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Highlights and heartbreak at the U.S. Olympics track trials

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates her win in the women's 100-meter finals during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
Charlie Neibergall
/
AP
Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates her win in the women's 100-meter finals during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

EUGENE, Ore. — Olympians were born and a world record was broken. The U.S. Olympics Track and Field team is mostly finalized after a 10-day meet at Hayward Field. It offered a preview of the prowess to come when the Paris Games start up in less than month.

Here are some of the highlights from the Olympics trials that wrapped on Sunday.

Stars to watch in Paris

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone’s biggest competition is herself. She broke her own world record on Sunday in the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 50.65 seconds. That’s just shy of her 50.68 time set two years ago on the same track.

After crossing the finish line, her face read surprise.

"I was a little shocked that it came together with not the best stride pattern," she told reporters after her feat. "But definitely still grateful to know that the fitness is there and that there's more we can work on."

She’ll be aiming to raise the bar for herself again at the Paris Games.

"I would love to dip under 50 [seconds] at some point," she said. "There's something really exciting about trying to figure out how to improve upon history, you know, in whatever capacity that looks like."

The 24-year-old began her Olympics journey in Rio eight years ago and in Tokyo earned a gold medal in 400-meter hurdles and another in the 4x400 meters squad.

Representing the U.S. as an Olympian doesn’t get old, she said.

"It's like reliving that childhood dream over and over again. I don't take it for granted."

Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson came to Hayward with a lot to prove. She was banned from competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for THC. She attributed her marijuana use to the recent death of her mother and the pressures she was under to perform: "I am human," she said on social media at the time.

And prove it she did. In Eugene, her 100-meters race secured her spot on Team USA. Her bid to make the 200 meters her second event, however, failed after she placed fourth.

It was Gabby Thomas, Brittany Brown and McKenzie Long in that order who dominated the 200 meters to earn their spot at the Paris Games.

Gabby Thomas celebrates after winning the women's 200-meter final with third place winner McKenzie Long during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
George Walker IV / AP
/
AP
Gabby Thomas celebrates after winning the women's 200-meter final with third place winner McKenzie Long during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

Thomas earned bronze in Tokyo in the 200-meter event and won silver with the 4x100-meter relay team. What’s new for her this time is that a crowd will be there to cheer her on.

"I'm a bit of an introvert so I do get distracted and overwhelmed easily with lots of people, but hey, I think it'll be fun,” she after the final on Saturday.

But she also says she’s always thrived under pressure — a skill she’s honed since Tokyo.

"I have comfort in knowing that when I stepped to the line today, I was thinking, you know what, I've proven to myself that I can do this,' " she said.

Brown and Long, meanwhile, are headed to the Olympics for the first time. Long is drawing strength from her late mother, who died unexpectedly in February.

"Knowing that I’m an Olympian now is so surreal,” she told reporters after the race. "And I know my mom is smiling from cheek to cheek."

Noah Lyles, Kenny Bednarek and Fred Kerley all qualified for the U.S. in the 100 meters. Lyles leads the pack so far in both speed and personality; the 26-year-old has seized the spotlight to share his love for anime by pulling out a growing suite of Yu-Gi-Oh! trading cards from his suit after each round. 

Lyles will be doubling in Paris: He also won the 200-meter final at trials. But he’s not all-out celebrating until he gets gold.

"It’s like all right, great, I got the job done, I’m excited for it, let’s keep going, let’s keep pressing," he told reporters.

Noah Lyles celebrates after winning the men's 200-meter final during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
George Walker IV / AP
/
AP
Noah Lyles celebrates after winning the men's 200-meter final during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

In the 110 hurdles, Grant Holloway, Daniel Roberts and Freddie Crittenden made history. It was the first time ever that three men had crossed a 110-meter hurdles finish line in under 13 seconds.

There’s already talk among the trio of an Olympics podium sweep.

"I mean, we've already put it out there," Holloway told reporters after running his second-fastest time ever in Saturday’s final. "Speaking for myself, I think we're exactly where we need to be.”

The stylish shot put specialist Raven Saunders donned what they described as a day of the dead mask during their trials appearance.

"It's a way to show people that I'm back, that I never left," said Saunders, who identifies with they/them pronouns, after finishing second.

A fan favorite in Tokyo, the Olympics silver medalist was suspended last year after failing to show up for a few drug tests.

Saunders used the forced break to focus on themselves.

"I just really took it as more time to be able to get to the grind, more time to just focus on making this Olympic team more time to focus on my mental health," they said.

Chase Jackson, a shot-putter known for wearing elaborate eye makeup on the field and sharing her love of anime with Lyles, placed first ahead of Saunders. It's her first time making an Olympics team.

Chase Jackson competes in the women's shot put final during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
Charlie Neibergall / AP
/
AP
Chase Jackson competes in the women's shot put final during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

A big break

On Saturday night, Weini Kelati sprinted down the track in final stretch of the 10,000-meter women’s race, claiming the lead, losing it and then breaking into the lead a final time to win.

"I had to stay patient, because I knew I had that speed, I had that kick, because I’d been working on it," Kelati said, speaking to reporters after her victory.

It’s the latest chapter in the 27-year-old’s remarkable journey. In 2014, Kelati was at this same track competing for her native Eritrea, a country in east Africa. During the international competition, Kelati sought asylum, fleeing political turmoil in her country. A teenager at the time, she settled in the U.S. as a refugee, leaving family and friends. Ten years later, Kelati’s victory confirmed her place on the U.S. team for the summer Olympics.

Weini Kelati celebrates after winning the women's 10,000-meter final during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials Saturday in Eugene, Ore.
Charlie Neibergall / AP
/
AP
Weini Kelati celebrates after winning the women's 10,000-meter final during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials Saturday in Eugene, Ore.

"It’s crazy, I’m going to process it soon," she said. "Right now, I can’t believe it. I’m speechless."

Kelati says she’s proud to compete for her adopted country, but her family back home in Eritrea will also be rooting for her.

"They’re watching. Every time I race, wherever I go they follow me, they watch my race," she said. 

A heartbreak

One tumble in a single race cost Athing Mu her Olympics bid. A quarter of the way into the 800 meters, the defending gold medalist tripped and fell, ending her chances at making the U.S. team. Nia Akins won with a personal best time of 1:57.36. 

Athing Mu wins a heat in the women's 800-meter semi-final as Kate Grace and Michaela Rose collide during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Sunday in Eugene, Ore.
Charlie Neibergall / AP
/
AP
Athing Mu wins a heat in the women's 800-meter semi-final as Kate Grace and Michaela Rose collide during the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Team Trials on Sunday in Eugene, Ore.

"It’s tough to see, especially for someone like Athing, who you know could win a gold medal," 400-meter hurdler Rai Benjamin told NBC from the sideline Monday. "You feel for her, because she’s supposed to be there, you know? But that’s just USA Track and Field. It’s the hardest team to make and anything can happen here."

NPR's Brian Mann contributed to this story.

Copyright 2024 NPR