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Gristmill: On the Oval

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 08:23
Before the fall: A screen shot shows Athing Mu third from left in the 800 meters final at the Olympic Trials in Oregon.
NBC Sports

It was a disaster. One of the more spectacular wipeouts in recent television history. No, not President Biden’s debate performance, I’m referring to Athing Mu’s tumble to the track less than halfway through the 800 meters at the Olympic Trials out in Eugene, Ore.

Clipped in the middle of a pack of runners a touch too close for comfort, a stumble, and down. It’s a track athlete’s worst nightmare, and now the defending gold medalist won’t be going to the Paris Games this summer.

Understandably, last week there were renewed calls for changing the uncompromising way the U.S. Olympic team is decided. Don’t finish in the top three? You’re S.O.L. (Er, short on luck.) Whatever you may have accomplished during the entirety of the season, or your career, for that matter, goes for naught.

But provisions could conceivably be made to, say, send on just the top two automatically, with a discretionary third spot filled by committee vote. Or something. On merit. In case of disaster.

The widespread pang of disappointment with Athing Mu had to do with her stardom, naturally — the youngest track-and-field gold medalist, youngest world champ (2022), third at worlds last year, and the American record holder in the 800, in 1:54.97. (Three women have run faster — all from the Communist Bloc and all between 1976 and 1983, the height of the doping era.)

What’s more, the 5-foot-10 New Jersey native, born to Sudanese parents, has about her the regal bearing of a Maasai warrior. And so, the fan base.

It was a dramatic and in some instances record-setting Olympic Trials, a new wrinkle being the strong showing from Division III college programs — the real student-athletes, in other words, those without athletic scholarships. 

Take Sam Blaskowski, a sprinter from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse who sounds like he belongs in the backfield of the 1936 Chicago Bears, and looks like it, too, from the blond head to the tree-trunk thighs. He made it as far as the semifinals in the 200 meters.

And as of Sunday, the number-six high-jumper in the country, per the Trials, is Kyle Rollins, a two-time Division III national champion out of St. John Fisher, an idyllic little campus outside Rochester. He’s now one of the coaches at SUNY Geneseo, a fine program indeed that had a fairly recent grad and former D-III champ, Alexa Wandy, in the women’s triple-jump competition in Eugene.

It was a good run, lady and gents. Better than good — elite.


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