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.”
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 Discus: Sam 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.Follow @nzaccardi