EUGENE, Ore. – There’s a reason countries are limited to three athletes in each track and field event at the Olympic Games.
Team USA could fill every lane in the women’s 100-meter hurdles final in Rio – and most of the lanes in the semifinals.
In perhaps the most eagerly anticipated event of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field, former American-record holder Brianna Rollins won Friday with a time of 12.34 seconds, followed by Kristi Castlin (12.50) and world indoor champion Nia Ali (12.55).
All are first-time Olympians and are well positioned to try to achieve the first sweep in the event in Olympic history.
“You could pretty much equate us to a Dream Team,” said Castlin. “It’s unfortunate all the ladies couldn’t go. If we had three different up here (at the post-race press conference), they could do a good job (at the Olympic Games).”
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In a major upset, American-record holder Keni Harrison, who had the four fastest times in the world this year – including a world best 12.24 seconds – did not make the team, finishing sixth at 12.62 seconds.
“I’m at a loss to explain it,” Harrison said, “but this stuff happens in the hurdles. We’ve got a great group of girls representing the U.S. in Rio. I’ll go back home and prepare for the Diamond League meet in London.”
Ali said she could relate to what Harrison was going through. “I’ve definitely been in that position,” she said. “I know it’s tough and I really feel for her.
“She’s very young, though, and incredibly fast. Just a great athlete, so she’s got a lot of time. I know no one wants to really hear that, but once she keeps her head up and keeps going, she’s definitely the future of the sport.”
Jasmin Stowers was in the mix at the final hurdle but stumbled, skidding on the track and finishing last.
Dawn Harper-Nelson, the 2008 Olympic champion and 2012 silver medalist, was third in her semifinal and missed qualifying for the final by one-hundredth of a second.
“Tears are going to come but right now I’m in shock,” Harper-Nelson said, noting that missing by such a small margin is “a dagger in the heart.”
The women ran their semifinals in such a driving rain that Ali said, “I couldn’t see mid-race.”
But in the final, the skies had cleared above Hayward Field. Seven of the women on the starting line were ranked in the top 10 in the world. Going into the trials, the top five performers in the world were from the U.S. and had posted the fastest 11 times of the season. Eleven of the top 15 performers were American.
As soon as the gun went off, Rollins burst out in front.
“I just wanted to come out here and just relax and execute the best race that I can,” she said. “I knew that I was ready and prepared. All I just had to do was believe in myself.
“Honestly, I guess when I got to the finish line and I saw that I was the first one across, I was just so overwhelmed and so excited and finally was able to relax and get ready to prepare myself for the Road to Rio.”
Rollins’ time was the second fastest of the season, behind Harrison, and was an improvement of .19 over her previous best of the year. Castlin moved up to third on the world list from fifth while Nia Ali is now tied at fourth.
“Any of them could win a gold medal in the Olympics,” said Benita Fitzgerald Mosley, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist.
Castlin had never made a final before at Hayward Field.
“This race was definitely just as or more competitive as the Olympic final,” Castlin said. “We had 11 of the top times in the world. We can actually breathe now. We can go back to work to getting faster, even training for the world record. All three of us are capable of achieving that feat as well.”
The world record of 12.21 seconds was set by Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria in 1988.
“It’s got to fall eventually,” said Mosley. “And Keni was so close earlier this year. If it doesn’t happen this year, it’ll definitely happen in the next couple of years, and it’ll be an American who does it.”
Ali celebrated with her son Titus, who was born 14 months ago. His father, Michael Tinsley, will be in the final of the men’s 400-meter hurdles.
Ali said it was important “for him to be here in this moment even though he won’t remember it.”
She said a sweep at the Olympic Games is “always a possibility. You can always count on something strong coming from the U.S.
“If you can run with these ladies, you definitely are competing for a medal once you get to Rio. It’s all about that and getting your feet up under you and feeling the field out and we’re going to be the ladies to beat for the gold, for sure.”
After the race, they had a group hug on the track.
“We’re all actually good friends,” Rollins said. “It’s something I actually envisioned before we got into the finals and I’m so grateful and so thankful that we all were able to come up on top.”
Ali said she also envisioned “hugging both of these ladies coming across the line.”
Castlin added that if she could picture “two other people I want to have my back in Rio,” she would have come up with her new Team USA teammates.
“We really have some big shoes to fill,” Castlin said. “The last world championships didn’t go as planned (Rollins was the highest U.S. finisher in fourth place), so this is our new opportunity to come back.
“I know all three of us will be coming back winners and with some hardware in Rio.”
Despite the wet weather, Mason Finley won the men’s discus with a throw of 208 feet, 1 inch. Tavis Bailey placed second at 202-0, while Andrew Evans was third at 200-10.
All three throwers qualified for their first Olympic team.
Finley, a former national high school record holder, threw a lifetime best of 218-11 in the qualifying round on Thursday.
The rain had stopped by the time competitors in the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase stepped on the track.
Evan Jager won the event for the second straight Olympic Trials, finishing with a time of 8 minutes, 22.48 seconds. Hillary Bor, who was born in Kenya, was second at 8:24.10 to make his first Olympic team while Donn Cabral finished third (8:26.37) to qualify for his second.