U.S. trials a preview of Olympic drama

If what happened at the U.S. Olympic trials is any indication, the London Olympics will be pulsing with splendid drama.

At the track and field trials in Eugene, Ore, an unprecedented dead heat. At gymnastics in San Jose, Calif., victory by a fraction — or a wayward foot. At swimming in Omaha, Neb., two rivals matched each other stroke for stroke all the way to the wall.

The action left you rubbing your eyes, marveling at just how close two athletes can be when the minute margin between them is indecipherable even by a high-speed camera. Four years, miles of training, gallons of sweat — and a spot in the London Olympics comes down to the beat of a hummingbird’s wing.

After the competition, more drama Monday, when sprinter Jeneba Tarmoh made the painful decision to decline her chance at racing in a nationally televised runoff against Allyson Felix.

Friends and training partners, Tarmoh and Felix tied for the third and final spot in the 100 meters on June 23, and officials had to invent a procedure to break it. Runoff or coin flip. They waited until after the 200 meters, which Felix won in personal-best time and Tarmoh finished in fifth place.

They agreed to race Monday, until Tarmoh said no. She had finished third in the original race (the photo finish judge at first said Tarmoh crossed the line before Felix, but he immediately asked for a review) and it wasn’t fair to do it over, thus she conceded her spot.

Michael Phelps made a tough choice, too, electing to compete in seven events, not eight, at the Olympics, thus giving up his chance to match his record gold haul in Beijing four years ago.

“No one should be expected to do that twice,” said Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman. “Once was more than enough.”

So Phelps, who beat Ryan Lochte in three out of four races at the trials, will race him only twice in London. He’s dropping the 200 freestyle to focus on the 200 and 400 individual medley and the 100 and 200 butterfly and to stay fresh for the 400-freestyle relay, which the United States almost lost to France in 2008 until Jason Lezak edged ahead on the anchor leg. Australia is the favorite this time.

Although Tarmoh refused to relinquish her pride, Phelps swallowed his. He wins the medal for practicality.

There was more agonizing at gymnastics. After Gabby Douglas upset Jordyn Wieber for first place by one-tenth of a point Sunday, the rest of the contenders for the five-woman U.S. team had to wait 15 minutes — in a small room, together — for the selection committee to choose the other three members. After the names were announced, the teens accepted bouquets and walked to the center of the floor to wave to an adoring crowd. All were in tears.

“I was the last name called,” Kyla Ross said. “And as each name was called, I got more and more nervous.”

Said the irrepressibly effusive Douglas: “Wow, I made it! Hopefully, I can pick up some accents from them, because I love British accents.”

Douglas sought advice beforehand from Shawn Johnson, who told her “Do you. Be Gabby. Watch a movie.” Douglas watched her favorite flick, Thor.

Bela Karolyi, former U.S. coach, said Wieber reminds him of Nadia Comaneci, and Douglas reminds him of Dominique Dawes.

“Nothing disturbs Jordyn,” Karolyi said. “She’s a calculator. The body constitution, the bones — this is the one who comes close to Nadia. Gabby is a young, bouncy, enthusiastic kid. No other country can line up such a powerhouse combination that we have.”

After Miami’s Danell Leyva and New York’s John Orozco locked up the top two men’s spots, the others had to wait over a sleepless night to hear their names.

Watching the trials, you could sympathize with athletes who face pressure quadruple that of athletes in mainstream sports. Miami’s top 400-meter hurdlers, Bershawn “Batman” Jackson and Tiffany Williams — didn’t make it in what might have been their last Olympic tries. Up-and-comer T’Erea Brown did.

The atmosphere at the three trials reflected the personality of each sport. In Omaha, it was a massive swim meet with nearly 2,000 participants — big shoulders, big feet, hair tinted green by chlorine — and families who have lived through all those 5 a.m. workouts.

At gymnastics, squealing little fans cheered for girls not much older than them. They brought their lucky stuffed animals, just as the athletes did. Lots of hugging took place.

In the running mecca of Eugene, track fanatics packed Hayward Field. I stayed in a University of Oregon dorm (just like college including the wretched sound of a guy retching down the hall at 2 a.m.) filled with fans. Every morning, after they had run on Pre’s Trail, they gathered for heavily syrup-influenced breakfasts and talked about split times, marathon experiences, aches, shoes. Nike was created in Eugene by coach Bill Bowerman, who destroyed his wife’s waffle iron making a revolutionary sole, and college runner turned marketing genius Phil Knight. Nike’s influence is unavoidable, from buildings on campus paid for by Knight, to Nike slogans plastered on buses, to the big board listing Olympic team qualifiers with a swoosh next to those sponsored by Nike.

One day, I ran with (more accurately, behind) Joan Benoit Samuelson (along with 100 others). Another day, a thin masked man passed me. It was Galen Rupp, wearing his allergy filter.

And on a redeye flight from San Francisco, delayed by fog, there was 2008 Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson, whose surgically repaired knee wouldn’t let her make a comeback at trials. She had been in the arena just the same, wearing a faraway smile, swept up by the excitement but wishing she was up on beam, sticking her dismount, flinging wide her arms, earning a place at the once-every-four-years, or, for her, once-in-a-lifetime Olympic Games.