EUGENE, Ore. – The rooms in Tokyo practically bore their names.
Instead, others will take the seats that were almost reserved for the two American track champions Jenny Simpson and Donavan Brazier.
The cold realities of the US Olympic qualification raised their ugly heads during track and field tests on Monday. In a format where records and résumés mean nothing and only the top three get a place in each event, Simpson and Brazier stayed too short.
“There are things champions overcome. I couldn’t overcome them,” said Brazier, the 800 meter world champion, after finishing last in that race, more than 4 seconds behind winner Clayton Murphy.
“It’s hard to believe,” said Simpson, a former world champion whose tenth place over 1,500 meters, well behind winner Elle Purrier St. Pierre, stunned the crowd just moments before.
They weren’t exactly superstars, and no massive advertising campaigns were built around them, a la Dan O’Brien, whose flop in the decathlon at the 1992 trials is considered perhaps the most breathtaking “sure thing” that won’t happen in the US Tries.
Still, they were favorites at their events – if not to win, then at least to finish in the top three and head to Tokyo next month.
Simpson, who took bronze in Rio and became the first American to win an Olympic medal in the 1500s, was almost done before she started. At the beginning there was a heavy crush that threw five or six runners out of step.
“Nobody went down,” she said. “Maybe they should have called the race back. That was extreme.”
Brazier prides itself on entering the 800 without a specific game plan and spontaneously improvising. This time it backfired. The pace was increased. Brazier tried to keep up and he didn’t have his usual kick at the finish. He knew after about 200 meters that it was not his day. Instead, it belonged to Murphy, who will get the chance to add the bronze he won in Rio five years ago.
“I could win from the front. I could win from the back. I don’t know if it was just overconfidence going into the race because I thought I could do what the hell I want and come out successful.” “Said Brazier. “Maybe the missing race plan caught me.”
On other days, Chris Nilsen’s surprise at the two-time world champion Sam Kendricks in the pole vault would have made headlines. However, Kendricks travels to Tokyo thanks to a second place that didn’t exactly meet his expectations. But still good enough.
“This will go down in history as the toughest team ever,” he said.
Two-time Olympic silver medalist Will Claye did the expected and won the triple jump, while the women’s 5,000s was largely a straightforward affair, beaten by Elise Cranny in 15 minutes and 27.81 seconds.
“During the warm-up we went to ice baths and I kept my body temperature as low as possible,” said Rachel Schneider, who came third over the 5 km. “Besides, we just said, be tough and don’t worry, everyone is dealing with the same heat.”
Maybe Jordan Mann coped with it best. The obstacle runner missed a step and fell into the water pit during the heats. He finished twelfth, but at least he got some relief.
At the start of the race it was 94 degrees and the sun warmed the track to well over 100 degrees.
“The heat makes it difficult out there,” said Claye. “You don’t want to blow a seal out there.”
Simpson insisted the heat wasn’t a factor in their race. Obviously, it wasn’t for the winner either. Purrier St. Pierre, the 25-year-old who grew up on a Vermont dairy farm, overcame the early crush inside and just sprinted forward and didn’t look back. She finished the race in 3: 58.03, a trial record.
“It happened so quickly and your plan is changing,” she said. “You always have a few different plans in mind. It was never to lead the whole thing.”
She isn’t the only one staring at a different kind of future on Monday.
“It will be shocking to see the Olympics on TV,” said Simpson. “It may be difficult for athletes to admit it or say it out loud, but the sport goes on without you.”