There are not many sporting events that are as simple and dramatic as the Olympic trials. Athletes either place in the top three and meet the Olympic qualifying mark, or they go home.
There are no polls, no computer rankings, no strength-of-schedule formula, no seven-game playoff series. It's one race to the finish, do or die. The prize: An opportunity to compete on the greatest stage in sports.
When the 11-day U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials begin Thursday at the University of Oregon's famed Hayward Field, at least nine athletes with Utah ties will be on the track, including four current or former collegiate champions.
To achieve the qualifying standards and arrive healthy and in peak condition for the trials is a feat in itself. Nobody knows this more than Weber State's Amber Henry. She has surpassed the stiff Olympic A standard in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, but injuries finally sidelined her. She broke her collarbone in the conference championships, but ran anyway in the NCAA region meet, where she won her heat but hyper-extended her knee. In the NCAA finals, she fell and dislocated her elbow, leaving her arm dangling at her side. Reaching down and resetting her elbow as she ran, she still managed an 11th-place finish.
"That's one tough girl, but all those injuries have caught up with her now," says Weber coach Jim Blaisdell.
She will not compete in Eugene.
It has been a banner school year for former Utah preps on the running scene — to wit: Shalaya Kipp (NCAA steeplechase champion), Nachelle Stewart Mackie (NCAA 800-meter champ), Miles Batty (collegiate record holder in the mile, NCAA runner-up), Luke Pudreksa (fourth place in the NCAA 10,000), Heidi McGill Dahl (a trials qualifier), and Chris Carter (All-America honors in the 400 hurdles).
They'll all be on the track at Eugene. Here's a look at the qualifiers in the Trials:
One day several years ago, Skyline High coach Tom Porter took Kipp aside and told her, "Someday you are going to be an NCAA champion." Kipp has done just that. A junior at the University of Colorado, she won the steeplechase at the recent NCAA championships. Heading into the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, she has the fourth-fastest time in the country and a realistic chance of making the Olympic team.
"It's kind of scary to think you actually do have a shot," she says. "I don't want to get overly excited, but I can definitely be up there."
Kipp was an alpine ski racer for 10 years before going off to college to try running fulltime. Reasoning that a ski racer would be fearless and durable in attacking wooden barriers and water jumps, Colorado coach Mark Wetmore suggested she try the steeplechase late in her freshman year. She placed fifth in the NCAA meet that year, then third the following year and first this year, giving Colorado five steeplechase titles in seven years.
Local track aficionados will remember the 6-foot-4 Puskedra. As a senior at Judge Memorial High in 2008, he became the fastest Utah prep ever in the distance races, running 4:05.17 for 1,600 meters and 8:43.36 for 3,200 meters. He went on to run for Oregon and was named Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year as a freshman. With his fourth-place finish in the 10,000-meter run at the NCAA meet, he closed his collegiate career as an 11-time All-American.
His PR in the 10,000 is 28:33.47. The Olympic A standard is 27:45.00. It's unlikely the Trials race will produce A standard times. As Puskedra noted, "Usually these races are tactical and slower."
After the Trials, Puskedra hopes to pick up a sponsor and run professionally. "I'd like to move toward the marathon in the next two years," he says. "I don't have the foot speed (for the 10K). To run at the world-class level, you have to be able to run a 53-second last lap."
In January, Puskedra made a great debut at the half-marathon distance, clocking 1:01:36 and placing fourth.
McAdams, the 2006 NCAA champ and 2007 and 2009 U.S. champ, placed third in the last Olympic Trials to make the U.S. team in Beijing (where he failed to make the final). While attending optometry school in Tennessee, he has finished fourth in the last two U.S. championships. For that reason, he is a forgotten man heading into the Trials — Track & Field News picks him to finish eighth. McAdams' coach, Ed Eyestone, thinks McAdams is going to surprise people.
"His training is going really well," says Eyestone. "I pity the guys who don't take him seriously. Heee's baaack."
NACHELLE (STEWART) MACKIE
Mackie has had a dream senior season at BYU, winning both the NCAA indoor and outdoor championships. Her best time is 2:01.06. She'll need to run 1:59 or better to make the team. She ran from the front in the NCAA meets; in the Trials, she can let others do the pace work and drag her to a sub-two-minute clocking.
Palmer, who placed third in the NCAA indoor championships, has dual U.S.-Canada citizenship, which gives her a backup plan. If she achieves the A standard at the U.S. trials, but fails to place in the top three to qualify for London, she will fly immediately to the Canadian trials. So far, only two Canadian women have met the A standard of 1:59.90. Even if she fails to place in the top three at the Canadian trials, she could punch her ticket to London based on time. She recently produced a PR of 2:01.40 in Canada.
HEIDI (MCGILL) DAHL
At Mountain View High, she set state records in the 400, 800 and 1,600. She continued her running career at BYU for two years before transferring to East Tennessee State, where her husband was in medical school. Now she's attempting to make the Olympic team. She has a lifetime best of 2:00.88, but she hasn't approached that time this year.
Batty finished second in the 1,500 at the NCAA championships, missing victory by .01 of a second. He also set a collegiate indoor record of 3:54.54 in the mile. He has not met the A standard, so if he hopes to make the team he'll have to produce it in the Trials. He has to hope someone will push the pace rather than settle for a dawdling pace and a last-lap kick.
"I have a shot," says Batty, "but at the same time it's been a long collegiate season. Nobody expects too much out of the collegians."
Carter was a prodigy as a true freshman at BYU in 2006, finishing third in the NCAA championships, running a PR of 49.19 (the ninth-fastest time in the U.S. that year) and winning the World Junior (19 and under) championships in Beijing.
But the early promise hasn't been realized. After serving a church mission, Carter has had many injury setbacks and has never returned to his freshman form. Early this month, he placed eighth in the NCAA championships and ran 50.08 — his best year since '06. He'll need to cut at least two more seconds or to have a shot at London.
JENNIFER (ROCKWELL) GROSSARTH
Grossarth, a two-time All-American during her BYU days, is making her third appearance in the Olympic Trials. Her best finish was 11th in 2008. She had her best season in 2010, placing fourth in the U.S. championships and ranking in the top 25 in the world. She sat out the 2011 season to have a baby, but has returned to competition this year.
BEEHIVE STATE'S OLYMPIC TRACK HOPEFULS
Name, event College/High school
Miles Batty, 1,500-meter run BYU/Jordan High
Chris Carter, 400-meter hurdles BYU/Roy High
Heidi Dahl, 800-meter run BYU/Mtn.View
Jennifer Grossarth, 400-meter hurdles (BYU/Tooele High)
Shalaya Kipp, 3,000-meter steeplechase Colorado/Skyline
Katie Palmer, 800-meter run BYU
Nachelle Mackie, 800-meter run BYU/Spanish Fork
Josh McAdams, 3,000-meter steeplechase BYU
Luke Puskedra, 10,000-meter run Oregon/Judge Memorial
NOTE: Three other Utah athletes are waiting to learn if they qualify to compete in the trials, depending on the final declarations and scratches of other athletes ranked ahead of them. Those athletes are: Victor Weirich (BYU) in the pole vault, Sarah Callister (Weber State/Ogden High) in the 10,000 meters, and Brett Hales (Weber State/Ogden High) in the steeplechase.
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