They are called the Olympic trials.
But a more apt name would be the Olympic Trials and Tribulations.
America’s potential Olympians have been running, jumping, throwing, diving, swimming, flipping and twisting over the past week to try to win a precious spot on the team going to London for the July 27-Aug. 12 Summer Games.
It’s tough to make the roster of the country that won the medal count at the 2008 Beijing Games and is attempting to regain supremacy in the gold medal count, which it lost to mighty China four years ago.
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In the major trials of track and field, swimming and gymnastics, the qualifying format is unforgiving. If an athlete trips over a hurdle, falls off the balance beam or gets out-touched at the wall after four years of training and dreaming — too bad. Perform or go home. Only the top three finishers in individual events make the track team. Only the top two in swimming. In gymnastics, there’s only room for five men and five women.
At Hayward Field at the University of Oregon, triumph and despair were on stark display. Olympic decathlon champion Bryan Clay crashed in the 110-meter hurdles, then fouled out of the discus. His quest to defend his 2008 gold medal ended in tears while young Ashton Eaton set a world record with his scintillating finish in the final event, the 1,500 meters, as the crowd went wild for the Bend, Ore., homeboy. Clay was already an afterthought.
One runner failed to advance to the final of the women’s 400 hurdles, and as she walked off the track, she stopped, knelt down and sobbed. She walked 20 yards and collapsed again, her legs wobbly from exertion and disappointment. She continued in this way, overwhelmed by the finality of her loss, and her sobs grew louder as she murmured, “No, no, no.” Observers felt sympathy, but she was alone with her thoughts.
Others were out-leaned at the finish line. Food poisoning weakened a bunch of athletes who ate salmon at the main hotel. Too bad. Fort Lauderdale’s Walter Dix was afflicted with a recurrence of a hamstring injury, finished last in the 100 meters and scratched from the 200 meters. Four years after he won double bronze and ignited hopes that he would challenge Usain Bolt, Dix had missed his chance to compete on his sport’s biggest stage.
Four years is a long time to wait.
For Miami’s Danell Leyva and his coach, stepfather Yin Alvarez, the time is now.
When Leyva was a toddler, he left Cuba with his mother and stepfather, who had defected from the Cuban gymnastics team. Seventeen years later, Leyva is realizing his vision and that of his parents.
He flew breathtakingly high on the high bar and won the trials in San Jose, Calif., by .50 over John Orozco. Leyva, all-around national champ and world parallel bars champ in 2011, has a checklist of goals on the wall of Alvarez’s Kendall gym. Olympic medals for himself and the U.S. men’s team are on the list.
Jordyn Wieber will go for trials gold Sunday, and unless she misses on her beautiful Amanar vault, no one is likely to beat her. Wieber, defending world champion, is next in line to inherit the tiara worn by Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller and Nastia Liukin. Gabby Douglas, the effervescent “flying squirrel,” is stealing the show, however.
The U.S. women’s “Magnificent Five” plans to take the team gold back from China, which competed with underage girls in 2008.
Over at the pool in Omaha, Neb., nearly 2,000 swimmers are competing, but South Florida is again ridiculously underrepresented with just two dozen entries.
Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin can see that the torch is being passed to — or snatched by — Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin.
Phelps is 2-1 against Lochte in their races against each other, with their latest head-to-head meeting Saturday (Phelps’ 27th birthday), in the 200 IM, going to Phelps (1:54.84) by nine-hundredths of a second in a thriller. Phelps is the two-time defending champion, but Lochte owns the world record of 1:54.
Phelps could go for eight more gold medals in London. He hasn’t announced his schedule yet. After a break from swimming post-Beijing, and some soul-searching, he decided to make the 2012 Games his grand finale. He hates to lose, so five individual golds isn’t preposterous — unless Lochte gets in his way. Lochte, the ex-Florida Gator from Daytona Beach, edged Phelps in two events at the 2011 world championships.
Lochte certainly will become one of the stars of 2012. Modeling agencies are clamoring for him. Compared with the intense Phelps, he gives off a relaxed vibe, in keeping with his love of surfing and skateboarding. He wears colorful high tops to the blocks, in the same way that showman Gary Hall Jr. used to wear boxing robes onto the pool deck.
Coughlin, who is in danger of not making the team after failing to finish in the money in the 100 freestyle and 100 backstroke, was hoping to break the all-time U.S. medal records of Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.
She has been usurped by Franklin, 17, who broke her idol Coughlin’s American record in the 100 back with a 58.85. Franklin is the daughter of Canadian parents who chose to compete for the United States even though she has dual citizenship because she wanted the greater challenge of making the U.S. team. She is 6-1 with size 13 feet, long arms and long strokes, and has said when she’s swimming “I feel like a dolphin.”
Other youngsters upset favorites Brendan Hansen and Jessica Hardy, which means the team will be a mix of veterans and Olympic rookies.
As for South Florida athletes, they are representing the 305 and 954 (and 786) with aplomb.
Keep your eye on the women’s 400 hurdles final Sunday. Three Miami women — Tiffany Williams, T’Erea Brown and Dominique Darden — will be racing for those top three spots. Defending trials champ Williams, a Miami Northwestern High graduate, is back after giving birth to her second child; she wants to make up for her last-place finish in Beijing when she was sick and injured.
Darden, a University of Miami graduate, has come back from a horrific scooter accident that damaged her right knee.
In the men’s 400 hurdles, Williams’ former Northwest Express Track Club teammate Bershawn “Batman” Jackson is smiling, as usual, because he’s still among the world’s best. The four-time U.S. outdoor champ was bronze medalist in the U.S. sweep in Beijing. He is out to win Sunday’s final.
“It’s going to be whoever has the most guts, whoever wants that ticket to London the most,” he said.
Sanya Richards-Ross is going after the 400-200 double mastered by the man she admires — Michael Johnson. Richards-Ross faded to third in the 400 in Beijing, so she is still seeking an individual Olympic gold. Her anchor leg in the 1,600 relay in 2008 was one of the most dramatic moments of the Games. She looks sleeker than ever.
Miami’s Lauryn Williams, silver medalist in the 100 in 2004, was not sharp in the 100 or 200 and didn’t qualify, although she has a shot at making the relay pool, coach Amy Deem said.
Among other athletes with local ties who have secured their places on the roster: Brittany Viola in platform diving; Anna Tunnicliffe in sailing; Manny Huerta in triathlon; LeBron James and Sylvia Fowles in basketball; Robin Prendes in rowing; and Foluke Akinradewo in volleyball.
For fans of Olympic sports, it’s been a frenetic week, switching from pole vault to gymnastics vault, trying to decipher tiebreakers and selection procedure, watching the butterfly in the water and Peach Diamodovs on the parallel bars. It has left us as breathless as the athletes. The trials and tribulations — and triumphs — will continue in London.