- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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LONDON -- Imagine waiting four years to make it right.
Imagine every subsequent success, no matter how spectacular, still being tempered by what could have been.
That is the cruel irony of the Olympic Games. If you falter, if you fail, if you finish short of your stated goal, then you must wait an athletic lifetime to fix it.
At times, the wait is simply unbearable.
"You have no idea," said U.S. long jumper Brittney Reese, who finished fifth at the 2008 Beijing Games.
"It's crazy," said Allyson Felix, who conceded she has been "obsessed" with gold since losing out by .19 in the 200 meters in 2008. "I remember finishing in tears in Beijing, and tonight, it's the complete opposite."
On a balmy Wednesday evening in East London, a number of the American track and field family broke down and wept, but this time, for most of them, they were tears of great joy, and immense relief.
And yes, redemption.
Reese? Her fifth-place finish in Beijing is old news, suddenly a small-font footnote, because in this Olympic competition, she struck gold with a jump of 23.4 feet.
Felix? Four years ago, Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown edged her at the finish line, stealing her dreams and invading her nightmares.
Felix has won three world championships in the 200 meters, but it was the Olympic title she yearned for after settling for two straight silvers. The sprinter they affectionately call "chicken legs," who can leg press 700 pounds despite that nickname, seized control of the 200 and never looked back. She won the gold with a time of 21.88. Her teammate Carmelita Jeter took the bronze, just .01 in front of Felix's rival Campbell-Brown.
The medal haul was a gaudy one for the red, white and blue. Aries Merritt took gold in the men's 110 hurdles, while Jason Richardson locked up silver. It was the first time in 12 years the Americans took gold in the event. Lashinda Demus won silver in the 400 hurdles, and Janay DeLoach copped a bronze in the long jump.
That boosted the U.S. track and field medal count to 20 with several events still on the docket, including all four relays and the men's decathlon, which, at the moment, has two Americans (Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee) in the top two spots. The 11 medals won by the American women is second in history only to their total from the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
The results are a huge boost for an often maligned group of athletes whose disappointment in Beijing lingered for years, not months. The men's and women's 4x100 relay teams fumbled on their baton exchanges. The U.S. track team left China with 23 medals, below its projected target. As the American swimmers triumphed in the pool, winning golds and setting world records, members of the U.S. "athletics" squad kept reading how they were heading in the wrong direction.
Collectively, they read it, heard it, felt it. A jubilant Richardson declared in the wake of the U.S. dominance Wednesday night that his country, his team, "moves like Jagger."
"I think we've got a lot to be excited about," he said.
Reese said scrutiny is part of the portfolio of an Olympic athlete, particularly one who doesn't meet expectations.
"I heard all the negative and the positive comments," Reese said. "But you cannot let that matter."
When the floods from Hurricane Katrina descended on Reese's Mississippi neighborhood in 2005, she worked feverishly alongside her family, trying to save their home. They placed sandbags around the foundation, but the ceiling caved in, leaving the house mold-infested and inhabitable. For the next two months, she and her family were nomads, living in trailers and temporary mobile homes.
When she arrived in Beijing, she dedicated her performance to the victims of the hurricane. It was a very personal homage to the people she loved, and made her inability to medal that much more devastating.
"It was my goal in '08 and again in 2012 to bring something home for them, something we can share together," she said.
Reese had already broken the American indoor record by the time she arrived here and has won four world championships, but, she admitted, "The world championships are great, but this is what I wanted. This is what I trained for."
Demus shared Reese's singular goal. Demus missed out on Beijing after giving birth to twins in 2007. A year ago, she posted the third-fastest time in the world in the 400 hurdles, and felt certain these Olympics were her time.
Instead, Russian Natalya Antyukh edged her at the finish with a personal-best time of 52.70. Demus conceded she "tried to conserve a little energy" earlier in the race. "I guess I shouldn't have done that."
As Antyukh dropped to her knees, dissolved into tears and clasped her hands together in disbelief after crossing the finish line, Demus also dropped to her knees, bowed her head and tried not to let her devastation show.
"I wanted the gold," she said. "I can't explain how badly I wanted it. I won't stop until I get it ... I didn't want to let America down. I don't like letting myself down. I will be back in four years in 2016. I'm already thinking about it."
She's not the only one. Reese, who became the first American since Jackie Joyner-Kersee in 1996 to win the long jump, said she will be back for Rio.
"We've got a young group of very talented people," Reese said. "This is the start of something."
And, for so many of them, the end of the longest wait you can imagine.
The cruel irony of the Olympics is, if you falter, you must wait an athletic lifetime to fix it. And on Wednesday, a handful of U.S. track athletes finally found redemption.