Thursday, April 7, 2011

Will the US PASS the Relay Test


It’s relay season here in the U.S., and with the Texas Relays up this weekend and talk of some top level athletes getting together on a couple of 4x1’s, and 2011 being a World Championships season, it’s time to once again begin talking about the U.S> 4x1’s.

The U.S. should be the medal count leader in Daegu,  as our troops should garner some twenty plus medals during the week of championship competition. Up to the Beijing Olympics, two of those medals were guaranteed to come from the men and women’s 4x1 relay squads – more often than not, gold. But in Beijing there were no medals in the relays as both the men AND the women failed to get the stick around the track. A feat that was ignominiously repeated in Berlin – making the U.S. oh for four in 4x1’s over the last two championships.

During those two championships we watched as the Jamaican men won both titles with little competition – and broke the world record while doing so in Beijing. Similarly on the women’s side we watched Russia (‘08) and Jamaica (‘09) run to uncontested titles. The sum of all of the above – U.S. failures and other's’ successes – have caused many to question the relay abilities of the U.S..

While I am very disappointed in our lack of success in the past two majors, I am not as unsure about our abilities as many seem to be. Look no further than last year’s Zurich meet for proof that the U.S. can get the baton around the track as the foursome of Trell Kimmons, Wallace Spearmon, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers ran a sizzling 37.45 – the #5 performance in history!

So we still know how to pass the baton. The issue will be to put the “best” squads available out on the track, because we can no longer afford to put “any” foursome out there and expect to beat the rest of the world.  We must be smart in our selection & placement of personnel, AND we must run as a team.

What many fail to remember is that we were blessed with all of the above for much of the 80’s and 90’s because our teams were dominated by the members of two distinct clubs – the Santa Monica Track Club and H.S.I. – each with several stars in tow. The Carl Lewis lead Santa Monica Track Club provided Carl, Mike Marsh and Leroy Burrell. Speedsters who regularly worked out together and ran relays together as a club. So the transition to international competition was simply a matter of making the U.S. team – which of course they did. Selection being out of the way, placement of personnel and working together as a team was already there!

Though we had a bit of a shaky transition in the ‘96 games – aging athletes having to give way to a youth movement of sorts – the Maurice Greene lead H.S.I. group provided “Mo” and Jon Drummond for much of the remainder of the decade and into the New Millennium. With only half of our units coming from one club, our results throughout the 90’s was a bit more shaky. Botched stick in ‘97 followed by brilliant wins in every major from ‘99 through 2003. Until in 2004 with three men who had run 9.88 or better, less than stellar passing produced a silver medal finish – and should have served notice just how important athlete placing and passing truly are in this event.

In the last several majors we have faced teams that are eerily similar to our own successful teams of the 80’s & 90’s, as Jamaican clubs M.V.P. and Racers T.C. have supplied Jamaica with nearly ready made squads – teams that have run together and train together prior to the major. Our success in ‘07 against an M.V.P. heavy squad with Usain Bolt on the backstretch and anchored by Asafa Powell, was followed by our passing debacles of ‘08 & ‘09.

Which brings us to 2011 and the thought by many that Jamaica is ready to run away with things yet again. A thought that I will echo IF we do not put this thing together properly. So here are what I feel are the keys to our success in bringing the gold medal back to America’s shores.

Go with what works. We were successful with the SMTC and HSI squads because they were already proven to be able to work together – and work together well. Jamaica is having similar success with squads based on athletes that are proven to work together well. Though we have no strong clubs right now, we have perhaps the world’s most lethal combination in Wallace Spearmon and Tyson Gay. They were the interior runners on last year’s 37.45 team. They were the interior legs on the America’s winning team at the World Cup last year. They were the interior runners on the ‘07 squad that beat the Bolt/Powell Jamaican squad for gold in Osaka. They ran the interior legs on the U.S. squad that won the ‘06 World Cup title in 37.59. And they were the interior of the University of Arkansas’ 2005 NCAA championship squad. In short, they are experienced, know how to pass to each other, and together put anchor legs out of reach of the competition! Not to mention that running them in the second and third positions ensure that they have a hand in every handoff around the track – and I want the baton in their hands as often as possible! We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here because we have a combination that is proven to work!

We just need to find the right two sprinters to pair with them. Now my first suggestion combined with this suggestion says quite clearly that I am against taking the “first four across the line” at Nationals and trying to force them together to form a relay squad. In the “old days” when we were the only real sprint game in town it was ok to run Jesse Owens on lead off or Mel Pender on second. But given the competition we face from squads from Jamaica, Trinidad, Britain and France, among others, having the right people in the right places is paramount. Which means that egos, agents, and personal coaches have NO PLACE in determining the personnel and/or running order of a relay!

Tyson Gay is arguably the best turn runner on the planet. Putting him anywhere but the third leg (as was attempted in Beijing) is utterly ridiculous. Wallace Spearmon is as good a backstretch runner as there is in the world. Not the best 100 man in the world, but eliminate the blocks and once he’s up and running he’s as good as there is. So what we need is A) someone who starts well and is adept at running the turn to lead things off, and B) someone fast, powerful, and fearless to bring it home on the anchor.

I expressed my sentiments on who I think should be on this year’s squad at the end of last season. So I’m not going to rehash my rationale. And by Nationals individuals will begin to sort themselves out. What I will say is that we need to start getting people together to gain the cohesiveness that will be necessary to pull off a victory. Because the relay is not about adding up the 4 fastest times you can put together – we proved that in 2004. It IS about putting together four individuals that work well together. And in that respect most of the rest of the world has a head start on us – because most have a pretty good idea who will be on their squads.

Ironically part of our problem lies in our depth as we possess possibly the deepest sprint pool on the planet. Our other weakness lies in our attempt to be “democratic” with respect to putting out team together. But putting together relay squads is one area where trying to be democratic simply doesn’t work. You need to have someone that is in charge and let them do their job! Because this is one project where too many cooks indeed spoil the broth!

So, since we already have the coaching staff selected, let’s give them the keys to the car and allow them to start getting their relay teams together. Sure we can stick with the rules that say that relay eligibility is based on making the team at the National championships, but the team members can be selected NOW and start working together with the caveat that if they do not make the team in June they won’t be running in Daegu. But honestly if they don’t make the team in June it will mean that they have experienced problems that would make them unlikely relay members anyway!

So let’s see if we can pull some guys together for some “spring ball” type relay work before individual seasons get too hectic. Then of course again for relay camp prior to Daegu. Because in spite of running 37.45 in Zurich, the passing was still not the best. Which tells me that with a bit of work and the right personnel, not only can we win this thing, but we can bring the record back home as well. So yes, I do think we are more than capable of PASSING the test.

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