The Olympic Trials were televised on several platforms from July 1-10. I was able to watch the Trials most nights, after being at the Trials, in local restaurants or Wild Duck Cafe, the official meeting place for coaches, track nerds, athletes in Eugene.
We asked Jeff Benjamin to review a few of the nights of the TV broadcast, to give you, our readers, a little bit of analysis on the sport we love.
Day 4 on NBC – What the Track Gods Giveth….
By Jeff Benjamin
For a Fourth of July production, tonight’s NBC coverage of the Olympic Trials had plenty of later-on fireworks. As announcer Tom Hammond said in his opening remarks, it is “America’s day” a phrase which deeply epitomizes the essence and spirit of the Trials.
The pre- race previews focused on Ajee’ Wilson in the 800 final. “I think today’s the day she will assert dominance over the other American women and that will prepare her for Rio,” said Craig Masback. Once again from a respectful yet diametrical position to Masback,
Tim Hutchings focused on Brenda Martinez as his favorite.
Hammond cited (once again!) the differences of opinion between the 2 announcers, but sought consensus on the men’s 800 and Boris Berian, when he successfully got. “He is world champion”, echoed Hutchings to Masback’s statement on the overwhelming favorite.
It was then on to the Women’s Steeplechase heats with commentary on Courtney Frerichs late foray into the sport where Masback said that, “She only started running in her Senior year of High School” and Ashley Higginson, where Hutchings said, “At 27, she’s had a few near misses and I think that makes her hungry.”
As the race began Masback spoke of how he went for a run with Higginson earlier (“By the way, she ran very slowly so that I could keep up,” quipped the former 3:52 miler, but that was over 30 years ago!) and talked about how Higginson was going to give up the Sport after 2012, but after watching the London opening ceremonies and decided to give it another shot. She then reapplied to Rutgers Law School which she originally turned down, but was re-accepted back in. “The Dean wrote back and said “you’re lucky I’m a runner” and she was accepted into the program!”, said Masback.
Then, Todd Harris came in from the Pole Vault final where he mentioned favorite Sam Kendricks along with Jake Blankenship, and then viewers got to see the broken pole failure attempt of Joey Uhle on the opening height, where he was eliminated.
After the commercial break, the last 4 laps of the steeple heat were shown and at the bell Higginson, Frerichs, and Bridget Franek worked together with Franek winning the heat 9:39.91, leading all of them to qualify for Thursday’s final.
After a good replay of final hurdle jump both Masback and Hutchings continued lamenting the inclusion of so many qualifiers in the event, leading Hutchings to state that , “there’s not enough talent in depth to justify 3 separate heats…if there had been 2 there would have been a much more qualifying stage .”
Harris then chimed in showing PV Blakenship clearing the Pole Vault bar of 18′ 4 1/2″
The Women’s 2nd Steeple heat focused on Leah O’Connor and Colleen Quiqley. Quigley was a question mark for Hutchings as he mentioned that she had been injured this year, with Masback also mentioning her hamstring injury issues. “She was not able to start running until 6 weeks ago,” said Masback as the race progressed.
Cameras then went back to Harris as Jordan Scott with his red white and blue paint hair cleared 18 1/2 in his 3rd attempt to the Hayward crowd’s delight. Harris then said, “it’s got to be the hair!” leading Hammond to jokingly disagree that, “it’s the hair and the socks!”
After another commercial break it was deja vu all over again as the 2nd Steeple heat resembled the first, with 3 runners once again separating themselves. Hutchings then said that Quigley was, “the beneficiary of this group”, leading Masback to say that her presence was a, “huge surprise for me” given Quigley’s injuries and conditioning” Masback then did say how some of her off-track training was with teammate Emily Infeld who made the 5k team earlier, as Stephanie Garcia was leading O’Connor and Quigley in their pack.
After a quick first back to Harris, where Kendricks cleared 18′ 4 1/2″, it was back to the final lap with O’Connor, Garcia and Quigley. As those 3 crossed the finish, Masback said that, “I was impressed with O’Connor and Garcia in total control. This is going to be a great final and we haven’t even seen Emma Coburn who’s the favorite in her heat yet.”
There was then a big preview of Coburn, showing her American Record finish at the Prefintaine meet last month. As the race progressed Hutchings said that,” the USA is very very classy on the world scene with 2 of the 7 best times,” in the Steeple.
Coburn was already gapping runners into the first lap, where Hutchings then described herctechniqurexand strength. “She can jump with any leg so there’s no hesitation for her in the jumps”, he said.
There were then 3 laps to go after a commercial break with Coburn in the lead but easing up, prompting Hutchings to say, “Sometimes it’s harder to hold back,” and Masback saying that it, “creates nervous energy.”
On the final lap, Coburn pulled away finishing ahead of Megan Rolland and Shalaya Kipp. Jumping ahead to Rio, Masback then said, “I think we can expect a world record pace at the Olympics!” With Lewis Johnson after the race Coburn said that,”today was about getting through…..I made sure I was getting over every barrier… Thursday all or nothing.”
It was then into the Men’s first steeple heat with the announcers and camera focusing on Donn Cabral.
Masback called the 2012 Olympian “Steady…He’s always ready and is feared by the others for his consistency” Then it was in to Dan Huling who was 5th in the Workd Championships last year. As the gun went off, Masback said, “There’s only 2 heats so we’ll see some real racing here”. When Dylan Lafond took the lead, Hutchings praised the 8:32 Steepler for his move. “The world class times usually begin around 8:20 and it’s good to see someone young like Lafond take the lead”
Then NBC went to the Men’s Javelin, showing Oregon native Sam Crouser. Harris then mentioned Crouser’s family and NBC showed a chart of the “first family of throwing” which consisted of:
-Dean – Father-SP&Discus -3-time NCAA Champ
-Brian- Uncle-Javelin- 2-time Olympian
-Mitch-Uncle- Discus- 4th at 1984 Olympic Trials
-Ryan-Cousin- Shot Put- 2016 Trials Champ
Crouser then threw the Javelin 256′ 1″ for 2nd place in the event so far.
Back from commercials the Steeple heat returned with 600 to go and Cabral pushing it. “He’s very methodical” said Masback as he picked up the pace and crossed the line in 8:26.95, with Bayer and Stanley Kebenei behind him. But Masback then asked Hutchings hypothetically that “if knowing you had qualified already should you be sprinting in the front to the line” voicing concern of the use of too much energy in a qualifying race. While Hutchings said “absolutely not” that he wouldn’t sprint, he also said that with the 4 days in between the heat and Friday’s final that there was plenty of time in there to rest up.
It was then back to the Pole Vault, where Cale Simmons and Sam Kendricks both cleared 18′ 6 1/2″
Then it was in to the Steeple 2nd heat with the focus on Evan Jager where NBC replayed last year’s fall by Jager on the way to the American Record, just missing breaking 8 minutes. “He’s probably the only American record ever set with someone who was taking a roll like that in the last 50 meters!”, said Hutchings. As the race commenced, Masback then mentioned that unlike last year, “He’s run very little this season and will not race again until Rio”, all the while training at altitude.
Pole Vault competition then intervened once again quickly as Mark Hollis was eliminated at 18′ 6 1/2″.
Returning from commercials, NBC then did a good focus on Shot Put Champion Ryan Crouser, which was followed by Johnson interviewing Ryan sitting in the stands with his dad watching the Discus. “It’s a dream come true,” said Ryan which was echoed by Mitch.
With 2 laps to go in the Steeple Jager had assumed full control, leading Hutchings to say that, ” This is a stroll in the park for him”. While there were 2 falls over the last 2 barriers, it did not affect Jager in any way as he cruised through in 8:33.7 with Mason Ferluc and Army’s Hilary Bor in 2nd and 3rd.
Then there was a quick return to Simmons’ failed attempt 18′ 8 1/4″ but as Harris said, it didn’t truly matter because he was already on the team with Kendricks. Lewis Johnson then interviewed Jager, who said that, “the semifinal today was a all about running easy, conserving energy and getting into the final staying relaxed”
Back to the Pole Vault quickly where events showed Tray Oates not clearing 18′ 8 1/4″, thereby not making the Rio team.
It was then on to the men’s 5000 heats, where the first heat focused on Ben True and Ryan Hill, but a slow pace still had the field together with 5 laps to go.
Returning to the Pole Vault and the team already picked, Kendricks then attempt a meet record clearance but failed.
Back to the 5000, the group led Masback to state that the race looked like a “Mutual Suicide pact. If you’re a guy in this race who doesn’t have the strength to finish the last 4 laps in 4 minutes as Ryan Hill and Ben True can you’re basically saying that you’re not going to make the final here”. Emphasizing that the slower finishers should move hard now he focused on the current leader in the bunched group. “If I were leader Diego Estrada, I’d be pushing it a bit more.”
Masback then mentioned that while Estrada is a solid runner who’s good at 10k and ran in the marathon trials, his 13:17 5000 PR would not be enough to offset True, Hill and the others. ” He’s basically saying to himself that he’s not going to make the final”
Right at that moment True and Hill took the initiative, forcing the pace.
Harris then chimed in with the Men’s Javelin, as Cyrus Hostetler, who was in 4th, wowed Harris and the crowd with a throw of 273′-1″, moving him from 4th to 1st.
In the 5000 with 2 laps to go, everyone was still in it, prompting Hutchings to call the race, “A Lottery pick”.
After a quick return to Kendricks failed Pole Vault attempt of 19′ 4 3/4″, the last lap of the 5K showed Hill and True together leading the bunch until 200 to go, when Portland’s William Kincaid sprinted to the lead and win the heat in 13:47.85. Hutchings was not happy with the pace of the race. “You’re going to get athletes qualifying for the final who wouldn’t have if it would have been a more respectable race”
Masback also corrected himself. “Just to show you how right I was Diego Estrada got in there for a qualifying position…so he did the right thing for him”
When the last straightaway of the heat was replayed Masback, showing he had not list his sense of humor, quipped, “perhaps we can get Ato up here to analyze their form”, emphasizing how Hill looked very relaxed crossing the line to qualify as well.
After a commercial break where viewers returned to the 2nd heat of the 5000 with Galen Rupp, highlighted by a quick replay of his Friday night 10k victory. But once again, Hutchings was respectfully disagreeing with Rupp’s Olympic trial plans. “I wonder why he’s running the 5000, but I know Alberto would put up a real good reason to it,” he said referring to Coach Alberto Salazar.
Masback then said that he did ask Salazar, who said that this is part of his (Rupp’s) rest cycle. “This is what he lives to do,” said Masback. “He loves to race…He’s run 145 miles a week – he ran a little this morning and now he’s running 12 1/2 laps so it’s an easy day.”
But Hutchings couldn’t let go.
According to the Brit announcer, Rupp went from his Olympic Trials Marathon win and then shocked many by running screw weeks later at 3000meters at the World Indoor Champs in Oregon where he failed to run well. “With the marathon in Rio and running the 10k and 5k, what is the point of this?”, he said. Masback then counted that , “the World’s were in his hometown ….He likes to represent the US”.
The final comments came from Rupp himself as NBC interjected with a YouTube style video statement from Rupp. Defending his training and how he’s been feeling, Rupp concluded by saying, “I like the marathon, but I still feel I have some unfinished business in the 5000.”
NBC then listed in a chart the 10000/ Marathon Olympians who doubled at the same Games including Emil Zatopek, MalmÃ¶ Wolde, Billy Mills, Frank Shorter and Lasse Viren , although Wolde’s year was incorrectly listed at 1964 when it should have listed 1968.
Masback then mentioned Dan Browne who attempted both as well although the current Army coach didn’t medal in them.
Moving from Rupp, Hutchings then mentioned Bernard Lagat’s “astonishing” running at the age of 41 to be in this field. “I just hope he’s recovered from the 10000” said Hutchings, where he dropped out earlier.
After another commercial break the slow pace prompted Masback to say that, “Ten of these guys would have qualified in an honest race”, because of their previous performances.
Cameras quickly went to the failed attempt by Kendricks to set a new Meet record of 19′ 8 1/4″.
With 2 laps to go Rupp made a move in an almost mirror image of the first heat, but couldn’t hold the lead as the last lap sprint once again still had a large group in it. At 200 to go Erik Jenkjns made a bold move, but off the final turn it was Lagat who sizzled to the finish with a 53 second last lap. The only suspenseful question was if Rupo had held on to the last qualifying place or was he nipped at the tape? After a minute it was declared that Rupp had got it by 1/1000 of a second!
Lewis Johnson then asked Rupp if he felt a sense of relief. “I wanted that spot,” said Rupo. As to the question from Johnson reiterating Hutchjng’s view about all of these races, Rupp said, “I want to keep my options open and work on my speed.”
For the ageless wonder now in his 4th decade, Lagat emphasized how his dedicated Coach still makes him do all the bulk of speed work in training, leading him to say that, “my speed is still there.”
After the Commercial break NBC and Harris quickly showed the Pole Vault results with
Kendricks, Simmons in the top 2 while Cunningham beat out both Oates and Hollis for the coveted 3rd spot.
However, both to the hardcore and new fan the Javelin results shown on the screen were extremely confusing as places beyond 3rd place qualified for Rio based upon previous standards, although Hostetler win the event outright and made the team. Sam Crouser (4th) and Sean Furey (11th) made the team and, as Harris said,
“They have the standard”.
The evening’s final events were now ready, beginning with the Women’s 800. Once again Masback echoed his praise for Wilson. “She’s my favorite”, he said while once again reiterating that Martinez was Hutching’s pick.
As the gun sounded, Masback sounded like a prophet, saying, “This is a very,very tight race,” as Oregon’s Rodgers towed the right pack. But right after the 200, Alysia Mintano took off and brought the field through a very fast lap time of 57.45. But Masback noticed that Montano, although running quick, was adding more steps to her race. “She’s running on the outside of lane 1,” said Masback. “I’ve never seen that done before…if you’re leading you should try and run the shortest point.”
At 600 Martinez tried and bolted to the lead and then the fireworks happened as Martinez was tripped up and then Montano fell hard, and Kate Grace surprised just about everyone by coming off the turn and sprinting in for the win in 1:59.10, shocking even the announcers. As Masback was getting ready to finish his statement on Montano, in his view, causing the clipping Martinez, Hammond then took over as cameras went to Montano who, in great pain, finished the race.
Masback then commented on the replay of the tripping and falling showing
Martinez getting clipped, and while arguments will continue on about whose fault it was, viewers could no doubt agree with Masback who subsequently said,”Protests will be lodged though probably there was not a foul.”
The announcers then lamented the fate of Molly Ludlow, who finished 4th again, the same place as 4 years ago.
Postrace Masback then explained how Grace had the choice to either do the 1500 or the 800.”She told her coach that she had an intuition to do the 800 and her coach said I’m not going to argue with a woman’s intuition!” Said Masback. The results were real close as the TV chart showed Grace (1:59.10), Wilson (1:59.51), Williams (1:59.59) and
Ludlow (1:59.63) all breaking 2 minutes.
Johnson then got to Grace, who said, “it’s surreal- I’ve never podiumed in a national event… I’m in shock right now.”
Following the last commercial break came the Men’s 800 final, with the focus on Berian, although of Clayton Murphy, Masback said of the newly-turned pro, “he has one of the most exciting runs we’ve seen.”
As the race progressed with a fallout start accommodating the 9 finalists, Masback did say that, “I Wonder if the fall in the women’s final affected to mood of Berian for this race,” also stating that Brenda Martinez is the girlfriend of Berian’s coach. But at the bell lap of 50.5, Berian looked to be leading quite dominantly, even through the 600. But with 200, Masback got into the prophesizing business once again as Murphy started to make his move.
“Watch out for Clayton Murphy, he can finish like no one else in this race,” proclaimed Masback. And nobody could as Murphy glided pass Betian before the line, winning in 1:44.74, with Berian getting 2nd and Charles Jock 3rd.
Passing their 2-hour broadcast limit, the crew then went over the replay of the final turn.
“Berian went with what worked for him…you must remember he’s not as experienced in the event as others despite His performances, but Murphy used his 1500 strength,” said Masback. “This team has a shot at a medal.”
With time running out on the broadcast, Johnson must have been quite satisfied to get very short comments from the 3 finishers. “I’m amazed right now!”, said Murphy. “I have no words right now,” said Berian, with the lingers comments coming from Jock. “This is amazing…it’s a validation for me…I’m very happy.”
So were those of us watching here in television land, who once again observed that some are given, yet others were taken at the Olymouc Trials. Tonight did not disappoint in terms of drama and competition and NBC, to their credit was able to get all of it in their time window, thereby being of the “Giveth” quality.