EUGENE, Ore. -- Track's easy to understand, right?
Just run faster or jump higher or throw farther than everybody else, and you win. Take second or third, and step onto the medal podium.
Except that's not the whole story at the U.S. Olympic trials.
There's this thing called the Olympic qualifying standard -- a minimum performance level that divides those who will compete in London from the rest of us. You can win an event at the trials, but if you haven't met the Olympic A standard for your event -- a 65-meter discus throw, say, or a 5,000-meter time of 15 minutes, 20 seconds -- your trials medal earns you a stool at your local sports bar during the Games.
Those strange realities created drama Thursday night, the kind that only the trials can produce.
Lance Brooks, a 6-foot-6, 270-pound discus thrower from Springfield, Ill., led the competition from his first round of throws, whipping the disc 210 feet, 5 inches, and improving to 211-5 on his third throw. But that gained him nothing, really. He needed to throw 213-5 (that's 65 meters, if your country has national health insurance) to go to London 2012. Two measly feet, which should be nothing for Brooks, who wears size 17 shoes.
But that's when the pressure started to build. Brooks, a former college basketball player at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., fouled on his next two throws. "I rushed them," he said. "I tried to get after them a little bit, because I knew my first three were 64 meters, and those were legitimate throws."
He had one throw left to make it to the Olympic team, which can be the difference between sponsorship deals that would allow him to train full-time, and working construction or bar-bouncer jobs, which is what he did prior to making the U.S. world team last year.
These situations don't faze Brooks. He qualified for worlds on his last throw. He egged on the record crowd of 22,602 at Hayward Field, who knew he needed to meet the standard. "I needed a little extra help," Brooks said.
Rhythmic claps turned to cheers as he whirled through the ring and let the disc go, and the noise became a roar as the implement sailed, landed and was measured at 213-9, or 65.15 meters. "That's not how I'd like to do it, but I've always seemed to throw well at the end of the meet," he said.
Kim Conley waited even longer than Brooks. The 26-year-old assistant coach at Cal-Davis watched the trials in 2008 and wondered what it would be like to compete in them. On Thursday night, she found herself in the midst of the most exciting race of the competition so far. (We're not counting the dead heat for third place in the women's 100 meters, as it isn't over yet.)
The 5,000 meters race went out at a fairly slow pace, making it doubtful that runners like Conley, who hadn't met the A standard, would be able to go to London. But with three laps to go, Julia Lucas separated herself from the pack, figuring her endurance training could break enough of the field to secure her a spot on the team.
Lucas had run 15:08 in April, so all she needed was a top-three finish, or to be the highest finisher who had met the standard. In other words, she could finish fourth if one of the three medalists, somebody like Conley, say, didn't go faster than 15:20.
But Lucas pushing the pace was an epic miscalculation. She opened up a 20-meter lead, but the pack didn't let her escape completely. And Lucas had increased the pace of the race. Coming into the homestretch, Lucas' legs all but shut down. A group of runners led by Julie Culley and Molly Huddle bore down on Lucas, whose powerful form of the previous two laps turned into a series of hiccups in the final 50 meters. Like "running under water," Lucas described it. "Out of steam."
First Culley, then Huddle passed her. In the final 10 meters, Lucas still had a lead on the hard-charging Conley and Abby D'Agostino. Lucas wears the ubiquitous uniform of the Oregon Track Club and trains in the state, so the crowd urged her on to the wire. But the same crowd that propelled Brooks betrayed Lucas; in the din she couldn't sense Conley coming up on her.
With three meters left, her stride length shrunk and Lucas crossed the line just as Conley passed her. Over 5,000 meters, the difference between the two runners was 4/1000ths of a second, in Conley's favor.
"I thought I'd be on the team," Lucas said. "I screwed up."
In more ways than she initially understood. By pushing the pace so hard in the final meters, Lucas improved every runner's time. And Conley, whose previous best time was 18 seconds over the 15:20 standard, finished in 15:19.79.
"I had not thought of that," Lucas said of the standard. "But I probably did give her that.
It's on my shoulders."
Conley, meanwhile, was floating after the race. "This is beyond a dream come true," Conley said. "I can't even wrap my head around it yet."
That's OK, Kim. Like we said, track is not as simple as you think.