Friday, July 21, 2017

V 7 N. 45 (7) Jon Hendershott's Most Memorable Women's Sprints & Hurdles


Women’s Sprints & Hurdles.

by Jon Hendershott

Gail Devers won the ’92 Olympic century title in Barcelona by 1/100th of a second over Jamaica’s Juliet Cuthbert, 10.82-10.83. At the next year’s World Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, southern California native Devers tangled again with a Jamaican great—Merlene Ottey—and the outcome ended up being even closer. It also is my most memorable women’s century.
Gail Devers

Melene Ottey
In the August 16 final, the prime pair had to contend with both reigning Games 200 champion Gwen Torrence and Russian medalist Irina Privalova. Bullet-starter Devers had a slight edge by 60-meters, while Ottey and Torrence had collared the Russian. Ottey pulled even with Devers in the final 5 meters and they dipped together at the line.

It was impossible to tell with the naked eye who had won. After several minutes, the official word came out: Devers 1st with Ottey 2nd, both clocking 10.82. Jamaican officials lodged a protest and meet timers again reviewed the finish picture. The view from a camera on the inside of the track showed Devers to have dipped her right shoulder ever so slightly ahead of Ottey’s torso.

Stuttgart 1993 Women's 100

Atlanta 1992 Women's 100

As well, the phototimer also gave Devers a time of 10.811 to 10.812 for Ottey. One one-thousandth of a second difference. It can’t get closer than that. In the medal ceremony, Ottey—so often a silver or bronze medalist at the Olympics and Worlds, but never a champion—received a standing ovation from the German fans that was timed at more than two minutes.

(Three days later in Stuttgart, Ottey finally ended her gold-medal drought by taking the 200 win from Torrence, 21.98-22.00. Ottey retained her title two years later in Göteborg—but only after initial winner Torrence was DQ’ed for five steps on the line around the turn. Ottey timed 22.12, the same time as silver winner Privalova.)

Then at the ’96 Olympics in Atlanta, Devers and Ottey waged another closerthanthis battle, the American defending her crown as both were credited with 10.94 times. But the phototimer also revealed that Devers won by a margin of 0.005—yes, five one-thousandths. Incredible racing in all the contests—and thank goodness for the development of such precise timing. Otherwise, we might never really know the “margins” between the racers.

Most often, it takes an Olympic or World Championships final to bring together all the best in an event. But every so often, an invitational is lucky enough to draw many (or all) or an event’s best. Such was the case at this  year’s Prefontaine Classic, the lone U.S. stop on the IAAF’s Diamond League circuit and perennially one of the single best meets in the world every season.
Torrie Bowie
For the May 27 half-lapper, the Pre meet featured all three Rio Olympic medalists: champion Elaine Thompson of Jamaica, silver winner Dafne Schippers of Holland and bronze medalist Tori Bowie of the U.S. Add in 400 champ Shaunae Miller-Uibo (Bahamas), no less than ultra-experienced American Allyson Felix (in her individual-race debut for ’17), plus Rio 4th-placer Marie Josée Ta Lou (Cote d’Ivorie) and 8th-placer Ivet Lalova-Collio (Bulgaria) and you had a Games-/Worlds-level field right at Hayward Field.

Women's 200 Prefontaine 2017

But Bowie didn’t give anyone else the chance to win. She powered around the turn in lane 7 and came into the homestretch with perhaps a two-foot lead. She turned back the closing rush by Miller-Uibo on the outside in lane 8 as well as Thompson in 6.
Bowie clocked a personal-best and ’17-leading 21.77 to claim a share of No. 5 American performer all-time as she outran Miller-Uibo (National Record 21.99), Thompson (21.98), Schippers (22.30), Felix (22.33) and Ta Lou (22.37). It was only the third race in history with three finishers ducking under 22.0.

Said Bowie, “My coach Lance Brauman said I was capable of running 21.7 this year. I just wanted to come out and set a PR. I did that, so I’m happy.” I was happy, too, having had the chance to see such a superb race so close to home.

The ’08 Olympic Trials men’s 800 finish produced what I consider the loudest finish I have ever heard in a men’s race—the three Beijing team spots being claimed by Oregon-raised or developed runners Nick Symmonds, Andrew Wheating and Christian Smith in a pulsatingly-close finish as Hayward Field’s faithful screamed their lungs out.
Cathy Freeman
But the single loudest crowd noise I have ever heard at any meet came eight years previously, in Sydney’s Olympic stadium for the women’s 400 final. Some 112,000 of my closest Aussie mates eagerly looked forward to home daughter Cathy Freeman stepping up one place from her silver-winning slot in Atlanta ’96 to strike gold this time.

Freeman had been the final torchbearer at the Games’ Opening Ceremonies, being forced to stand several minutes amid dripping water and holding the flaming torch aloft as a platform meant to raise her up to light the cauldron had malfunctioned. But eventually the platform rose and Freeman completed the lighting ritual.

At age 27, Freeman also represented Australia’s indigenous people by virtue of her Aboriginal heritage. She also had won the ’97 and ’99 world one-lap titles, so was one of the most closely-watched home athletes in Oz’s first Games since the ’56 edition farther south in Melbourne.

Freeman took to the track for the September 28 final in lane 6 clad in a full-length, form-fitting body suit, complete with a zip-up hood over her head. Sitting with the T&FN Olympic Tour fans, we all knew this was going to be Australia’s best shot at a gold medal.

Her prime rivals were expected to be Jamaican Lorraine Graham in lane 4 and Briton Katherine Merry in lane 3, the respective 3rd- and 5th-placers from the Seville World Champs race of the year before.

From the instant the gun cracked, the crowd noise hit deafening levels. I stood shoulder-to-shoulder next to office colleague Dan Lilot and at several points during the race we yelled at the top of our lungs into each other’s ears. But we were totally drowned out by the overwhelming din of the crowd around us.

Graham got out fast (23.70) and led Merry (23.90) and Freeman (24.08) by some 3 meters at halfway. Merry moved up around the second turn and was just 0.1 behind Graham’s 35.9 at the 300 mark. But then Freeman began to move into the homestretch…

…And the crowd noise reached a jet-engine roar. She took over with perhaps 75 meters left and went on to win by 4 meters in 49.11 from Graham (49.58) and Merry (49.72, to just edge teammate Donna Fraser by 0.07).

When Freeman hit the finish line, the crowd erupted in one final explosion of booming sound. Beyond the line, Freeman sat down with what I felt was a bewildered look on her face as she unzipped her racing hood. It was almost like she was thinking, “Did I really just do that?”
Sydney Women's 400

She had indeed and the Games had to have been complete for her Aussie compatriots. For me, from then on, every crowd reaction has been measured against the stunning wall of continuous sound that seemed to help carry Freeman around that one triumphant lap.

Poor Gail Devers. While the American star won two Olympic 100 titles, one Worlds century and three WC 100H titles, she never took the Olympic sprint barriers title—or even medaled in the event. The closest she got was a 4th in Atlanta ’96.

But perhaps the closest Devers really got to the Games 100H victory also produced the most memorable race I ever saw in the event. Devers was barreling along with a clear margin in the ’92 Barcelona final, staged on August 6 in the hilltop Montjuïc Olympic Stadium.
Paraskevi Patoulídou
Her sprinting speed, far superior to any of her rivals, had given Devers the lead. She had led the first two rounds with a 12.76 in her quarter-final. USA teammate LaVonna Martin-Floréal twice ran 12.82s, while defender Yordanka Donkova of Bulgaria had run 12.84. They were the only hurdlers under 12.90 in the first two races.

Devers let the third American, Lynda Tolbert, take Semi I in just 13.10, but against a 1.9mps headwind. Martin improved to 12.81 to take Semi II, 0.06 ahead of Donkova with Greece’s lightly-regarded Paraskevi Patoulídou 3rd in an NR 12.88.

Devers took command of the final from Martin by hurdle 2 and sped along what looked like a certain gold medal. But there are few, if any, certainties in the Olympics. By barrier 9, the blue-clad Patoulídou had pushed up to 2nd ahead of Martin and Tolbert. Devers still was in the lead…

…But then came the fateful final hurdle. Video replays later revealed that Devers, in the moment before she rose to the final barrier, took a furtive glance to her right. That’s all the distraction that was needed before Devers whacked the crossbar with her lead right foot and stumbled on landing.

She stretched out and appeared to be almost parallel with the track as the leaders rushed past her. The plucky Devers somehow regained her footing in the final meters and cartwheeled over the line in 12.75 to end up 5th. Tolbert ran the same time for 4th, 0.05 behind bronzer winner Donkova.

Martin clocked a career-fastest 12.69 to grab the silver medal as the astonished Patoulídou claimed a totally unexpected victory in a lifetime best of 12.64. Afterward, the 27-year-old champion—known by her nickname of Voula—said simply, “I won! I don’t believe it!” She had become Greece’s first-ever women’s Olympic track & field champion.

Barcelona 1992 Women's 100M Hurdles

Remarkably composed, Devers reflected, “I got to the last hurdle faster than I ever had before. But when you hit it with your lead foot, your balance is shot. As I went down, my only thought was to finish and I just kept scrambling until I got over the line.”

It had to have been a heart-breaking outcome, yet the unexpected finish helped create a totally improbable, yet utterly memorable, race. So did Patoulídou’s moment-of-a-lifetime performance.
Maybe one should, in recalling most memorable anythings, allow some time after a very recent, but still highly significant, event. Gain perspective and all that. But in thinking about my most notable one-lap hurdles race for the women, I can’t help but call up the recent USATF Championship final in sun-baked Sacramento.
Dalilah Muhammad

True, I had been fortunate enough to see (and report on) World Record races in two consecutive global championships: first, the 52.74 by Britain’s Sally Gunnell in Stuttgart ’93 ahead of Sandra Farmer-Patrick’s American Record of 52.79 in 2nd.

Then two years later in Göteborg the 4th-placer in that Stuttgart race, American Kim Batten, waged a thrilling full-lap contest with teammate Tonja Buford-Bailey before prevailing in a WR 52.61. TBB also ducked under Gunnell’s former record with her 52.62 right behind Batten.

But those superb races were overwhelmed by the sheer quality of the Sacramento final run on June 25. It was simply the highest-quality 400 hurdles race ever run by U.S. women. High school sensation Sydney McLaughlin shattered her own World Junior Record of 54.03 with a superb 53.82—a clocking that would have won the national title in eight of the past nine years. Yet McLaughlin finished only 6th this time.

That’s because all five women ahead of her ran lifetime bests to move to into the top 10 Americans ever. Olympic champion Dalilah Muhammad cut down her best from the 52.88 that won her the ’16 Trials to 52.64 in becoming No. 4 all-time U.S. performer as well as No. 6 globally. And she ran that fast after being hampered by sciatic pain since about a month earlier in the Prefontaine Classic Diamond League race, where she clocked a still-excellent 54.53 yet placed only 5th.

In 2nd, ’15 winner Shamier Little dipped under 53.0 for the first time with 52.75 (No. 9 world performer, No. 5 U.S.) ahead of Collegiate Record holder Kori Carter’s 52.95 (No. 7 U.S. performer). Rio Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer trimmed her best to 53.11 (No. 9 U.S. performer) but missed the London Worlds team by placing 4th. London ’12 Olympian Georganne Moline followed in 5th, still lowering her PR to 53.14.

The 27-year-old Muhammad charged out in lane 5 with Little inside her in 4 and Carter out in 7. Leading with her right leg save for Nos. 8 and 10, Muhammad led off the second curve and maintained a strong final straight. She needed it as Little surged between 7-8 to move into 2nd and then chased hard after Muhammad to the line.

At No. 10, Moline ran 3rd ahead of Carter, but Carter finished stronger to claim the last team spot. Spencer’s big rush on the run-in got her 4th and pushed Moline back to 5th. McLaughlin was a solitary, yet still record-setting, 6th for the race’s second half.

Sacremento 2017 Women's 400m Hurdles

Later, Muhammad said, “Coach [Lawrence “Boogie” Johnson] and the trainers just tried to keep me together. I don’t know how they did it, but they did. I just tried to stay focused on getting stronger every day. But I also feel that you can do anything when you set your mind to it. Anything is possible when you believe you can do it.” Muhammad proved to be her own best example of that belief.

And when asked about getting the first three home under 53-flat, Little observed with a wry smile, “Those ladies—excuse my language—ran their asses off.”
It was a race to behold and then continue to savor in reflection.

(Next: women’s middle distances.)

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