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10 Storylines To Follow At The U.S. Olympic Team Trials For Track And Field

By Karen Rosen | June 30, 2016, 7:31 p.m. (ET)

Allyson Felix sprints to the line to win gold in the women's 400-meter final at the 15th IAAF World Championships on Aug. 27, 2015 in Beijing.

TrackTown USA will see its population swell and its excitement level hit the roof at historic Hayward Field for 10 days in July. That’s because the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field are back in Eugene, Oregon, for the sixth time overall and third in a row. Around 1,000 entrants will compete for 125-130 spots. Track and field athletes will make up more than a fifth of Team USA in Rio.

“These people are running with dreams in their eyes,” said Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist who is still going strong in the 100- and 200-meter at age 34. “They want to go out there and make it happen. That’s when people are the most deadly. They’ll do whatever it takes to get across the line.”

Generally, the top three in each event will qualify for the Olympic Games. However, they must meet the Olympic qualifying standard to go to Rio. That means an athlete who already has the standard would leapfrog an athlete who placed higher at the trials but did not meet the requisite mark.

Here are 10 storylines to follow:

1. The Most Loaded Field At Olympic Trials

The final in the 100-meter hurdles promises to be even better than the Olympic final. That’s because only three hurdlers will qualify for Rio and 11 of the top 15 performers worldwide this year are from Team USA, including the entire top five.

Keni Harrison leads the list, setting an American record of 12.24 seconds at the Prefontaine Classic in late May on this very track. She’s also posted three other times faster than anyone else in the world and has her sights on the 1988 world record of 12.21 seconds held by Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria.

Brianna Rollins, the former American record holder, is next at 12.53 seconds, followed by Jasmin Stowers (the world leader last year who finished a disappointing fifth at the national championships), Sharika Nelvis, Kristi Castlin, Jasmin Camacho-Quinn, Nia Ali (who came back after having a baby), Queen Harrison, Olympic gold and silver medalist Dawn Harper-Nelson, Candice Price and Ebony Morrison.

And what about Lolo Jones? The popular hurdler, who competed in two summer Games and one Winter Games (in bobsled), withdrew from the trials on Wednesday. She had not raced since February due to a hamstring injury.

2. Ground To Make Up In Men’s 100-Meter

Not only do no American men rank in the top four on this season’s world list, none have run faster than a 40-year-old man from Saint Kitts and Nevis. Sure, world-record holder Usain Bolt of Jamaica is up there, but he is No. 2 behind Jimmy Vicaut of France, who has run 9.86 seconds to Bolt’s 9.88. Femi Ogunode of Qatar and Jak Ali Harvey of Turkey are next on the list. Qatar and Turkey?!

Then a U.S. sprinter finally makes an appearance: Gatlin is tied for fifth with Kim Collins of Saint Kitts and Nevis at 9.93 seconds, followed by U.S. teammates Ameer Webb and Marvin Bracy at 9.94. Veterans Mike Rodgers and Tyson Gay have each run 9.97. Trayvon Bromell, the 20-year-old world indoor champion at 60 meters and 2015 world championships bronze medalist, has not raced since June 2 because of an Achilles sprain. U.S. runners will also keep an eye on the Jamaican track trials, which conclude July 3.

3. Double Trouble For Allyson Felix?

Felix, the 2012 Olympic champion at 200 meters and the 2015 world champion at 400 meters, hopes to win gold medals in both in Rio. She has not run a 200 this year while recovering from a right ankle sprain. “I’m a fighter,” she said. “It was going to take a whole lot not to get me here. I’m going to give it everything I have.”

The 400-meter is first, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, then Felix has four days off before the 200 begins on July 8. The Olympic schedule, however, is more crowded. In February, the IAAF tweaked it to help accommodate Felix’s quest: she runs a 400-meter semifinal on Aug. 14, races the first round in the 200 the next morning and then has about 13 hours before the 400 final. In the original schedule, Felix would have had to run both races in the same session.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” said Felix, who attempted the 100/200 double in London, placing fifth in the 100 before her victory in the longer race. “That’s just a part of who I am. This is something none of us saw coming, an obstacle in the road, but I think that’s the thing about challenges: you get creative and you figure out how to go through them. It’s been a year of adversity and I feel like I can overcome.”

The field in the 200 includes Tori Bowie, Jenna Prandini, Candyce McGrone and 17-year-old phenom Candace Hill, who swept the 100 and 200 at the 2015 world youth championships.

In the 400, Felix must contend with Francena McCorory, the 2014 national champion, and newcomers Courtney Okolo and Quanera Hayes. Sanya Richards-Ross, the defending Olympic champion on her “last lap around the world” is coming back from injury.

4. Double Duty For LaShawn Merritt?

Merritt, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist in the 400, leads the world list in the 200-meter with a blistering 19.78-second mark from April in Nassau. He’s followed by Ameer Webb, who also used to be known more for the 400, at 19.85.

The schedule for the male quarter-milers in Rio is even better than the women’s. The men are finished with the 400 on Aug. 14 and start the 200 on Aug. 16.

The 400, naturally, is Merritt’s first priority and will give him a chance to renew his rivalry with Kirani James of Grenada. The U.S. also needs to restore some pride in the 400. After winning seven straight gold medals in the event, starting in 1984, Team USA failed to place anyone in the final in London.

David Verburg, who beat Merritt last year at the national championships, Arman Hall, Gil Roberts and Tony McQuay, the silver medalist at the 2013 worlds, are also in the mix.

5. Can Aries Merritt Defend His Title With Help From His Sister’s Kidney?

Merritt, the defending Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles, underwent a kidney transplant last September, with his sister LaToya the donor. Merritt was fresh off the 2015 world championships, where he finished a surprising third with a fraction of the kidney function he once had.

Merritt has the third-best time among Americans this year behind old hands David Oliver and Ronnie Ash. But he also must fend off a group of younger hurdlers, including Jarret Eaton, Devon Allen (who also plays football for Oregon), Aleec Harris and Spencer Adams.

6. Record Watch

Besides the 100-meter hurdles, look for American record bids by:

Keturah Orji in the women’s triple jump. She set the existing mark of 47 feet, 8 inches, while winning the NCAA title and is one of only two U.S. female triple jumper with the Olympic standard.

Sam Kendricks in the men’s pole vault. He won the Diamond League event in Shanghai last month, defeating world record holder Renaud Lavillenie and Olympic champ Shawn Barber. His height of 19-3 was the highest since the American record of 19-9 ¾ was set by Brad Walker in 2008.

Michelle Carter in the women’s shot put. Carter set the American indoor record in the event in Portland at the world championships.

Gwen Berry in the women’s hammer throw. Berry set the American record in May with a mark of 250-4. She was suspended by the IAAF – Berry blamed the positive test on using the wrong inhaler – but the ban ended earlier this week.

7. Look Out For…

In the men’s long jump, Marquise Goodwin, the Buffalo Bills wide receiver who has the two longest leaps of the year. The NFL team has given him permission to pursue his Olympic dreams and then return to the gridiron.

In the women’s 1,500, another chapter in the Jenny Simpson-Shannon Rowbury rivalry.

In the men’s 800, Donovan Brazier, a freshman at Texas A&M who is No. 3 on the world list behind two Kenyans. Brazier, a freshman at Texas A&M who has since turned pro, shattered the American junior record in the 800 indoors; then outdoors, he won the NCAA meet and broke Jim Ryun’s 800-meter record that went back to 1966.

In the men’s triple jump, a Christian Taylor/Will Claye duel in the sand.

In the women’s long jump, Brittney Reese, the defending Olympic champion and three-time outdoor and two-time indoor world champion.

In the women’s steeplechase, Emma Coburn, who now officially has an American record after not realizing it was necessary to be drug-tested the first time she ran faster than the old record.

8. Can The Cunninghams Rise To The Occasion?

Vashti Cunningham, who won the 2016 world indoor championship in the high jump at age 18, and her older brother Randall Cunningham II are trying to do what they did last summer – but on a bigger stage. The Cunninghams, whose father is football great Randall Cunningham, both won the Pan-American Junior Championships. Vashti’s top competition comes Chaunte Lowe, a three-time Olympian and mother of three. Brigetta Barrett, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, had hip surgery and has reportedly retired. In the men’s high jump, 2012 Olympic silver medalist Erik Kynard and 2011 world champ Jesse Williams top the field.

9. Clash Of The Titans

The shot put is once again a deep event for the United States, which has the top three throwers in the world.

World champion Joe Kovacs posted three of the top four throws this season, with Ryan Crouser heaving the third-best throw. Kurt Roberts is the No. 3 American on the list. Roberts made the world indoor team in 2014 and 2015, but the elementary school P.E. teacher has yet to make a major outdoor team. Jordan Clarke, the American junior record holder, could also contend. But the old guard is still on the scene: Ryan Whiting, Reese Hoffa, Christian Cantwell and even 2004 Olympic gold medalist Adam Nelson, who came out of retirement in an attempt to qualify for his fourth Olympic team at age 40.

10. The Long Jump And The Short Sprint

Tianna Bartoletta has been competing all season in the long jump and the 100-meter. At press time, it is not known if she will attempt both events in Eugene. Bartoletta, who won her second long jump world title last year a decade after her first, is the third-fastest U.S. sprinter on the world list at 10.94 seconds. In the long jump, however, she is tied for 16th.

Tori Bowie, a former long jump specialist, has the No. 2 time in the world this year in the women’s 100-meter at 10.80 seconds (behind Murielle Ahoure of Ivory Coast at 10.78). English Gardner is right behind her at 10.81. Candace Hill, the 17-year-old phenom who won the 100 and 200 at the world youth championships last year, ran 11.09 at the recent U.S. junior championships.

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