Moments after Bernard Lagat qualified to become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time (sorry, Meb Keflezighi), he writhed on the Hayward Field track he has laid spikes on for nearly two decades.
His hands moved from atop his bald head in astonishment to outstretched, splattered on the track in exhaustion and finally to his mouth in admiration. His eyelids winced closed, Lagat blew a kiss and woke. The first thing he saw when he opened those eyes was a TV camera.
Lagat stuck out his tongue. Then he yelled in puffs, between hard breaths.
“Love you! … Gladys! … Miika! … Gigi!”
Those are the names of Lagat’s wife and kids, a 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter who were among the Hayward Field record 22,847 in attendance Saturday.
Family is Lagat’s motivation for running this one last season on the track, for enduring training sessions in the Tucson heat, for summoning that trademark kick to win the 5000m final at the Olympic Trials and qualify for his fifth Olympic team on Saturday evening.
They were also Lagat’s motivation one year ago, when he came to the U.S. Championships (also in Eugene) with an illness. Lagat was 10th in the 5000m then, way out of the top three that qualified for the world championships.
“I wanted to win it for them,” the 2000 and 2004 Olympic 1500m medalist Lagat told media in 2015, pausing as his voice cracked. “I saw them there, gave me a hug. I was going to do it for them.”
Lagat had failed to make an Olympic or world championships team for the first time since 2005, when he was ineligible due to switching his representation from Kenya to the U.S.
Lagat was proud of his Kenyan heritage, but he had lived in the U.S. since his early 20s, including running for Washington State in the late 1990s. He used to drive seven hours with his teammates and coach, James Li, from Pullman, Wash., to Eugene for dual meets.
Li, still his coach but now in Arizona, teared up Saturday evening speaking with media after watching a press conference with a bouncing, smiling Lagat and second- and third-place finishers Hassan Mead and Paul Chelimo.
“It means really, really so much,” Li said as his eyes watered and turned red like his University of Arizona shirt. “We worked together 20 years, and the last couple years have been really pretty tough.”
Lagat’s first reflections on Saturday’s feat were of the last year in particular, about the “crushing” feeling of his 2015 failure, about deeming this his final year of racing on the track (he plans to continue road racing).
He came to this month’s Olympic Trials — his sixth, including his first Kenyan Trials in 1996 — a decided underdog. Lagat had not finished a race since May 1. On May 28, he sentimentally ran at the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field for the 15th and final time. But he did not finish, dropping out of the 5000m with a cold.
“I didn’t want that to be the last image,” Lagat said.
Though Lagat is the American record holder in the 1500m and 5000m, those times came way back in 2005 and 2011. In Track and Field News‘ pre-Trials form charts, the respected publication had Lagat second in the 10,000m and eighth in the 5000m.
From what Lagat read, others weren’t giving him that much of a chance.
“This is the biggest achievement, because, at 41, a lot of people might have already ruled me out,” Lagat said. “I was reading my newspapers, and they were just mentioning me … and also Lagat is in the race.”
In his peak Olympic years in 2000 and 2004, Lagat was best known for his prowess in the 1500m as the top rival to Moroccan legend Hicham El Guerrouj. In 2004, in El Guerrouj’s long-awaited Olympic triumph, Lagat took silver.
Lagat calls El Guerrouj, who retired in 2004 but is actually three months older than Lagat, his greatest rival.
“Bernard has marked the Games,” El Guerrouj said in an email through his agent earlier this week. “He is a strong competitor, a man who stood up even after defeats, he inspires the future champions.”
Lagat lined up in the 10,000m on the opening night of Trials, and like on May 28, dropped out before the finish of the race. He quit with seven and a half laps to go, once he knew he wasn’t going to finish in the top three, to conserve energy for the 5000m.
“I’m done crying,” Lagat said that night, hours after 27-year-old sister Violah qualified for her first Kenyan Olympic team in the 1500m. “I’m going to come back, run the 5000 meters, qualify, that’s what I promised my son.”
Lagat was the 16th and final competitor introduced for the 5000m final on Saturday evening. He felt the thunderous applause from the record crowd.
He made that familiar kick to win at Hayward Field, his eyes popping out like so many times before. Then he remembered what his daughter told him.
“Daddy, I want you to go back to the Olympics so I can watch gymnastics,” Lagat recalled (they spent Friday watching the U.S. Olympic Women’s Gymnastics Trials). “I made my daughter’s day today, so I am happy for that.”Follow @nzaccardi