Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Five Matchups That Will Shape the Sprints in 2009

I know it's early in the season. There is lots of time for athletes to rise, fall, and even rise again. Already we have seen injuries, accidents, slow starts to training and other issues that could affect the final outcome to the season - which this year is the World Championships in Berlin. But somebody has to stick their neck out at some point and start looking ahead. I figure now is as good a time as any. So, following are the 5 matchups in the sprints that I think will shape the Berlin finals.

#5 - Walter Dix v Asafa Powell

I'm sure that sprint fans are immediately laughing at this one. After all, Asafa Powell runs fast with regularity and is closing in on Maurice Greene as the most prolific sub10 sprinter of all time. On the other hand, Walter Dix has just entered that realm and only has a handful of sub10's to his credit. So I'm sure many of you are asking how I can utter these two names in the same breath?

Simple. One of my favorite sayings is: "It ain't how fast you run, it's when you run fast". And that is very applicable to this matchup because Asafa Powell has never run near his best times in Majors, while Walter Dix has proven over the years to be a great big meet performer. So this matchup will be a battle of attitude vs aptitude for what I believe will be the bronze medal in the 100 meter dash. More importantly I think this matchup will be very important in defining these athlete's careers. The winner could join the current two headed monster that has dominated the 100 over the past two seasons and make it a three headed beast. For Powell it could be make or break, because if he is once again shut off the medal stand in a major he will become an historical footnote - very fast but not a "winner". Both need to win this match up for the respect factor.

Powell is the fastest starter on the planet. He looks like a dragster, simply blasting away from the competition and holding to the finish. Only the super finishers have a shot at running him down. But Dix is that anomaly - the short man who doesn't start fast but finishes like a freight train. Dix has crazy top end speed, but can he stay close enough early in the race to use it? The answer to that question will decide this matchup.

#4 - Carmelita Jeter v Kerron Stewart

The women's 100 has been anyone's race for most of this decade. Multiple champions in Majors, and most races that matter being separated by hundredths of a second between 3, 4 even 5 individuals. That "parity" appears to be in danger this year though, as two powerful women look to be ready to emerge.

Jeter and Stewart bring power to an event that has seen the finesse of sprinters like Christine Arron, Veronica Campbell, Lauryn Williams, and Torrie Edwards taking center stage. These two, however, bring power like Maurice Greene and Shawn Crawford. And like those two athletes in their prime Jeter and Stewart are threatening to use that power to separate themselves from the pack. These young ladies have mid race surges that can destroy a field, and early on both have shown improved starts to go with their closing speed. So it's no mystery that first Jeter (10.97), then Stewart (10.92) ran under the 11 second barrier to lead the world.

There are a lot of fast young ladies out there - last year a dozen ran under 11.00 - but only two have the kind of power that could separate them from the rest. Their mid race surges and finishes being far superior to the rest of their contemporaries. But as with the fast finishers among the men, the question becomes will they be close enough when they fit their turbochargers to take over the race? Based on what I have seen of both early on the answer is yes. As both have improved their starts to go with blitzkrieg finishes. That is why I believe that the matchup between these two young ladies will decide the gold in Berlin AND set the pecking order in the women's 100 for the next several years.

#3 - Allyson Felix v Veronica Campbell Brown

Its real simple. Veronica Campbell Brown has won the last two Olympic gold medals in the women's 200 meters. Allyson Felix has won the last two World Championships gold medals in the women's 200 meters. Berlin will be the rubber match!

Campbell Brown is the faster of the two, having a gold medal in the 100 to her credit and a faster PR (10.85 to 10.93). Felix has the best speed endurance, however with a 49.70 best in the 400 to go with several 48 sec relay legs. Their previous races over 200 have been memorable. Campbell Brown fast over the first 100 meters, Felix blazing over the second 100. This matchup is for 200 meter supremacy - Queen of the Curve! Will it be the speed and gritty drive of Campbell Brown, or the smooth acceleration and relentless finish of Felix? Keep your eye on the last 20 meters of the curve and the first 20 meters of the straight, as the transition here will determine who gets crowned. She who transitions best will be Queen. I want to see a few runs by both before I will even consider making a call on this one!

#2 - Lashawn Merritt v Jeremy Wariner

Jeremy Wariner was the undisputed King of the Quarter from 2004 through 2007. A long reign in any event in this sport. During that reign the "Human Metronome" (as I call him) just kept knocking out the times and victories. So much so that entering 2008 the conversation was whether or not he would add the world record to Olympic gold in Beijing.

During Wariner's reign, however, Lashawn Merritt had been just under the radar, steadily improving after being somewhat of a prodigy himself having run 44.93 indoors as a college freshman in 2005 and immediately going pro. Merritt had spent the years since taking his lumps but finally last year he emerged from Wariner's shadow! Merritt won the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games as well as several other competitions against Wariner.

But Wariner is a champion and you can see in his face already this year that he wants to be back on top. Merritt has given every indication however, that he likes being The Man, and has no intention of relinquishing the title of best quarter miler on the planet. The result should be a series of hard fought races between the two - and a matchup that will blossom into a true rivalry! Wariner runs his race as if he has a metronome in his head - his ability to stay on pace is uncanny and unwavering. Merritt's speed, however, enables him to run relaxed at paces that strains others. Both can surge at 300 meters and both can finish strong in the stretch. This is a matchup where a single mistake can mark failure and where a quarter mile after the start the race could be determined by hundredths of a second . Look for high drama in Eugene and Berlin as these young men go at it to prove just who is best in the 400 meters.

#1 - Tyson Gay v Usain Bolt

My number one matchup takes me back to the mid 1970's when American Steve Williams and Jamaican Donald Quarrie were clearly the best two sprinters on the planet. Their matchups lead to several world records and several very memorable races - at both the 100 AND 200 meters.

Today Gay and Bolt bring the same kind of dominance and excitement to the track - and they too do it in BOTH the 100 and 200 meters. As such this will be the most important matchup in the sprint world in 2009 because they are the cream of the crop in TWO events - and they are the face of the US vs Jamaica sprint rivalry!

Tyson Gay beat all in his path in '07 on his way to double gold in Osaka. His mid race surges laying waste to field after field in the 100. Leading up to his running down of Asafa Powell in full flight in the World Championships. In the 200 he simply put everyone away before he came off the turn.

In '08 Bolt emerged to beat all in his path on his way to double gold in Beijing. He came out of no where in the 100 to first run close to the World Record before beating Gay in New York with a new WR. He continued to beat all in his path until he took gold in Beijing in another WR. His 200 runs were less frequent but no less lethal displaying improved strength on his way to another WR with his gold medal run in Beijing.

In spite of their Mutt and Jeff appearance stature wise, the two are eerily similar race wise. In the 100 meters both are average starters who can occasionally catch a good one. Bolt has great early acceleration and mid race lift. Gay great mid race acceleration and closing burst. In the 200 both burn the turn and simply outrun you to the finish.

The most intriguing aspect to this matchup is that they met only once in '08 due to injury to Gay - in New York. A month later in Eugene at the Olympic Trials Tyson set an American Record of his own and fans thoughts went immediately to Beijing. A few days later, however, Gay went down to injury in the 200 - and Bolt was left alone to run rampant in Beijing. So this year will bring them back together to decide just who is the fastest man on the planet - in not one race but two!

Being so close style wise it will be the first thirty meters of the 100 that should decide their fates - the man that can separate here will win. In the deuce it will be the final thirty meters - he who holds on best after what will be a torrid 170 meters will become champion. They are so well matched that we could even see a split - one winning the 100, the other the 200 - making future races just that much more exciting.

Of course so much can happen during a season. As stated above, Tyson Gay was injured at our Trials after a phenomenal display in the 100 meters, putting an end to a Beijing matchup of titans. Already this season Asafa Powell (injury) and Usain Bolt (accident) have had to withdraw from some early season races. So the odds are great that all five of these matchup may not come to fruition. But if they do, and I'm crossing my fingers that they will, these five matchup will shape the sprint scene not only for this season, but quite possibly for seasons to come. Buckle up and grab your popcorn, this is going to be one exciting season!

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