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5 Takeaways From The U.S. Olympic Team Trials For Track And Field

By Karen Rosen | July 11, 2016, 9:44 p.m. (ET)

Allyson Felix reacts after the women's 200-meter final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field at Hayward Field on July 10, 2016 in Eugene, Ore.

EUGENE, Ore. – A sign outside historic Hayward Field says “Welcome to TrackTown USA. Home of the Hardest Team to Make.”

No kidding. Among the nearly 900 athletes who competed at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field – no easy feat itself given the tough qualifying standards – a total of 126 men and women will represent Team USA at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. 

They include five returning individual gold medalists from the London 2012 Olympic Games – Ashton Eaton (decathlon), Brittney Reese (long jump), Jenn Suhr (pole vault), Christian Taylor (triple jump) and Allyson Felix (200-meter, who will be competing in the 400 in Rio). Also, Justin Gatlin, the 2004 gold medalist in the 100 and LaShawn Merritt, the 2008 champion in the 400 are back for their third Olympic teams.

The athletes in the trials had to contend not only with each other, but also with the elements – including rain and wind that made it tough to throw a slick discus, get a legal long jump or even see while running a hurdles race. Unlike swimming and gymnastics, which also concluded their trials in July, track can be a contact sport that eliminates athletes through collisions and shoe malfunctions.

The United States won 28 medals in London – nine golds, 12 silvers and seven bronzes. The men and women each won 14 medals, although the women had a 6-3 edge in gold medals.

According to USA Track & Field, after the trials, the high-performance team will do a medal projection. A solid performance for Team USA tends to be in the mid-20s. In 1992, Team USA won 30 medals, with 20 on the men’s side, the best performance in a non-boycotted recent Games.

Here are five takeaways from the 10-day event:

1. These Athletes Are Battle-Tested.

“The reason Team USA does so well at the Olympic Games is the selection process requires going through the fire,” said Jenny Simpson, who won the women’s 1,500-meter to qualify for her third Olympic team. 

She said athletes can’t “bank on selection.”

“You really have to fight for it,” Simpson said. “No one’s giving this to me. I really have to be at the top of my game now and a month from now. The gift we get from this really horrible and brutal experience is when we get to the Games, we have this sense we’ve done something really difficult already and we’re prepared for it.”

They’ve also been around the block, er, the world, competing. Five won world championships titles last year in Beijing: Eaton, Taylor, Tianna Bartoletta (long jump – and she’s also in the 100 in Rio), Felix (in the 400) and Joe Kovacs (shot put).

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Nineteen are American-record holders and three hold individual world records.

“When we get to Rio,” said U.S. head men’s coach Vin Lananna, “I think this is going to be one of the stronger men's teams, but also a very exciting men's team because there are so many newcomers.” 

Added head women’s coach Connie Price-Smith, a four-time Olympian, “We have a lot of young athletes, but I think we have a good mixture of veterans as well that will pull the young athletes along.”

2. There Are A Lot Of New Faces. An Awful Lot Of New Faces.

Two-thirds of the Olympic team are first-timers, with 40 men and 44 women going to their first Games. 

“It’s a changing of the guard,” said shot putter Michelle Carter, the indoor world champion who qualified for her third Olympic team at age 29. “To me, I’ve been in the sport for so long and a lot of my friends are retiring. Some may joke around and call me Mama Michelle.

“It’s sad, because you want the people that were there with you when you started to be there, but you understand that it’s a cycle…To see the young kids coming in and doing so well, it’s awesome, because you also want to see new talent and you want to see Americans stay on top. If people have to reach higher and fall out and make room for the new ones, that’s just how it is.”

There are two teenagers on the team: 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, the 400-meter hurdler who is the youngest athlete on the team since Cindy Gilbert in 1972, and Vashti Cunningham, 18, the indoor world champion in the high jump.

Vashti Cunningham competes in the women's high jump final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field 
at Hayward Field on July 3, 2016 in Eugene, Ore. 

Some of the young athletes weren’t quite sure how to react to making their first team. Byron Robinson was the last qualifier into the final of the men’s 400-meter hurdles and wound up placing second.

“I’m shell shocked, I’m overcome with joy,” he said. “It’s a lifelong dream at 21.”

He still has a lot of life ahead of him.

Edwin Moses, the 1976 and 1984 gold medalist, and Kevin Young, the 1992 champion, presented the medals in the event.

“I met Kevin Young yesterday,” Robinson said. “He didn’t know who I was - he probably still doesn’t. It was like 2 seconds, but it made my day. He said go in and believe and that’s what I did.”

Two high school sprinters who made a big splash did not make Team USA, but they’ll be back: Noah Lyles finished fourth in the 200 with Michael Norman fifth.

“Me and (Norman),” said Lyles, “I don’t mean to brag, but we’re pretty extraordinary.”

3. There Are Also Some Very Familiar, And Dare We Say, Old Faces.

Bernard Lagat, who won the men’s 5,000-meter, makes his fifth trip to the Olympics and is the oldest on the team. Both he and marathoner Meb Keflezighi are 41 years old, but Lagat was born in December 1974 and Keflezighi in May 1975. This is the fourth Olympic Games for Keflezighi, Felix, Shalane Flanagan (marathon) and Chaunté Lowe (high jump).

4. A Runner Will Try The 200/400 Double, Though Not Who You Though It Would Be.

Merritt will attempt the double in Rio and will also run a leg on the 4x400-meter team. Merritt has the fastest time in the world this year in both events, 19.74 in the 200 and 43.97 in the 400. Allyson Felix, whose intention of doubling prompted the IAAF to change the Olympic schedule, won the 400, but placed fourth in the 200. She had been hampered by a sprained right ankle suffered in April.

LaShawn Merritt competes in the men's 200-meter semifinals at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field at Hayward Field on July 8, 2016 in Eugene, Ore. 

5. Yes, Some Top Athletes Got Left Behind.

The U.S. won 28 medals in track and field in London. Among the 25 individual medalists, only 10 return in the same event.

Felix, of course, will be in the 400 instead of the 200, but eight other 2012 medalists competed in Eugene and did not make the team: Sanya Richards-Ross (gold in the 400), Aries Merritt (gold in the 110 hurdles), Leo Manzano (silver in the 1,500), Dawn Harper-Nelson (silver in the 100 hurdles), Jason Richardson (silver in the 110 hurdles) Trey Hardee (silver in the decathlon), DeeDee Trotter (bronze in the 400) and Reese Hoffa (bronze in the shot put).

Will Claye, who won the silver in the triple jump and the bronze in the long jump in London, will compete in Rio only in the triple jump. He placed third in the long jump in Eugene but had not met the qualifying standard with a non-wind-aided jump.

Also, several world leaders came up short. Shamier Little in the women’s 400-meter hurdles, Marquise Goodwin in the men’s long jump, Keni Harrison in the women’s 100-meter hurdles, and Donovan Brazier, who was the top American and No. 3 on the world list in the men’s 800, will not go to Rio.

Courtney Okolo, who was the top U.S. performer women’s 400 going into the trials, placed sixth but made the team in the relay pool. 

Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the women’s 100-meter hurdles, felt for Harper-Nelson, who was the 2008 gold medalist and missed qualifying for the trials final by .01 of a second.

“Heartbreaking,” Fitzgerald-Mosley said. “But that’s what this meet is: it breaks hearts all the time.”

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Ashton Eaton

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Brittney Reese

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Jennifer Suhr

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Christian Taylor

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Allyson Felix

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Justin Gatlin

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LaShawn Merritt

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Jenny Simpson

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Joe Kovacs

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Michelle Carter

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Bernard Lagat

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Mebrahtom Keflezighi

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Chaunté Lowe

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Marquise Goodwin