Friday, August 7, 2009

Ten American Stories to Watch in Berlin

11th IAAF World Athletics Championships: Day Eight

Mixed in with the competition, every major championship has its share of stories running in the background. Every event has its share of back stories - athletes looking to over come odds, rebound from adversity, emerge in their event, or simply trying to make their mark. Berlin will be no exception. Following are ten US stories that I think will shape events in Berlin.

10. Jeremy Wariner - THE top quarter miler this decade, Wariner found himself #2 in 2008 after leading the way and winning everything in sight from 2004 thru 2007. Many attributed Wariner's "decline" last year to a highly publicized break from coach Clyde Hart. A break that came to an abrupt end with the announcement at this year's Nationals that they had patched up their differences and would be working together once again. Since then Wariner hasn't been seen much on the track. His times have been much slower than at this point in season's past, though his final tune up race showed a very strong finish in the stretch. Rival Lashawn Merritt has pretty much had his way with the event this year, so the real question now is will Merritt dominate Berlin as he did Beijing or will Wariner return the favor and take Merritt's newly found crown away.

9. Jenn Stuczynski - When you talk about the women's pole vault the name that sticks out is Yelena Isinbayeva - the Russian that has dominated the women's event in much the same fashion that Sergei Bubka once dominated the men's. Since 2004 she has broken records and completely rewritten the all time list in the event. As dominant as Isinbayeva has ben however, Stuczynski has still managed to creep into contention. She is one of only three women to ever vault over 16 feet, and this year their bests on the season are only 4cm apart. And with Isinbayeva suffering a rare defeat recently in London, there could be a chink in the armor. A chink that Stuczynski could be ready to attack. At her best, Jenn can compete with Isinbayeva. The key will be believing in herself and bringing her best on the day. If she is successful she could bring pole vault gold back to the US.

8. Christian Cantwell - Cantwell is the 7th longest shot putter in world history - but you wouldn't know it looking at his championships results. He hit his huge throw (73' 11.5") back in 2004 - a year in which he was the US and World Indoor Champions. But outdoors he finished 4th at the Olympic Trials and missed his shot at Athens glory. And such has been his career - rather inconsistent. Long throws in some meets, mediocre in others. US outdoor champion in '05 (71') followed by a 5th at Worlds (68' 5.75". Adidas Classic winner in '07 (72' .75") followed by a 5th at Nationals (66' 1"). Last year we finally saw him get close to his huge potential as he hit his final throw of the competition in Beijing to take silver at 69' 2.5". This year Cantwell is once again among the top putters at 71' 7.25" - #3 in the world - and after finally having some success last year in Beijing it will be interesting to see if his immense talent will finally carry him to the top of the podium. Cantwell is always a threat to hit a BIG one. Can he finally put it together and hit that big throw when it matters most?

7. Allyson Felix - Felix is one of the best long sprinters ever developed in the US - and she's still only 24. Twice she has come home with World Championships gold in the 200 meters - Helsinki '05 and Osaka '07. No other woman has won more than one World Championship and only three other women in history have won two global titles - Barbel Wockel ('76/'80), Marion Jones ('00/'01) and Veronica Campbell ('04/'08). Felix has the opportunity to become the only sprinter, male or female, to win three World 200 meter titles, and join Michael Johnson ('91/'95/'96) as the only sprinters to ever win three global titles at this distance. Her task will not be easy as she must face the woman that she beat for her other two titles but who beat her in two Olympic appearances - Veronica Campbell Brown. One of these women could make history. The other run valiantly in the attempt. Felix looked to be in fine form with a world leading 21.88 in her final tune up for Berlin. If she can put together a similar race in Berlin she will make history.

6. Galen Rupp - America has had a long and storied tradition in the distance events. Names like Jim Ryun, Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine, Sydnee Maree, Henry Marsh, Steve Scott, Rob Kennedy and Alberto Salazar grace the pages chronicling the history of distance running in the US. But those pages have been rather empty since the 1990's. As the African nations have emerged as world powers in the distances, we have seen our fortunes decline dramatically. But suddenly we have the pairing of a once high school star with a once American great, and that pairing of former HS star, Galen Rupp, with former world star, Alberto Salazar has created an athlete that appears to be on the cusp of world level greatness. The story here is less one of medal possibilities than it is of finally seeing a competitive, home grown distance runner show the early promise that made Steve Prefontaine such a legendary figure. I wait not to see him cross the line in first, but to watch him hold his own on the big stage. If he can do this, our distance hopes for the future will take a quantum leap forward.

5. Sanya Richards - Since Richards joined the ranks of sub 50 quarter milers in 2004 (49.89 best) she has dominated on the clock and in races not called the Olympics or World Championships. She's won more races and run faster than any of her contemporaries, becoming the AR holder in 2006 at 48.70. You have to go back to 1996 to find anyone running faster! One would expect that being that much better than her peers she would have a string of championships three or four globals long. But Richards has had difficulty parlaying her amazing talent into gold medals. A 6th in '04, silver in '05, missed the team in '07 and bronze in '08 has been Sanya's legacy so far in the spotlight. Once again she is the world leader in the event heading to Berlin having run 49.23 this summer. But for Richards the trip to Berlin is not to see how fast she can run, but whether she can outrun her past, and her competition to cross the line in first place.

4. Women's 1500 Meter Crew - When I read the final list of US entries for Berlin my heart skipped a beat when I saw the name of Anna Willard in the 1500 and not the steeplechase. Willard is perhaps the gutsiest of a group of young women that have emerged in the US in the middle distances. With her joining Shannon Rowbury and Christin Wurth Thomas at the starting line, we have the best group of 1500 meter women we have ever sent to any major championship. All three have the potential to make it to the final. And once there World and Olympic finals tend to become all about pace. With THREE horses in the fight, I don't think I've ever been as excited about our prospects in a middle distance event since Johnny Gray and Mark Everett were running wild in the 800 meters back in the early 90's. These women have speed, heart and strong competitive natures, and I'm dying to see how well they do in Berlin. All three have the ability to run sub 4:00, putting all in possible medal contention in the right race.

3. Dwight Phillips - Phillip's story is interesting because of the path he has travelled. Phillips had a three year run near the middle of the decade that was as good as it gets winning the Olympic title in '04 and World titles in '03 and '05. It seemed like the beginning of a run that would last the decade. But if anything is certain in track and field it's that there are always new stars emerging, making the future anything but guaranteed. After getting out over 28 ft during his three year run he suddenly was back around 27 ft and watched Irving Saladino become the world's top jumper - jumping over 28 ft and winning the World title in '07 and the Olympic title last year while Phillips took bronze in '07 and then failed to make the team for Beijing last year. But just when it seemed that Phillips was bottoming out, he returned this year with a vengeance. This year Phillips has had the longest jump since 1991 with his 28' 9.75" jump in Eugene, and has had several jumps over 28ft. He's become more consistent than ever and has beaten all of his peers including Saladino. After a couple of down seasons, Phillips has rebounded and is headed to Berlin looking to regain the World title AND challenge the 29 ft barrier. Now THAT's a turnaround.

2. Men and Women 4x1 Relays - The US annually has the talent to put together sprint relay squads that are capable of challenging for the gold medal. Historically we've won more 4x1 titles than any other country on the planet. If we get the stick around the track we're immediately in contention. Did I say IF we get the stick around the track? I did. Because far too often in recent memory the stick hasn't made it around the track. Bobbled batons have done in either the men's or women's squad in just about every major run this decade! And last year in Beijing after winning both relays in Osaka BOTH squads dropped the baton in Beijing! And to add insult to injury, the men got to watch the Bolt/Powell lead Jamaica team that they beat in Osaka take gold AND set a new WR in the process! Berlin will see both our men's and women's squads take to the track again, and JOB ONE will be to get the stick around the track! With that accomplished the next step will be to beat our Jamaican rivals, and the men will have the added incentive to attempt to regain the WR. Of course it all goes down the drain if the stick hits the track once again!

1. Tyson Gay - Two years ago Tyson Gay was the toast of the track world. He won double gold in Osaka beating then WR holder Asafa Powell in the 100 and setting a meet record in the 200 - breaking a Michael Johnson mark. He finished the year as the sport's #1 athlete for 2007. But what a difference a year can make. The beginning of 2008 saw the emergence of Usain Bolt, and mid season saw him run one of the greatest set of sprint rounds in history at the US Trials in the 100 before succumbing to injury in his first round heat of the 200. A summer of rehab saw him take to the track without a single race since his injury and much less than sharp. He failed to make the Beijing final and watched as Usain Bolt won double gold with double WR efforts. Gay started this season slowly, first nursing a slight injury then running 400's in his first few appearances on the track. His sprint debut however, was with a PR 19.58 in the 200 and though he's raced sparingly he has been awful fast when he has - his legal best of 9.77 equaling his AR and the world leader heading into Berlin. Gay was reported to have a groin injury in July, but he finished up his preparation for Berlin with a 9.79w effort in defeating Asafa Powell once more. THE two headline athletes heading into Berlin are Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt and they are clearly headed for what could be two epic battles. They have supplied the fireworks this summer and will be THE top story in Berlin.

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