Tim Layden

Mikaela Shiffrin Gets One Record, LeBron James Chases Another. That’s Where Similarities End.

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Over the course of the recent past (and near future), the two of them have encroached upon cherished records, one on distant, snowy mountainsides, often while America sleeps; the other in domestic basketball arenas, occasionally while the Eastern time zone tries to stay awake. They are both international superstars, undeniably, but in a way that requires qualification to avoid false equivalence. LeBron James’s fame (if not his popularity, another issue altogether) is universal; Mikaela Shiffrin’s is vertical. Both are on a microscopic list of the best to perform their respective sports. Ever. But their sports exist in very different realms, and that has shaped the records they might soon own.

Early Tuesday morning in the U.S., Shiffrin won her 83rd career World Cup ski race, a giant slalom in Italy, passing retired fellow U.S. racer Lindsey Vonn for the most career victories by a woman (or American of either gender). That number could grow quickly: Shiffrin will race another giant slalom Wednesday in Italy and two slaloms over the weekend in the Czech Republic. Beyond 83 lies 86, the overall record established by Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden in a career that ended in 1989. Because the Alpine World Championships interrupt the World Cup schedule, Shiffrin can’t mathematically pass Stenmark until late February. But: No hurry. Shiffrin won’t turn 28 until March 13, and told me last month she plans to keep racing at least until the 2026 Olympics.

LeBron enters Tuesday night’s game against the Clippers 223 points shy of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s NBA career record of 38,387, also established, like Stenmark’s – although with vastly more attention in the U.S. – in the spring of 1989. Basketball is also a punishing sport, and LeBron is 38 years old and hauling around two decades of hard fouls given and taken, but you have to very much like his chances of soon supplanting Kareem, likely sometime before the All-Star break commences on Feb. 15.

The two of them share little: A white woman raised on skis in New England and Colorado and a Black man raised in sneakers in Akron, Ohio. But there is an important commonality to their career paths that has shaped their experiences, and ours. Both were prodigies: LeBron famously appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 17-year-old high school junior, with the cover line THE CHOSEN ONE, and a prescient story famously written by my late friend and colleague, Grant Wahl. Shiffrin’s future greatness was no less projected, but in a smaller world. From her early teens, her skill was transcendent. In the winter of 2007, Shiffrin was 11 years old and training at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont; one of her instructors was Chip Knight, a three-time Olympic ski racer. “I’m watching her train,” Knight told me in 2014, “and she’s just incredible. She’s doing things, fundamentally, that I was still working on at the end of my professional career.”

This projected greatness is the small slice where their Venn Diagram circles overlap – that and the towering records they are both likely about to hold. Beyond that, much of their existence is defined by the culture and economics of their games. For instance: Shiffrin has earned millions; LeBron earns millions every week. (This is neither an endorsement of professional basketball nor a criticism of professional ski racing: Athletes are paid what the market will bear).

Something else will happen – and has been happening – as Shiffrin and LeBron reach and surpass their records (*presumably). The NBA, according to commissioner Adam Silver, is preparing a ceremony to accompany James’s record, and Kareem is expected to be in attendance. It will be a big moment, especially for the increasingly distant generation (mine) that witnessed all or most of Kareem’s career, and consumed a seemingly endless succession of majestic sky hooks, one of most inventive and original moves in the history of the game, and arguably the single most productive.

But neither the ceremony nor the achievement will be used to prove LeBron’s greatness. To be sure, LeBron is a polarizing persona both as a modern-day performer and historical figure. (Aside: Three years ago I did a talk at a maximum security correctional facility; during the Q&A, an inmate allowed that Jordan was the best player in history, but who is No. 2? “LeBron?” I offered. I was booed and catcalled. Their consensus was Kobe Bryant, but LeBron was not a popular alternative). Nevertheless: LeBron has won NBA titles with three different teams (only Robert Horry, John Salley and Danny Green have done likewise, and none carried the load that LeBron did on those teams). His combination of size, speed and power was unmatched, and remains rare. He is generous with his money and his time. He did once say, “I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” and the shrillness – however harmless – of that declaration has stuck. He will never be viewed as benevolently as Steph Curry.

But his place in NBA and cultural history is secure, if not unanimous. The points are just a punctuation.

Meanwhile, Shiffrin’s steady overtaking of Vonn and Stenmark has been cast as proof of her excellence – the cake itself, not just the icing. Content – from both Team Shiffrin and media — describing Shiffrin’s recent wins, and non-wins (some of which have been excellent performances despite not being victories) has breathlessly tried to explain the power of what Shiffrin is accomplishing. And you know what? That’s fine. Alpine ski racing has a modest audience compared to the big U.S. professional sports, and Shiffrin’s record pursuit can potentially grow that audience, and Shiffrin’s brand. All good. On the other hand, when you’re explaining to a sports fan why a record is meaningful, you’ve already lost some of the fight. Passing Kareem needs no framing; nor does Alex Ovechkin’s pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s career goals record.

It comes down to this: LeBron’s record is a coronation, and Shiffrin’s, at least in part, is a validation. That’s not fair, it just is. But Shiffrin deserves better.

But this is often the plight of the Olympic sport, where athletes, coaches and publicists spend endless megabytes convincing the public and media that 20 feet is a very good pole vault from Mondo Duplantis or that even though Katie Ledecky appears to win easily, it’s not easy, or hey, you try doing a flip on the balance beam. In these sports, success mandates context, and context subsumes purity. Athletic performance is best on its own merits, absent explanation. Greatness that speaks for itself.

Shiffrin participates in a very difficult and perilous sport, in which changing conditions – melting snow, encroaching shadows, a gust of wind – make consistency especially difficult. Yet she was for a long time, stunningly consistent: At the end of the 2019 season, just past her 24th birthday, she had 60 World Cup wins and seemed likely to obliterate all the career records in short order. Life intervened: Shiffrin lost her grandmother and her father four months apart; Covid happened. She climbed back, and at one point this year – a few days after she told me, “In one way, I know I’ll win another World Cup race, but I also know you can’t be certain” – won five in a row in three different disciplines, which is preposterous. (There I go framing the achievement again, lessening its raw power).

Shiffrin was a prodigy who quickly made good on her promise – she had more World Cups than any U.S. woman other than Vonn by the age of 21 – and burnout was widely predicted. In late 2017 for an SI story previewing the 2018 Olympics, one of Shiffrin’s former coaches, Brandon Dyksterhouse, told me, ‘”Mikaela is doing a huge volume of training, at least two times any other skier in the world, the majority of it on injected surfaces with ultra-aggressive equipment, unforgiving skis and boots. The wear and tear is phenomenal. You look at the women’s ranks: Lindsey [Vonn] has been rebuilt multiple times. Lara Gut (Switzerland) has been rebuilt. Anna Veith (nee: Fenninger, Austria), has been rebuilt. It’s not a question of if you will get injured, it’s a question of when. Mikaela has defied the odds to this point, and you wonder when or if it will catch up to her.’’ More than five years later, Shiffrin has still not had a major surgical injury; it has not caught up to her. She has fulfilled her promise, and then fulfilled some more.

There’s little doubt that Shiffrin’s American profile was damaged by her performance at the Beijing Olympics, where she skied out in slalom, giant slalom, and the slalom portion of the combined, and did not win any medals. Ski afficionados will explain that the months-long grind of the World Cup is the true test of greatness, and that would not be wrong. But the U.S. is a Big Event nation, and therefore an Olympic nation. Shiffrin knows it, too. When we spoke in December, she said this about the 2026 Olympics ahead: “Cortina is a place that I love. I’d like to experience an Olympics there.” Pause. “And of course if I’m racing, I’m going to want to be a medal contender, and there’s all that goes along with that.” All that goes along with that. Despite efforts to cushion her Olympic experience for her, she understands her world – and ours – better than we imagined. (Also, Shiffrin won a combined three Olympic medals — two gold — at the 2014 and ’18 Games; the only American woman with more is Julia Mancuso, who won four).

This combination of factors – ski racing’s low profile in the U.S., American fans’ obsession with major sports, Shiffrin’s quiet Olympics – left her playing catch up with respect in a year that might have otherwise cemented her place in skiing history with several years left ahead. It’s unfortunate. In reality, the truth is simple: Shiffrin is one of best ski racers in history (not going to mention any farm animals here, that’s just too tired and reductive), and there is a very good chance that soon she will have won more World Cup races – each like a playoff game in another sport — than any skier in history. That is a towering legacy of dominance over time.

The numbers attained and ahead – 83, 86, 87 – should be celebrated vigorously. But they tell us a story we should already know.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

With career records in view, Mikaela Shiffrin knows nothing is promised


Editor’s note: This piece was originally published on December 9th, 2022. With a giant slalom victory in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia on January 8th, Mikaela Shiffrin won her 82nd career World Cup race, tying Lindsey Vonn’s female record. For the latest updates on Shiffrin and the alpine skiing season, visit OlympicTalk.

Sometime in the coming weeks, U.S. alpine ski racer Mikaela Shiffrin will presumably —  presumably being a very loaded and problematic word here  — win her 83rd race on the World Cup circuit, the highest level of her sport, thus passing fellow American Lindsey Vonn for the most career victories by a woman. Not long after that, she will presumably win her 87th race, one more than Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, who won his 86 races from 1975-89. With that win, Shiffrin, who will turn 28 in March, will have accumulated more career victories than any ski racer in history, and will have ended a chase that has been ongoing and presumed for the better part of a decade. She will be deservedly celebrated for this achievement.

That celebration will undersell the moment and give Shiffrin a lesser form of praise than she deserves, because that is what career records do, just by existing. Career records compress the pain and struggle of an athletic career into a single, antiseptic number: the most this, or the most that. Touchdown passes, base hits, goals, sub four-minute miles. It will be said that Shiffrin’s record is the result of sustained brilliance, and that is manifestly true. It will be said that she packed her victories into a shorter period — 12 seasons — than either of the final two racers she passed; Vonn raced 18 seasons and won No. 82 at age 33, while Stenmark raced 16 seasons and won his last race at age 32. So this will also be true.

But these descriptions will soften the toll of Shiffrin’s work, because that is also what career records do. They simplify the complicated and sand down the rough edges, in service of the myth that the chosen number was inevitable. This was particularly true with Shiffrin: She was a prodigy, whispered — and then shouted — about across the breadth of the sport when she was barely in her teens, as the next big — and possibly biggest — thing. She won her first World Cup race at age 17 and an Olympic gold medal at 18 (the 2014 slalom in Sochi). She won a remarkable 17 World Cup races in the season that ended on March 17 of 2019, just four days after her 24th birthday. At that point she had won 60 World Cup races and seemed likely to blow past Vonn and Stenmark in as little as two more seasons. Hosanas were readied.

It has not played out exactly like that. In the three-plus seasons since that remarkable 2019 campaign, Shiffrin has won a total of 16 races (40 of Shiffrin’s 76 wins were crammed into three hyper-successful seasons from 2017-’19). She has changed since then, and she has been changed — by personal tragedy, by injury, by the realization of personal and professional mortality which young athletes deny successfully and older athletes either deny unsuccessfully or accept and fight against. What seemed easy has become much more difficult. (Of course, it was always difficult, Shiffrin just made it look easy, which is what the exceptional among us do.) And she has endured, most of all.

“For the last two years, I’ve had a note with something I wrote down,” Shiffrin said last weekend from her World Cup base in Europe. “It says, basically, what I would like most in life is to go back, like two-and-a-half years. I want to go back to where I was at the start of the year right after that 17-win season. It was my greatest season ever, and I was so happy. And I’d give anything to go back to that feeling.” She does not say this as if saddened, but as if enlightened, a very different thing.

The arc of Shiffrin’s life and career following that 2019 season is well-known to ski racing fans and even to a broader audience that witnessed her struggles in the 2022 Olympics. (More on that upcoming.) Just before the start of the 2020 World Cup season, Shiffrin’s 98-year-old grandmother, Pauline Condron, died. It’s reflexive to diminish deaths of the very old, but loss is loss and Shiffrin was very close to her grandmother. Shiffrin won six races from November to late January — not the pace of her previous season, but not shabby. On Feb. 2, 2020, her father, Jeff, died from an injury suffered in an accident at the family’s home in Colorado, while Mikaela was racing in Europe. From that moment forward, Shiffrin has carried extra weight.

As we talked last week, I suggested to Shiffrin — and again, this is not revelatory in tracing the life of an athlete, or a human being — that what had been a certain kind of innocence had become significantly more complicated in the last few years.

“When I was 16, 17, 18 years old,” says Shiffrin. “I didn’t know many people who had passed away. Since then, two of the five most important people in my life have passed away. They’re not here anymore. And that number is not going to get smaller as I get older.”

After the death of her father, Shiffrin did not race for over 300 days, much of that time during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which World Cup racing continued with relatively few cancellations (although with many interruptions and absences, and of course, no spectators). She returned and won three races in the 2021 season, pushing her total to 69. Content that highlighted her status in that moment often noted that she was “back.” She was not back. She will never be “back” in that simplistic, sports-centric way.

“Coming back to racing after my father passed,” says Shiffrin. “So many people said, ‘Well, you’re back.’ And then I won again and people said, ‘Wow, you’re really back.’ Actually, I was still really struggling.”

At the end of the 2021 season, Shiffrin won four medals at the World Championships, including a gold in the combined downhill-slalom event. She won four more World Cup races before the ’22 Olympics, but did not perform well in Beijing. She skied out early in both the giant slalom (stunning) and slalom (jaw-dropping), and then, after finishing– but not contending — in the speed events of Super-G and downhill, skied out in the slalom portion of the combined. It was an inexplicably poor performance that was endlessly analyzed in real time, including by Shiffrin herself, because she does not shy from public self-analysis, however painful.

Since then, on the one hand, she acknowledges that the experience left scars, because of course it did. At the same time, “I mean, people ask me about it,” she says. “Less and less on a daily basis, but I try to get the message out that I’m moving on.” Some of it will always be a mystery. “In the slalom and giant slalom and the combined, I went out at the fourth gate, the fifth fate, the ninth gate, but I skied those gates exactly how I wanted to ski them. I’m not one to DNF, usually. And in those races, I did not picture myself skiing out of the course, that’s for sure. But I did.”

Ten months have passed since that experience; three years since the deaths of her grandmother and father. This year she won World Cup slaloms in Levi, Finland, on consecutive days, Nos. 75 and 76. And then on Thanksgiving weekend at Killington in central Vermont, a home game on a hill where she had won five slaloms in five starts, she finished fifth (and 13th in giant slalom).

In all of this, the personal tragedies and the racing struggles, her relationship with her sport has evolved. The giant slalom finish in Killington she assigns to training too little this year in the discipline. The rest is more ethereal, more mental. “I’m in the middle of this whole, season-long epiphany, and maybe the Olympics sparked it, of how hard it is to not only win a ski race, but to make it to the finish. That’s not something I’ve struggled with for most of my career, but when you think about it, in ski racing, and you add up the changing conditions, the amount we care, it’s mind-boggling to me what I’ve done for the last 12 years.”

If that sounds like a lack of confidence, maybe, but that’s too simple. Consider it both a mature appreciation and a return to her roots as a racer. Jeff Shiffrin taught his kids — Mikaela and her brother, Taylor — to embrace the process of skiing artfully and to let the wins flow from that. “Any time I’ve started a race trying to win, instead of skiing my best, I have not won that race. But there is such an adrenaline rush to our sport, before you even win the race, and I’m still here for that. If I was here just for the winning, I would have retired by now. Because I’m close to 82 and 86, people find that hard to believe, but it’s true. I’d be done by now.”

She’s not done. Shiffrin thinks about what might come next, and concludes what most athletes conclude: “Anything else I do in life is probably going to be hard, but most other things are not going to give me as much back as ski racing has.” The 2026 Olympics will be jointly hosted by the city of Milan and the mountain resort of Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, an iconic ski racing venue. “Anything could happen, and I could decide to retire,” Shiffrin says. “But I don’t see it happening before the [next] Olympics.”

Unfinished business? (And to be fair, despite Beijing, Shiffrin has three Olympic medals; the only U.S. woman to have won more is Julia Mancuso, with four.) “Not medal-wise,” she says. “But the last three Olympics have been in places that have nothing to do with alpine skiing, normally.” [Boy is that right: Sochi, PyeongChang, and Beijing.] “Cortina is a place that I love. I’d like to experience an Olympics there.” Pause. “And of course if I’m racing, I’m going to want to be a medal contender, and there’s all that goes along with that.” A mouthful.

Before that, 82 and 86 await. Shiffrin will race a giant slalom and slalom this weekend in Sestriere, Italy, site of the 2006 Olympic and Paralympic alpine races. From there, the World Cup grinds on, with 13 more slaloms and giant slaloms beyond that, and numerous speed races, should Shiffrin decide to race those as she often has in the past. There are plenty of opportunities to finish this job, as it were.

Yet she understands, most of all, that nothing is promised, not even life, and certainly not ski race wins. “In one way, I know I’ll win another World Cup race,” she says. Presumably. “But I also know you can’t be certain.” And that is the lesson that will make the records most meaningful.

For more on Shiffrin’s 2022-23 season, visit OlympicTalk.

Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.

Track and field Olympic Trials confirm the American “system” works better than ever


Saturday evening at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Allyson Felix did something she has done hundreds of times: She raced 200m, half the distance around a standard running track, beginning where only one race in the sport begins and finishing where all of them finish. At the starter’s command, she folded herself into her starting blocks and lowered her head, braids resting on her back. At the gun, she surged forward and into the curve that comprises the first portion of the race. Felix’s was the most accessible story in the race – a 35-year-old Olympic legend, mother and activist seeking to add the 200 to the 400m spot she had already earned in Eugene, ensuring participation in her fifth Olympic Games (even though the event schedule would preclude running those two events in Tokyo).

That narrative dissolved summarily, as 24-year-old Gabby Thomas, running a lane inside Felix, swallowed up the stagger between them in two dozen long strides and drifted away from Felix and, eventually, the rest of the field. Thomas won the race to qualify for her first Olympic team, and ran a time of 21.61 seconds; only Florence Griffith Joyner has run faster, 33 years ago. Felix finished fifth in 22.11 seconds, the same time she ran 18 years ago in Mexico City as a high school senior, announcing herself to the world of track and field. “I just didn’t have it,” said Felix afterward. “Right from the gun.” Thomas, meanwhile, very much did.

Hold that image.

The track Trials are always a rollicking endeavor, rarely hewing to form, 10 days spent rumbling down the tracks, wobbling and weaving, side-to-side, somehow reaching their destination and leaving the entire sport gleefully exhausted. This summer’s edition began with a doping controversy, and overwhelmed that on the first weekend with soaring performances (Shelby Houlihan might not agree fully). There were too many false starts and too few spectators (Covid takes much of the blame for that), and for last two days, competition was so bludgeoned by record-setting intense heat that the meet finished at 1 a.m. Monday in the Eastern time zone, with track fans either sleep-deprived or actually asleep, and it was still nearly 100 degrees in Eugene.

Nevertheless, come the finish in those wee hours, U.S. Track did what U.S. Track does best – it replicated itself. Some older athletes endured, others were supplanted by youth. But the team that alighted from Oregon is the strongest in the world by a wide margin, as it has most often been in the history of the Olympics. And it is one of the strongest assembled by the USA in the recent history of the Games.

This is a remarkable thing. Succession is central to every sport, which is why the NFL Draft, the NBA lottery and college football recruiting are quite nearly sports unto themselves, tethered to their mother ships, but with an entire sustaining culture around them. Track is no different in concept (i.e. replenishing the talent pool is a vital task), but entirely different in construction. Professional sports franchises and major college sports are businesses, with a front office corporate hierarchy. There are perhaps a dozen people in the Cleveland Browns’ draft “war room.”

American track and field is an enterprise that sprawls across the breadth of the country, from tiny rural towns to urban centers. If there was a war room filled with people tasked with facilitating sustained excellence in track and field, it would be the size of Toledo. In times of hand-wringing over the performance of Team USA in global championships, or when medal-hauling superstars reach retirement age; it is often asked whether the “American System” needs an overhaul to keep the victories coming. There is no American system. There are high schools and colleges and local junior track programs. There are thousands of coaches, teachers, volunteers and other supporters, the vast majority (but not all) modestly compensated, a quilt knitted together by a common passion for their ancient sport. (There are also shoe and apparel companies, whose support is evolving, but has historically been concentrated at the highest levels and often of scant value to developing athletes). Nothing needs overhauling.

It is less a system than a leap of faith, yet again and again and again, across time, years, Olympiads and generations, greatness is replaced by greatness, as if on an assembly line; a small miracle – a sports dynasty not manufactured, but left in the sunshine to grow. And damn if it doesn’t. So it was over 10 days in Eugene, where the entire disconnected enterprise came together in a ruthless and dispassionate selection process, because clocks and tape measures do not weep for those left behind.

Thomas’ Saturday night victory over Felix (Jenna Prandini and Anavia Battle also made the U.S. team in that event) was the quintessential Trials passage. Felix is track royalty, with nine Olympic and 18 world championship medals dating back 17 years, but as she has advanced into her 30s, she has spent increasing time in the 400m, a common sense concession to the inevitable loss of explosive speed. Thomas, a Texas native and Harvard graduate, was perfectly positioned to collect on this deficit, but her time was stunning – in the span of those 21.61 seconds, she shot past Marion Jones, Merlene Ottey (Jamaica), Felix, and a long list of former Eastern bloc sprinters, exceptionally fast company. “I cannot believe I put up that time,” said Thomas after the race. “Now I want more.” She is running in a rare place; Flo-Jo’s times have long been considered untouchable for and conceivable future (and to be fair, her world record of 21.34 from the Seoul Olympic final is still far out in the distance, but Thomas now has an obstructed view and a potentially long future).

Yet Thomas’ ascension was neither the first nor the last at these extraordinary Trials. For more than a decade, U.S. sprinters have chased Jamaica to recapture global pre-eminence in the Bolt Era; last weekend 25-year-old Trayvon Bromell won the men’s 100m and 21-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson the women’s 100. Bromell will be the Tokyo favorite and Richardson will test 34-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica in her dotage, and stands in position to succeed her. The helping to swing the pendulum back.

Likewise, U.S. men have historically dominated both the 110m hurdles and the flat 400m, but have been spotty in recent years, winning the hurdles just once in the last five Olympics and the 400m not since 2008. On Friday night, however, 23-year-old Grant Holloway ran the hurdles in a searing 12.81 seconds, just .01 off Aries Merritt’s 2012 world record, and cruised to an easy victory in the final. He will be the favorite in Tokyo, with that record within reach. Michael Norman, 23, ran a quiet 44.07 to win the 400m in Eugene, and could also be favored in Tokyo, pending the health of defending gold medalist and world record holder Wayde van Niekerk of South Africa, who has wrestled with injuries since his lane-eight tour de force in Rio. Norman’s former USC teammate, Rai Benjamin, like Holloway, narrowly missed a world record on Friday night, running 46.82 in the 400m hurdles, just shy of Kevin Young’s revered 46.78, which has stood since the 1992 Olympics (and which Young himself never approached again).

All of this was prelude to a surreal Sunday night in Oregon. The historic heat wave which engulfed the Pacific Northwest had been predicted for days, but meet officials plowed through largely on schedule, moving only the women’s 10,000m and men’s 5,000m races to slightly cooler weather in the mornings, while retaining full evening programs. But when temperatures climbed toward 110 degrees on Sunday afternoon, the final four track events were shifted to later in the evening, along with the men’s long jump and the final event of the heptathlon. Athletes’ fragile schedules were tested, along with television fans’ stamina.

The first track event of the late night program brought generations together and produced a sensational – but as yet incomplete – torch passage. Two years ago at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, then-20-year-old Sydney McLaughlin chased a 29-year-old Dalilah Muhammad across the line in the 400m hurdles, narrowly taking silver behind Muhammad’s world record (52.16 seconds) and setting up a rivalry between a leader and a closer, nearly a decade apart in age, one rapidly improving, one nearing her peak.

On Sunday night in Eugene, Muhammad, now 31, went out hard, per usual, but McLaughlin, 21, two years stronger than in Doha, stayed in contact. When the two runners reached the straightaway, McLaughlin was even with Muhammad and floated away to the world record in 51.90 seconds, the first sub-52-second time in the history of the event. It’s tempting to suggest that McLaughlin will never look back, but there is an intriguing subplot: Muhammad was injured early this year and is possibly still short of full fitness, and still not capital-O Old. Another plot point for Tokyo.

There was no such uncertainty in the women’s 800m, where 19-year-old Athing Mu is the future of the event, in America and possibly in the world. Ignoring an early near-fall and the presence of American record-holder Ajee’ Wilson, Mu ran with breathtaking grace and upright power, walking away from the field in the final 100 meters to finish in 1:56.07, the second-fast time in history, behind Wilson’s 1:55.61 four years ago. Wilson is just 27, but the eight years between her age and Mu’s played like decades in this race. The last American to win the 800m at the Olympic Games was Madeline Manning (Mims) at the legendary Mexico City Games of 1968. The last U.S. medal was 33 years ago, Kim Gallagher in Seoul.

Minutes later in the men’s 1500m, another champion found track life coming at him fast. Matthew Centrowitz is among the best U.S. milers in history. He made the 2012 Olympic team at age 22 and finished an agonizing fourth in London, behind U.S. teammate Leo Manzano’s surprise silver. Four years later in Rio, more mature at 26, Centrowitz held off the world for the entire final lap and won America’s first 1500 gold in 100 years. Centrowitz failed to medal in two subsequent world championship appearances but emerged this spring reborn. He controlled his Friday night semifinal until joined the stretch by 20-year-old Cole Hocker, like Centrowitz a University of Oregon runner, but nearly a decade younger, like McLaughlin in her event. (Hocker just finished his freshman year at Oregon).

In that semifinal, Hocker, whose running style is as animated as Centrowitz’s is fluid, ceded first place to his elder, both runners smiling but revealing nothing as they cruised to the finish. In Sunday’s final, Centrowitz took the lead 500 meters out, in control, but Hocker sprinted alongside in the final 100 meters, this time ceding nothing, churning past a grimacing Centrowitz at the finish line, like flipping calendar pages on an older man. Hocker put his fingers to his lips at the finish, as if silencing critics. “This whole year I felt like I was proving myself to the world,” said Hocker. “But also proving my talent to myself.”

(There is a catch here: Hocker has not run the Olympic standard of 3:35. It’s possible he won’t be in Tokyo, although he’s in the mix with a high world ranking in a complex system. But it’s dead certain he’s going nowhere in the long view).

The compression of time was even more urgent for Noah Lyles. Five years ago at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Eugene, he was an 18-year-old high school senior who scared the grown-ups with a fourth-place finish in the final, narrowly missing the team. He was anointed as the future of U.S. sprinting and subsequently ran 19.50 seconds for 200m (only Usain Bolt, Yohan Blake and Michael Johnson have run faster) and won the 2019 world title. But a drop down to the 100m – and broader supremacy – has proved challenging; he finished fifth in the 100 in these Trials. In Friday night’s 200m semifinal, he was beaten to the line by slender, 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton, whose time of 19.88 broke Bolt’s junior record. “Shut it down the last 20 meters,” said Knighton after semi. Lyles, meanwhile, was living his own ’16 Trials in the body of another sprinter.

The final restored some order. Lyles ran a season-best 19.74, fastest time in the world in 2021, and won the race, with the ever-consistent Kenny Bednarek second. “I don’t think anybody can prepare for the lion you have to slay at the Olympic Trials,’’ said Lyles, both ebullient and relieved. But Knighton rallied from an awful start to finish third and make the team with withering top-end speed to the line. He is the youngest U.S. track and field Olympian since Jim Ryun in 1964. He is also a living metaphor for the entire meet: The future chasing the present. As ever.

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