16th IAAF World Indoor Championships / Day Three, m4 x 400: The Battle For Bragging Rights

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The 4x400 meter heats were the focus of Dave Hunter for Day three. Here is his column on the US men's team....

Feeney_Patrick4x4Q-Worlds16.JPgPatrick Feeney, 4x400m, photo by PhotoRun.net

16th IAAF World Indoor Championships / Day Three

m4 x 400: The Battle For Bragging Rights

March 19th, 2016
Portland, Oregon

Track & field is essentially an individual sport where finely-tuned, driven athletes pursue individual records and honors. True enough, global championships such as these of course have a team component where countries strive to accumulate an overall medal count of which they will be proud. But, in reality, national medal counts are an aggregation of the medal-worthy performances of their individual countrymen and countrywomen.

But there is an exception to the usually-solitary pursuit of track and field greatness. The relays. Especially the granddaddy show-closer: the 4 x 400m. When 4 individual athletes combine to create a racing quartet for their country, the relay mates - who normally warily view each other as their rivals in the individual competitions - are suddenly galvanized by a common purpose: win that medal, preferably a golden one!

And when the foursome is comprised of American men racing the 4x4, there is an additional element of bonding. Just ask any quarter miler who's ever had a global 400 meter carry for the Red, White, and Blue, and he'll tell you: "The only medal is the gold medal. Lose this event? The United States doesn't lose the men's 4x4. We own this event!"

This morning session's concluding event was the first round of the men's 4 x 400 meter relay with the 6 fastest teams advancing to Sunday's final. In these global competitions, top contenders try to find the right balance: send a little message to the other nations while not showing too much of the hand they'll play in the final. In heat one, the Belgium quartet - with 3 Borlee brothers in the lineup - cruised to an easy 3:07.39 win when brother Kevin held off the Bahamas [3:07.55] and anchor Chris Brown on the final leg. In the second and final heat, Team USA took on Nigeria and Jamaica. Young Alvion Bailey led off for the Red, White, and Blue with a 46.7 to give the US a slight lead as he handed off to Calvin Smith who pushed out the US advantage with a 46.1 leg. Running third, Chris Giesting turned in the best American split of the morning - 45.7 - to give his teammate Patrick Feeney a comfortable lead for his anchor duty. Unchallenged, Feeney - who will long be remembered for his memorable 2015 Penn Relays "USA v. America" anchor leg which turned back a powerful Jamaican quartet for the win the very first time Feeney donned a USA singlet - ran an effective, albeit conservative, 46.9 for a stress-free win for Team USA [3:05.41].

The animated foursome spoke freely in the mixed zone. Inspired, not pressured, is how Bailey sees the current 400 meter athletes who face the challenge and the responsibility of carrying on America's dominating heritage in this event. "There is not necessarily any pressure. We just want to be great," declared today's lead-off runner. "The history of the 4x4 of the U.S. is so big and goes so deep. And we have respect for it. I'm just trying to find my place and state my name. That is really just what I'm trying to do. There's really no pressure especially when we've got people like Calvin, Chris, and Feeney. It makes it a lot easier when you know they've got your back."

Smith - the 28 year old veteran on this morning's U.S. 4x4 squad - shared his views on the role of this opening round and what Team USA hoped to accomplish. "We just wanted to go out there and win and [like a killer stage performer] just kind of drop the baton. That makes everybody else say, 'Them boys really hit and run.' I think we accomplished that today and we've got more to come in the finals."

One of the larger challenges facing all 4x4 finalists is determining whether or not any last minute tinkering should be implemented before Sunday's final. Should a personnel change be considered? Should a fresh athlete from the relay pool be substituted? Should the lineup order be reshuffled? Former Notre Dame star Giesting offered his views. "We don't know yet. We're going to talk about it tonight after this race and see who's healthy, who's ready to go. And whatever four it is, I know they're going to give it their all and bring home the gold for the USA."

Feeney - Giesting's former teammate at South Bend - cites his USATF debut last spring at Franklin Field as solidifying his confidence for similar challenging assignments. "I know it was great that USATF had the confidence in me to anchor at Penn Relays last year. I was real nervous going into it, but I knew this was my first opportunity and I didn't want to let them down. That helped carry me through. And then I found out I was anchor today, and I was pumped again. So I knew these three guys were going to give me a lead and sort of bring it home and get us to that final tomorrow. The main thing is just getting to that final with the top time." Mission accomplished.

Before the US quartet left to rest up for Sunday's final, the group fielded one last inquiry. Which finals team is their biggest concern? Tentative teammates hesitated, until the seasoned Smith - perhaps hinting that self-inflicted wounds must be avoided - blurted, "The USA!" Added Feeney, "If we go out and do what we need to do, I think it's going to be a good race for sure. But we're going to do whatever it takes to bring home the gold."

Can this new generation of American long sprinters add luster to the U.S. legacy in the event that American track and field considers as its very own?

This evening, we find out.

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