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Tuesday, September 6, 2011
First-time medalists boost U.S. confidence

By Bonnie D. Ford

Last week's dress rehearsal for the London stage, otherwise known as the world track and field championships the year before the Olympics, augured well for a U.S. team whose ability to dominate was being questioned.

The medal haul is one measure, and the U.S. did top the charts with 25, including 12 golds. But the real uptick within those numbers is the performance of first-time world medalists who will go into 2012 with the confidence that they can win at that level.

On one memorable day -- in fact, within a mere half hour -- the U.S. pulled off a golden hat trick when Jennifer Barringer Simpson became the first American winner of the 1,500-meter event in 28 years, Jesse Williams broke a high-jump drought that stretched back to 1991 and Lashinda Demus set a U.S. record en route to winning the 400-meter hurdles.

Barringer Simpson
Jennifer Barringer Simpson became the first U.S. runner to win the 1,500 meters since Mary Decker-Slaney did it in 1983.
Demus was a two-time world silver medalist, but the other two are still building their résumés. Williams has burned to redeem himself since he won the 2008 Olympic trials, then didn't advance out of qualifying rounds in Beijing. Simpson, who specializes in the steeplechase, surprised no one more than herself, and her stunned, joyous expression afterward should be an avatar for all athletes struggling with self-esteem.

Others riding the new wave included University of Florida teammates Christian Taylor and William Claye, who went gold-bronze in the triple jump; Matt Centrowitz, the son of an Olympian, who became a bronze medalist in the 1,500 two months shy of his 22nd birthday; and shot putter Jillian Camarena-Williams, whose perseverance over a decade finally paid off in the form of the first-ever podium appearance for an American woman in the event.

The most significant individual breakthrough of the championships was Carmelita Jeter's gold in the glamorous 100, which she followed up with a silver in the 200 and a winning anchor leg in the 4x100 relay. Her journey to what would be a debut Olympics will depend on the tricky proposition of maintaining her improved times of the past three seasons as she rounds the curve into athletic middle age. (She'll turn 32 later this year.) It will be interesting to see how she handles the weight of expectation after years of being tagged an underachiever at big events.

This isn't to slight the repeat champions, headlined by long jumpers Dwight Phillips and Brittney Reese. Phillips overcame recent injuries to win his fourth consecutive world title and is looking to bookend his career with an Olympic gold to match the one he captured in 2004, while Reese took her second championship. Trey Hardee defended his title in the decathlon (and 23-year-old U.S. teammate Ashton Eaton finished second).

Disappointments are harder to come by in parsing the results. Kellie Wells' tumble in the 100-meter hurdles was certainly one of them. The U.S. men were shut out of the shot put medals. Walter Dix, facing the peerless Usain Bolt in both sprints, couldn't profit from Bolt's false-start absence in the 100, finishing second to Jamaican Yohan Blake and taking another silver behind Bolt in the 200, but did anyone truly expect Dix to derail the Jamaican juggernaut?

(Meanwhile, will international track authorities change their public position and reconsider the ill-conceived one-and-out false-start rule? Stay tuned, literally, because television is likely to have a say.)

As stated in a previous blog, Allyson Felix's 200/400 double attempt should be seen for what it was: a foray into the unknown that netted a silver and a bronze. Felix flew home with her eighth world championship gold medal since 2005 -- 10th overall -- and a lot to think about. Versatility in events is a blessing and a burden when those events are so closely spaced.

Felix also was a key part of the U.S. women's sweep of the relays -- the only athlete who ran both the 4x100 and 4x400.

But as the U.S. team learned to its sorrow, relay success at this level is no longer a given. Darvis Patton's heart-cracking, shoulder-separating fall was an unfortunate coda to a generally great meet for the U.S. team.