Commentary

Montano, Williams earn London berths

Updated: June 26, 2012, 3:02 AM ET
By Luke Cyphers

EUGENE, Ore. -- Alysia Montano ran pretty at Monday's Olympic trials, with a flower in her hair and room to spare. Jesse Williams jumped ugly, narrowly avoiding disaster.

But both U.S. stars will end up in the same place next month, chasing medals at the Olympics. "I'm going to London," Williams said. "That's all that matters."

Indeed. The hassle-free evening for Montano, who qualified easily in the 800 meters, and the harrowing night for Williams, who made it to the Games' high jump competition through a back door, showed just how fickle this meet can be. Going into the night's events at Hayward Field, Montano and Williams were as heavily favored as any athletes here.

[+] EnlargeJesse Williams
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesJesse Williams is the reigning world champion in the high jump.

Montano is coming off a fourth-place finish at last year's world championships and was less than a month removed from a convincing victory on this very track earlier this month at the Prefontaine Classic in 1:57.37. Williams won worlds last year, earning the Jesse Owens Award as 2011's top U.S. track and field athlete. He appeared to be on schedule for gold in London, clearing 7 feet, 8 3/4 inches three weeks ago in New York. But their paths to London couldn't have been more different.

Montano burned through the first lap in 55.8 seconds, then held onto the lead all the way through the last lap to finish first in 1:59.08. It's how she has always run, and what she trains for.

"It's this thing where I record, and then press play," she said. "It's what feels natural to me."

By running from the front, Montano avoided the mayhem that confronted the rest of the field, as four runners battled through the final 30 meters for the final two spots on the Olympic team. While Gina Gall and Alice Schmidt survived the brutal stretch run in 1:59.24 and 1:59.46, respectively, Montano emerged with her artificial hibiscus intact.

She changes up her floral accents, and said she chose this one to honor her Jamaican heritage -- hibiscus is a national symbol -- and as a gesture to her grandmother: "She's 100 years old." And if anybody deserved an tribulation-free trials, it was Montano. Four years ago here, she was carried off the track at the Olympic trials after shattering her foot.

"I showed up at the Olympic trials and ran the first round, and my foot literally felt like it was crumbling," she said.

That's because it was; she had broken it and kept running. "I remember kind of a black-out phase," she said. "I don't really remember the last 50 meters. I remember looking up in the sky and felt like my dream had passed me by."

But she picked herself up and, on the advice of Schmidt, rehabbed at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., through 2009. "It allowed me to put on a new face and a new body of armor to get really, really tough," Montano said. "I'm so much more prepared for this moment."

That contrasted with Williams, who saw what should have been a mundane coronation turn into a paper-thin escape, and looked utterly surprised by it. Only three jumpers entered Monday's final having met the Olympic qualifying standard of 7 feet, 7 inches necessary to go to London -- Williams, Jamie Nieto and Eric Kynard. If no one else jumped more than 7 feet, 7 inches, then those three would comprise the U.S. team, whether they finished in the top three at the trials or not. And on the rainy surface, seven of the 13 finalists found themselves out of the competition by the time the bar was placed at 7-4½.

[+] EnlargeAlysia Montano
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezAlysia Montano won the 800 meters (1:59.08) on Monday at the U.S. track trials.

But suddenly, the competition turned into, well, a track meet, and jumpers who hadn't met the standard began clearing bars, while Williams was losing his technique and relying on pure leaping ability. "I started forcing some things, and when you start forcing things, things go wrong," he said. "I was just trying to muscle over some jumps, and when you do that, you're not a high jumper."

Nieto and Kynard both jumped 7-5¾, and Nick Ross, who came into the meet without the standard, had an easy clearance at the height. Williams cleared it, too, but not before missing twice. "These guys had me nervous," he said. More than that, all three had had fewer misses than Williams, meaning they owned any tiebreakers if they all cleared the same height.

As the meet wound down, Williams missed all three attempts at 7-7 and could only watch helplessly as Ross made his final attempt. If Ross made it, he would go to London and Williams would stay home. Williams admitted asking God for a miss on the part of a competitor. "I was praying some things that were maybe a bit unusual because I put myself in a situation where I almost didn't make the team," he said. "I know there's a couple guys that their hearts are broken, and I've been there before [he finished fourth in the 2009 U.S. nationals, missing the world championships]."

When Ross missed, Williams' prayers were answered. He finished in fourth place, but made the team because he'd had the standard. "This was a slap in the face," he said. "A wakeup call, definitely."

But now that he's wide awake, Williams is confident he can remedy what ailed him here. "When it comes down to it," he said, "no one's going to remember who won the trials if you won the Olympic Games."

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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