- Luke Cyphers
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EUGENE, Ore. -- Fans of U.S. women's track, meet depth.
At the 2008 Beijing Games, the Americans didn't get near the podium in the 1,500 meters or the long jump. But on the final day of the Olympic trials Sunday, the U.S. picked squads in the two events that could produce multiple shiny, metal objects -- a battle-hardened group of milers and the greatest group performance in the long jump in U.S. history.
"We can sweep this thing in London," said Brittney Reese, the two-time defending world champion who won Sunday's long jump at trials, the first with three women reaching better than 23 feet.
"Watch out world," said Shannon Rowbury, who finished second (4:05.11) in the résumé-laden 1,500. Rowbury, the bronze medalist in the 2009 world championships, qualified just behind last year's national champion, Morgan Uceny (4:04.59), and just ahead of last year's world champion, Jenny Simpson (4:05.17). "I can't think of a better U.S. team to be sending."
This 1,500 squad is a far cry from four years ago, when only Rowbury made the final, and eons from 2004, when the U.S. had only one woman qualify for Athens via the IOC B standard.
This group has talent, and plenty to prove. While Simpson now has a chance to prove her worlds victory wasn't a fluke (she took last year's worlds race with a late kick after the favored Uceny fell in the final), Uceny must prove her accident in the final was. She dominated the outdoor circuit last season, culminating a steady rise from a Cornell freshman who "drank too much and gained 10 pounds and didn't get a varsity letter," to the world's No. 1 ranking last year.
Uceny has maintained that form so far this season, breaking people by pushing the pace in the middle of the race. "I'm good at making other people hurt," she said.
After last year's mishap at worlds, Uceny welcomed the pressure-packed trials atmosphere. "This is great preparation for the Olympics," she said. "When you're competing against women who are bronze medalist in the worlds, world champion, No. 1 in the world, you can't get that anywhere else. It brings out the best in ourselves. I think it's going to set us up well."
In Sunday's race, the group only cared about making the top three. Uceny ran toward the front of the pack most of the race, keeping just behind the early lead to avoid the wind, but seizing control with two laps to go. Rowbury ran comfortably in the pack, but "anticipated carnage, a lot of elbows and knees," and worked to protect her space until she moved out with Uceny.
Simpson found herself in the most precarious position, boxed in for much of the first two laps. But she angled outside and found enough room to catch up to Uceny and run with her and Rowbury for the last lap and a half, as they separated themselves from the rest of the field.
Uceny took charge in the end, laying down a marker that she will be tough to beat.
In that way, she was exactly like Reese, who after a disappointing fifth-place finish in Beijing has been the steadiest performer in U.S. track. She has won the past two world championships, indoors and out, and broke Jackie Joyner-Kersee's American indoor record with a jump of 23 feet, 8¾ inches to win the world indoor title in March.
Reese, a former Mississippi juco basketball player, has also won the past five U.S. outdoor championships and earned the nickname "The Beast" long before Jamaica's Yohan Blake did. On her second jump, Reese seemed to put Sunday's competition away early at 23-2. On her third attempt, she twisted her left ankle at takeoff and passed on her fifth attempt, ready to call it a day. But a pair of upstarts forced Reese to unleash "The Beast" to preserve her streak.
First, Janay DeLoach unloaded a jump of 23-2¾ to grab the lead in the fifth round. Then Chelsea Hayes, a former Louisiana Tech star who has run 11.1 in the 100 meters, used that speed to carry her to 23-3½ on her sixth jump, a leap so surprising she bowed her head for minutes afterward, Bob Beamon-style.
And it was historic in its own way. No competition had ever seen three U.S. women surpass 23 feet. Reese decided to put herself at the top of this particular page of the history book, taking her sixth and final attempt out to 23-5½. It was initially ruled a foul, but Reese protested and judges ruled she hadn't overrun the takeoff board.
Her streak is intact, and so is her aura heading into London. Joyner-Kersee told her so. "Jackie just told me to get my ankle healed, and I'm ready."
Reese said her teammates are, too. "I've been saying Janay DeLoach was a big competitor, and now with Chelsea I can say the same thing. She's a big competitor. Like I said before, we can sweep this thing."
Watch out, world.
Watch out, world. U.S. women's team will bring unprecedented depth to London in the 1,500 meters and long jump.