Commentary

Athletes inspire at track trials

Updated: July 3, 2012, 8:22 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

EUGENE, Ore. -- When hurdler Lashinda Demus missed a spot on the Olympic team at the 2008 trials in part because she had been pregnant with twins the previous year, she left Hayward Field in such a dark hole of depression, she would occasionally look at her two children and think, "If only ..."

Sunday, Demus returned to Hayward Field and ran the 400-meter hurdles again. She won this time, and greeting her with hugs just past the finish line were her two beloved boys, Dontay and Duaine.

"Having my kids actually know what I'm doing and where I'm going," Demus said, "it's all come full circle."

The official slogan for the track and field Olympic trials was "Best.Time.Ever." But a better slogan would be "Best.Stories.Ever." While Olympics fans focused most of their attention on Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte this past week or so -- why does the U.S. hold all its major trials at the exact same time? -- the most intriguing athletes were right here in Eugene. And I'm not talking about the 100-meter-tiebreaker saga.

I would look at the schedule at the beginning of competition and think, "Well, this will be a light day." And then, by the end of the night, I would be wondering how I could possibly fit in all the stories. A postrace news conference would have already filled up the notebook and then Lopez Lomong, for instance, would casually point out his two younger brothers standing at the back of the tent.

Lomong literally ran for his life as a Lost Boy of Sudan, eventually winding up as the U.S. flag-bearer at the 2008 Olympics, where he competed in the 1,500. He qualified in the 5,000 this year and after the race introduced the media to younger brothers, Peter and Alex, whom he brought to America so they would not have to endure what he did. "I lived off United Nations food for 10 years," Lomong said. "When I was hungry, I would look up to see if anyone was dropping any food."

This is how it works at the trials. After completing their competitions, the athletes leave the track and walk to an adjoining media tent where they speak with reporters in what is called the mixed zone. Athletes walked in one end, walked out the other and often left reporters dazzled.

For instance, within a short span last Sunday, Bryshon Nellum walked in after qualifying for the Olympic team in the men's 400, followed soon after by Ryan Bailey, who qualified in the 100. Nellum was shot in the leg by gang members in Los Angeles four years ago -- "All I did was take it day by day, stayed humble and stayed dedicated" -- while Bailey was a gang member briefly in Ohio before straightening out his life.

While growing up, Bailey moved between cities -- "too many to count" -- with his mother as she followed her husband from prison to prison. As recently as four years ago, he still was sleeping on his mother's floor. "It wasn't the best childhood," he said. "I just realized I was on the wrong road and needed to turn my life around."

High jumper Amy Acoff qualified for her fifth Olympics -- she was on the same Olympic team as Carl Lewis -- two years after she gave birth to a daughter. Chaunte Lowe cleared even that lofty bar by winning the high jump here barely a year after delivering a premature baby after a seven-month pregnancy. "And I had to feed her every single hour for, I want to say, seven months, 24 hours a day -- I was up feeding my daughter because she had to gain weight," Lowe said.

There are easier ways to get to London than making the Olympic team, but none more satisfying. Ask Lance Brooks. After working six jobs ranging from bouncer to bartender to taxi driver -- just in the past year -- he achieved an Olympic qualifying standard and earned his trip to London with his final throw in the discus.

Of course, many athletes here fell short of the Olympic team, sometimes literally so. Bershawn Jackson stutter-stepped after the ninth hurdle and fell across the line in Sunday's 400 hurdles, finishing fourth and missing a spot on the team by four-hundredths of a second.

"Us athletes, this is how we live and support our family, by making the team," Jackson said, still panting from the race. "It's really tough. It's heartbreaking because I know I trained hard for this season, this one moment. ... It's tough, man. I'll probably think about it the rest of my career that I messed up that end."

Jackson won't be in London, but so many others will. Ashton Eaton, who set the record in the decathlon here; Sanya Richards-Ross, who will run the 200 and 400; Justin Gatlin, who won the 2004 gold medal in the 100 and returned from a four-year ban for performance enhancers to win the men's 100.

And both Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh, as well, despite Monday's concession.

Which is fitting. With so many inspiring stories, it will take a little extra time to go full circle around the track.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com