2013 World Outdoor Track & Field Championships / Moscow Notebook
m4 x 400 Relay: Protecting USA’s Turf
August 16, 2013
Over the years, a country’s presence in any particular track & field event is subject to ebbs and flows. A nation may experience an era of greatness in one discipline that may then be followed by a barren period where little talent is effectively cultivated. The United States has had a heritage of superiority in, for example, the men’s long jump. But recently American men long jumpers have had their struggles placing well in this event on the world stage. No worries. The long jumper tide will ultimately come back in for America and the U.S. will – over time – recapture its former position of event strength here. It is all part of the natural rhythm of our sport.
But there is one exception: the men’s 4 x 400 relay. The United States owns this event. It always has. America seems to take a special pride in the long relay – viewing it as its own, and slavishly protecting U.S. dominance in this event from assaults launched by would-be challenger nations upon this distinctly-American throne.
The United States cherishes and protects the men’s 4 x 400 relay in much the same way the Kenyans guard the steeplechase or the Scandinavians consider the javelin to be their own special province. Consider this: in the 13 previous world championships, when – and this is key – the U.S. has not dropped the stick or otherwise been disqualified, the United States has been denied the men’s 4 x 400 gold medal only twice. It has been more than two decades since the American men have lost the 4 x 400 world championship race other than through a self-inflicted wound.
In the first round of the m4 x 400 at these championships, it was simply another day at the office for the U.S. The American coaching brain trust wisely gave the U.S. 400 medalists LaShawn Merritt and Tony McQuay – all dressed up for their medal ceremony – the night off – as the B team was sent out to do their job. And the quartet of James Harris, David Verburg, Joshua Mance, and Arman Hall got it done. Killing hope early, the U.S. foursome got out strong and never was headed, edging Trindad and Tobago to win their heat in 2:59.85 – the night’s fastest qualifying time and the world leading mark.
Post-race, the American squad exuded a quiet confidence. “It felt real good,” said leadoff man James Harris. Second leg runner David Verburg knew his role was crucial. “My goal was just to get out, make the cut-in, and make sure I got my team in good position. I knew we had two world-class sprinters following up. So my goal was just to get around, stay healthy, and hope I spun a fast time.” Josh Mance kept it rolling. “My leg was good,” offered Mance. “I knew the Trinidad guy was going to come on. I got the stick to Arman first – and that was the goal. I am happy with today’s race.” Teenage anchor Arman Hall – the youngest man on the U.S. team – is on a mission. “I kinda messed up in the second round of the 400,” confessed Hall. “I wish I could have made it to the finals. So I knew in the relay I have to lay it all out. I’ve got to redeem myself and do the same thing in final – just give it to LaShawn – or whoever I pass it to – in a great position.”
But the other finalists are not simply going to hand over the gold to the Americans. At least 5 other nations have designs on the title. “I just wanted to come out here and make sure we posted a good time for our team. We are coming out here to pick up another medal,” states Conrad Williams, leadoff runner for Great Britain, an automatic qualifier to Friday’s final. “We always know that Jamaica’s gonna be a very good team. Trinidad has a good team as does Belgium and the USA. So, there are 5 teams there. But we feel strong enough because at the moment they are looking at us as one of the main contenders for the top three,” notes the Brit. “We came out here to medal. We didn’t come out here just to have a run. So we are trying to make sure we are going to dominate the race tomorrow and be well into the mix to try to pick up another medal.”
Belgium -with three Borlee brothers on board – will be a force in the final. And always-dangerous Jamaica is strong once again. A surprise leg by Mr. Bolt is part of everyone’s dream sequence, but it almost certainly won’t happen.
On paper, the USA would appear to be the overwhelming favorite to extend its dominance and once again grab the gold. The U.S. squad – which will be fortified with the substitution in of rested 400 medalists McQuay and Merritt – should really cook in the final. While the 20-year old world and championship record – an other-worldly 2:54.29 posted by a Michael Johnson-led quartet in Stuttgart – will not be threatened, the US finals foursome should have the horses to win the event and post a truly stunning time. But they don’t award championship medals based upon the form sheet. You have to earn it on the track. And in that regard, the biggest threat to continued American dominance in the men’s 4 x 400 relay may be the team itself. It’s all about execution. Disaster must be averted. No sloppy exchanges. Don’t bruise that baton. Stay focused. Get that stick around.
There is always speculation about who will run what legs in the final. This championship meet is no exception. Although prodded to so, Hall would offer no hints. “You’ll just have to wait until tomorrow,” the young quarter-miler coyly teased. However the U.S. stacks its lineup for the final, it will be important that the foursome have all the right ingredients: the quick-starting lead-off man who can position the team in front; the speedy second leg runner who can scamper to the break line, grab the pole, and slam the door; the unflappable third runner who can set up the anchorman; and – of course – the crafty and ferocious closer who can seal the deal. Getting the right mixture here is critical. And the U.S. coaches will need to choose carefully to assemble a squad that has the right blend of all of these characteristics. But perhaps more important than all of this, it is imperative that the U.S. assemble a quartet that possesses superior and unshakable hand/eye coordination.