Unlikely hurdles ‘Dream Team’ heads to Rio after more Trials heartbreak

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EUGENE, Ore. — Before the most competitive race of the Olympic Trials, Brianna Rollins envisioned she would be joined in the top three by Kristi Castlin and Nia Ali. Nobody else predicted it, except for maybe Castlin and Ali.

The vision played out in the 100m hurdles final at Hayward Field. Rollins, Castlin and Ali made the Olympic team and shared a group hug after emerging from the deepest pool of talent from one nation in any track and field event.

Though all are Olympic rookies, and Castlin and Ali have little outdoor international acclaim, they are instantly favorites for gold, silver and bronze in Rio, for two reasons.

  • Five Americans combined to clock the 15 fastest 100m hurdles times in the world last year, the kind of grip over one track and field event that no other nation can boast. Though Castlin and Ali were not among that handful, they did beat four of those women in Friday’s final, which ended up being one of the fastest 100m hurdles races of all time.
  • The reigning Olympic and world champions Sally Pearson of Australia and Danielle Williams of Jamaica won’t be in Rio. Pearson tore a hamstring tendon. Williams crashed out of the Jamaican Trials.

The world’s fastest time from a non-American this year — 12.62 seconds — would have tied for sixth in the U.S. Olympic Trials final.

“You can pretty much equate us to like a Dream Team,” Castlin said, not just of the trio at the press conference table but of everyone that qualified for the U.S. final (so strong that Dawn Harper-Nelson, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist and 2012 Olympic silver medalist, was eliminated in the semifinals). “It’s unfortunate that all eight ladies couldn’t go, but again, if we had three different people up here, they could still do a great job [in Rio].”

Rollins won in 12.34 seconds, her fastest time since breaking the American record with a 12.26 at the 2013 U.S. Championships, en route to a world title that year at age 22. She ceded that American record to Keni Harrison on May 28. Though Harrison, one of 11 children, nine adopted, entered the Trials as the favorite, Rollins was arguably her closest pursuer.

Harrison finished sixth in the final and will be one of the best athletes across all Olympic sports who won’t be competing in Rio.

“I don’t worry about my competitors,” Rollins said when a reporter brought up Harrison’s American record of 12.24. “I’m always motivated, no matter what time anyone runs.”

Rollins’ training partner Castlin ran 12.50 on Friday evening, shaving .06 off her personal best from 2012. She made her first global championship team, a day after turning 28 years old. Castlin ranked seventh in the U.S. last year and fifth this year before Trials.

“We saw all those [NBA] games Golden State won, and they got to the championship and couldn’t close it out,” said Castlin, who reportedly left Atlanta in April to join Rollins and coach Lawrence Johnson in California. “It’s just one race. I know a lot of the times, Brianna and I, a lot of races we went to, we didn’t have fresh legs. We were training really hard. Our coach was really preparing us for this moment.”

Then there’s Ali, who has twice won the world indoor 60m hurdles title but had never translated the success outdoors to the longer distance. She missed all of 2015 due to childbirth and ran 12.55, .07 off her personal best, in Friday’s final.

After crossing the finish, Rollins and Castlin hugged before each came to a stop on the wet track. A minute later, Ali joined in. They piggybacked off each other’s answers in a post-race press conference.

“I really would like to acknowledge how much of a great feat and responsibility it is to have a young child and to still be a role model and run on this level,” Castlin said of Ali. “I have so much admiration for that.”

Rollins, Castlin and Ali are all aware of what happened at the 2015 World Championships. Four Americans went to Beijing with a legitimate chance at sweeping places one through four. Rollins ended up the top finisher — in fourth place.

“We really have some big shoes to fill,” Castlin said. “This is our new opportunity to come back.”

The most difficult competition is behind them.

“We can actually breathe now,” Castlin said. “I think all three of us can agree and say we all can breathe a sigh of relief.”

U.S. Track and Field Trials: ResultsDaily Schedule | TV Schedule

The other biggest stories of Trials on Friday were of heartbreak. In addition to Harper-Nelson and Harrison in the 100m hurdles:

Women’s 400m Hurdles: In perhaps the upset of the meet, Shamier Little failed to make the eight-woman final. Though she had the sixth-fastest time overall in the two semifinals, she was fifth-fastest in her heat. Little came into this meet a career 14-0 in races at Hayward Field. She was the reigning world silver medalist and fastest woman in the world this year and turned professional on the eve of her first-round race. Her absence opens the door for 16-year-old Sydney McLaughlin, second-fastest in the semis, to become the youngest U.S. Olympic track and field competitor since 1976.

Men’s Steeplechase: Stanley Kebenei wasn’t the pre-race favorite, but he was in a three-man chase for two Olympic spots going over the final water jump. The Kenyan-born Kebenei splashed and then stumbled, losing all of his momentum and finishing in a distant 13th.

“That was a lifetime chance,” he said later. “I missed that.”

Men’s DiscusSam Mattis, the only American to throw 67 meters in this Olympic cycle and the seventh-ranked man in the world this year, finished ninth. Jared Schuurmans, the 2015 U.S. champion, was seventh. Neither go to Rio.

MORE: LaShawn Merritt returns to 200m, eyes Rio double

Mondo Duplantis, Sandi Morris miss attempts at pole vault records

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Sweden’s Mondo Duplantis and U.S. athlete Sandi Morris took turns attempting world records in the pole vault Wednesday at the Meeting d’Athlétsime Hauts-de-France Pas-de-Calais meet at Arena Stade Regional in Liévin, France, but both were unable to clear the bar.

Duplantis, aiming to set the world record for third time in February, had no misses leading up to his record attempts. U.S. vaulter Sam Kendricks, who has won the last two world championships, cleared 5.90m but dropped out after one attempt at 5.95m. Duplantis passed on that height, then cleared 6.07m to warm up for his shot at 6.19m, just shy of 20 feet, 3 3/4 inches.

Morris’ attempt to tie Jennifer Suhr‘s world indoor record of 5.03m from 2016 was more of a surprise. Morris holds the U.S. outdoor record at 5.00m but had never done better than 4.95m indoors. She won Wednesday’s competition with a clearance of 4.83m and asked to go immediately to 5.03m, or 16 feet, 6 inches.

Yelena Isinbayeva still holds the outdoor record of 5.06m, set in 2009. Morris is second on the all-time list and is the only athlete other than Isinbayeva or Suhr to clear 5 meters either indoors or outdoors.

In the men’s pole vault, Duplantis’ clearance of 6.18m Feb. 15 in Glasgow is the best vault indoors or outdoors.  Sergey Bubka still has the highest clearance outdoors at 6.14m. Bubka also held the indoor record of 6.15m for more than 20 years, finally losing it to Renaud Lavillenie in 2014. Duplantis cleared 6.17m Feb. 9 in Poland, then added another centimeter last week in Glasgow.

READ: Duplantis raises record in Glasgow

Duplantis, Lavillenie and Bubka are the only vaulters to clear 20 feet. Kendricks cleared 6.06m, or 19-10 1/2, last summer, the highest outdoor clearance by anyone other than Bubka.

Duplantis grew up in Louisiana and attended LSU for one year, setting the NCAA indoor (5.92m) and outdoor (6.00m) before turning pro, though he was upset in the NCAA final by South Dakota junior Chris Nilsen.

Also at Wednesday’s meet:

Ronnie Baker ran 6.49 seconds in the 60m semifinals and lowered that to 6.44 in the final, second only to Christian Coleman this season. Demek Kemp finished second and tied his personal best of 6.50.

Nia Ali and Christina Clemons finished 1-2 in the women’s 60m hurdles with identical times of 7.92. Ali is the reigning world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the 100m hurdles. She also won world indoor titles in 2014 and 2016.

Two Ethiopian runners set the fastest times of the season Samuel Tefera in the 1,500m (3:35.54) and Getnet Wale in the 3,000m (7:32.80). Wale was fourth in the 3,000m steeplechase in the 2019 world championships.

Pascal Martinot-Lagarde, racing in his home country of France, won the 60m hurdles in 7.47, second this season to Grant Holloway‘s 7.38 last week.

The World Athletics Indoor Tour ends Friday in Madrid. The world indoor championships originally scheduled for March in Nanjing, China, have been postponed a year due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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Susan Dunklee extends decade of surprises for U.S. biathletes

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When Susan Dunklee‘s time held up for second place in Friday’s 7.5km sprint, she became the first U.S. biathlete to win two world championship medals in her career and earned the sixth medal for the U.S. in world biathlon championship history.

Four of those medals have come in the past eight years.

First was Tim Burke, who had gained some fame among biathlon fans with his three World Cup podiums in the 2009-10 season and his relationship with German biathlete Andrea Henkel, who would win two Olympic gold medals and eight world championships before retiring and marrying Burke.

In that season, Burke led the World Cup briefly but faded and didn’t do well in the Olympics. But in 2012-13, he finished 10th in the World Cup overall and ended the American drought in the world championships, finishing second in the individual behind dominant French biathlete Martin Fourcade, who won his 11th non-relay world title Wednesday in the individual.

In 2017, Dunklee became the first U.S. woman to win a non-relay medal, taking the lead in the mass start after quickly knocking down all five targets in the last shooting and holding on for second. She didn’t come out of nowhere, having taken a few World Cup medals. That season, she ranked 10th overall in the World Cup.

Then came the stunner. Lowell Bailey, who had just one World Cup podium in a long career coming into the 2016-17 season, had bib 100 in the individual, a spot usually reserved for non-contenders. But he hit all 20 targets, always important in a race that penalizes athletes one minute per miss, and gutted it out through the last lap to keep a 3.3-second advantage and win the first world championship for a U.S. biathlete.

Like Dunklee, Bailey earned his medal in the midst of a strong season. The individual was won of his four top-10 finishes in the world championships, including a fourth-place finish in the sprint. He wound up eighth overall in the World Cup.

Bailey and Burke each stuck it out to compete in their fourth Olympics in 2018, then crossed the finish line together in their final race at the U.S. championships.

This season is their first in management. Bailey, also a bluegrass musician, is now U.S. Biathlon’s director of high performance. Burke is director of athlete development.

Dunklee, on the other hand, isn’t done. Her results slipped a bit after her 2017 breakthrough, but she has had some top 10s. When she shoots clean, as she did Friday, she’s a contender.

The first U.S. medal was in the first women’s world championship in 1984, when Holly Beatie, Julie Newman and Kari Swenson bronze in 3x5km relay. Swenson also finished fifth in the individual that year and returned to compete in the next two world championships after a harrowing experience in which she was abducted and shot, a story that inspired a film starring Tracy Pollan.

The only other U.S. medal in the world championships before Burke, Bailey and Dunklee was Josh Thompson‘s individual silver in 1987. The only athletes other than Burke, Bailey, Dunklee and Thompson to have World Cup podiums (excluding relays) are Jeremy Teela in 2009 and Clare Egan, who was third in a mass start last spring and is competing in the world championships this year.

U.S. Paralympians broke through with two gold medals on the first day of competition in the 2018 Paralympics.

READ: Kendall Gretsch, Dan Cnossen take gold

Wednesday saw another surprise finish for a U.S. biathlete. Leif Nordgren, whose career-best finish outside the relays is 16th, was the only athlete to go 20-for-20 on the shooting range and placed eighth in the individual.

The championships continue through through Sunday with the single mixed relay on Thursday, the men’s and women’s relays on Saturday, and the men’s and women’s mass starts on Sunday.

WATCH: World biathlon championships TV schedule

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