It was a 12-day mini-Olympics, a stretch ending July 1 that delighted us with the overlapping U.S. trials for track and field, swimming and gymnastics. Out of these 12 days of Christmas-in-summer came the rosters for perhaps the three most high-profile sports at the Games.
We were served heaping helpings of high-end performance, along with dollops of drama. On the track, there was a world record by decathlete Ashton Eaton and a world of confusion over solving the dead heat for third place in the women’s 100 meters that ended with less than a whimper: a called-off runoff.
In the pool, Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte walked the fine (rope) line between teammates and rivals, each qualifying in five events — three of them with each other. Missy Franklin, 17, announced herself — time and again — as the latest It Girl, scoring in four events. Many swimsuited war horses fought the good fight, most of them unsuccessfully. An amazing exception was Anthony Ervin, 31, who scored in the 50-meter freestyle nine years after retirement.
On the mats, where a significant changing of the guard is commonplace, the breakout star was Gabby Douglas, 16, known for her charming nickname (“Flying Squirrel”). Emerging as the leading man was Danell Leyva, noted for his birthplace– Cuba. It would not be a gymnastic trials without tears for missed routines, and nothing turned on the faucets more than Nastia Liukin’s unfortunate face-plant that took her out of contention.
With the clocks — London’s Big Ben, especially — ticking down the seconds to the opening ceremony, those three U.S. teams have turned the page. The happy trials are behind them. Next?
TRACK AND FIELD: “Project 30″ was the ambitious name assigned to the U.S. federation’s report after the Beijing Games, the number indicating a goal for medals won. Thirty might be out of reach, though sprinters could get the Americans close, beginning with 400-meter aces Sanya Richards-Ross and LaShawn Merritt. Allyson Felix is favored in the 200, while Aries Merritt (110 hurdles), Brittney Reese (long jump), Christian Taylor (triple jump), Reese Hoffa (shot put) and Eaton also registered the world’s best results in their events so far at the Trials. Galen Rupp pulled off a rare double (5,000 and 10,000) and 100-meter man Justin Gatlin is back after overcoming the rare double of drug suspension and frost-bite injury.
SWIMMING: Call it taking one for the team. After the Trials, Phelps reduced his workload by scratching off the 200-meter freestyle from his list, in part to stay rested for the 400 free relay. There will be no repeat to the eight golds in Beijing, but he would settle for seven. Lochte will have some say about Phelps’ total and now looms as the 200 free favorite. Franklin will cope with continued out-of-breathness, juggling two backstroke events, two freestyles and three relays. Allison Schmitt could wrap herself in gold by winning the 200 and 400 free, as well as two relays. Reason for worry: No world records were lowered at the Trials, though Phelps and Lochte kept some gas in the tank.
GYMNASTICS: Jordyn Wieber, the world all-around queen, was outpointed by Ms. Squirrel. The federation is taking a half-glass-full approach, hoping Douglas and Wieber can go gold-silver, in either order. Starved for a team gold — the last came in ’96 — authorities aimed for versatility in the selection process. Girls who can handle every apparatus got an edge over the specialists,. An exception was McKayla Maroney, master of the vault. There are no holdovers from 2008. For the guys, Beijing medalist Jonathan Horton can play big brother to Leyva and John Orozco, co-standouts at the trials. One concern involves Sam Mikulak, who sprained his ankle on opening night but was chosen nonetheless. He would be replaced if the healing process lags. With the Olympics, time waits for no one.