. outdoor title in a row. She just has to make Saturday’s final, finish in the top three, and run the distance in 4 minutes and 5.50 seconds or less between now and July 20. If she succeeds, she may find redemption in Moscow, Russia, site of this year’s world championships from Aug. 10-18.
Meanwhile, Uceny has kept a fairly low profile since London. After the Games, she struggled with pain in her right hip – the one that absorbed the shock of her crash – and was sidelined for six weeks. In late November, she moved her training base from California to Loughborough, England, so she could continue being coached by Terrence Mahon.
And although Uceny is favored to make the world team, she hasn’t raced since May 25, when she placed seventh in a Diamond League meet in New York City (in 4:08.49). She was planning to run two more races after that, but had to scratch due to illness.
She says she is healthy now, and pain-free, just as she had been in New York when TeamUSA.org had a rare chance to catch up with her.
It’s been a while since you’ve been in the news. Is there anything you wish people knew about you, or anything that you want to express?
Not especially. I’ve been around long enough that people know me a bit, either a personal side or for races.
What do you think they mostly know about you? The Ivy League degree from Cornell? Summers spent bricklaying? Being ranked No. 1 at 1500m two years ago?
Just the background, where I kind of detested the sport while I was younger. I wanted to go down a different avenue. I always knew that I was better at [running than basketball] but I never wanted to be a professional runner until I actually was. Eventually, the more I ran, the more I really grew to love the sport. It always felt good to be acknowledged for something I did in running that I hadn’t done in basketball.
|Morgan Uceny reacts after her fall in the women's 1500m final
at the London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on
Aug. 10, 2012 in London, England.
Now your identity is: Runner. Do you embrace it? Or do you try to deflect it sometimes?
I think I’ve fully embraced it. Sometimes I think that’s actually detrimental, especially since the falls at worlds and at the Olympics. When you have traumatic experience like that – because running was my life, it affected me so much greater. It made me realize you need other things to keep you motivated and happy because bad things happen. I’m still working on that balance.
Speaking of falling – it has happened to some of the greats: speed skater Dan Jansen fell twice at the 1988 Games, Mary Decker Slaney collided with Zola Budd in 1984, Lolo Jones had a lead until she smacked the second-to-last hurdle in Beijing. Those moments were indelible. What do you remember from yours?
At worlds in Daegu, I got tripped with about 550 meters to go but I got up and finished that race [placing ninth, while American Jenny Simpson won the gold]. At the London Olympics, with 400 meters to go, I had a really good spot near the front. In the last lap, things got going and people who were boxed in were trying to get out. I was in the way, I guess, so I got stepped on by the woman behind me. I got kicked in the leg which caused the fall. I still have little scars. Mostly a raspberry-type thing on my right hip. I didn’t finish.
Have you seen replays of those races?
I watched worlds. That doesn’t bother me as much, maybe because it was the first time it happened. It was still really devastating, but the Olympics were 10 times as bad. I haven’t watched a full replay of [London]. I’ve just seen pictures.
Have you ever had a chance to meet or talk to some of those other well-known athletes about their Olympic crashes?
No, not really. The only person who really said anything was Darvis Patton. I was with my mom in the Olympic Village. He just came up to me and said, ‘Keep your head up, I know what it feels like.’ I’d seen him around, but I’d never really had a conversation with him. It was really nice that he went out of his way to support to a USA teammate, someone that he didn’t really know.
Patton dropped a relay baton, right?
I’m not 100 percent sure.
Okay, I looked it up. Patton was involved in three major botched handoffs in the men’s 4 x 100m: at the 2008 Olympics, at the 2009 worlds, and at the 2011 worlds, but he has also earned two Olympic silver medals in the relay. Have you ever been in a race where a teammate has fallen? Is your instinct to say something or is your instinct to stay away?
It depends. At the Olympics or worlds, everyone in that final had a lot of pressure on themselves so I’m not surprised. You finish the race and you’re not like, ‘Oh, I should go say something to Morgan.’ Everyone’s feeling their own emotions. I get like that after my own races. I understand. I’m in my own head. But if it was someone close to me, I would definitely want to support them – like Anna [Pierce] Willard, one of my good training partners. In Zurich, at the 2010 Diamond League final, we both tripped, and in another race that year, in Rieti, Italy, we both dropped out and we were there for each other.
In a way, you may have gotten more recognition for falling than you would have for a gold medal. But it also means you probably get asked about those moments ad nauseum. Do you view it as more of a blessing or more of a curse?
It’s a curse. I’ll take the gold medal and no recognition over a fall and lots of recognition.
In hindsight, I hope it catapults me to an even greater stage. Meanwhile, I try to get my karma. Like last year I paced my teammate Anna Willard to the “A” standard [qualifying time] in the 1500 at a small meet in San Diego before the Olympic Trials. She raced the 1500 at Trials and finished fifth. I’m going to keep doing good deeds and hopefully it’ll come around. It can’t really get much worse than that.
Ultimately, did you learn anything from those 2011 worlds and 2012 Olympics?
In each instance, I wasn’t at fault so I can’t really say I learned anything in terms of racing strategy. In each race, I put myself in the position that my coach and I wanted me to be in. I can’t control other players, so I just have to keep performing to my abilities.
|Morgan Uceny celebrates as she crosses the finish line to win the
women's 1500m final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Track & Field
at the Hayward Field on July 1, 2012 in Eugene, Ore.
When you’re running in a pack, what triggers you to make a move? How do you know when to push in a tactical race like the 1500?
My coach and I have a game plan, but you can’t predict. Sometimes you just have to go. If you have time to think about it, it’s probably too late. You also learn to pick up cues about how other runners are feeling. Sometimes you can hear people breathing hard or see their form looking sloppy. It’s predator or prey, and you look for signs of weakness and capitalize on them if you can.
Do you have any telltale signs of weakness that you try to consciously cover up?
Not that I know of. Apparently, I tend to have a calm look on my face even if I’m DYING. My parents will be like, ‘Why didn’t you try harder? You look like you weren’t trying.’ I’m like, ‘Really? I was hurting pretty badly, so I think I tend to cover it up pretty well.'
London was your first Olympics, and hopefully you had a chance to fully experience it. What was your favorite moment?
The whole final race – minus the last 400 meters – was amazing. Even just walking into the stadium. I’ve never heard anything like that in my life. The roar was unbelievable. Taking a minute to really absorb where I was, and to be proud of why I was there was great.
Lastly, in addition to the world championships, Russia is also hosting the Sochi Olympic Winter Games in about seven months. Are there any winter sports you plan to check out on TV during Sochi?
I have an old college teammate who does bobsled, Jamie Greubel. She was a heptathlete on Cornell track team. I always like to keep an eye on what she’s doing.
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.