For one brief, ironic moment, it appeared Henry Marsh's star-crossed track and field career had come to a premature and sudden end Wednesday night in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. With some 200 meters to go in his semifinal heat of the 3,000-meter steeplechase, Marsh fell in heavy traffic and crashed hard to the track.
As Marsh went down, the crowd of 11,000 gasped in unison, knowing full well that the American record holder was in serious trouble. Only the top six in each semifinal heat, plus the next two fastest times overall, would advance to Friday night's final; Marsh now found himself in ninth place.
"I panicked," said Marsh. "With 200 meters to go everyone had started kicking."
With surprising quickness, Marsh, 34 years old and nearing retirement, jumped to his feet and into a full sprint. He passed one rival on the turn, another on the water jump, another on the homestretch and pulled even with three others at the finish. When all was sorted out, he had placed sixth with a time of 8:31.33.
"I was scared; there was no time to lie on the ground and complain about it," said Marsh, who required stitches for a small cut on his hand.
Thus, there was another narrow escape. Only minutes earlier, Doug Padilla, Marsh's training partner and another Utah resident, finished a distant _ but premeditated _ seventh in his first-round heat of the 5,000-meter run (with a pedestrian time of 14:25.82). That was just enough to advance him to tonight's semifinals.
Earlier in the evening, Julie Jenkins, still another BYU grad, had to use a strong homestretch kick to place third in her first-round heat of the 1,500-meter run (with a time of 4:14.87). That was enough to advance her to tonight's semifinals.
Alas, not everyone survived Wednesday's heats. Steve Chipman and Ted Mecham, two more BYU athletes, were eliminated in the semifinals of the steeplechase. Chipman placed 13th in his heat with a time of 8:58.39; Mecham was 11th in 8:41.36.
In the meantime, Heinz Hinrichs, a former University of Utah student-athlete, was in 14th place heading into today's final day of the decathlon competition.
For Marsh, who has said he will retire after the Olympic trials or the Olympic Games, whichever must comes first, it seemed sadly fitting that he should wind up sprawled on the track in what could have been his final race. After all, his career has been marked by a series of spills and ills and just plain bad luck in championship meets. This year has been especially precarious for Marsh, who, by his own admission, isn't as fit as he has been in years past. That might explain why he has fallen in nearly all of his races this year.
Marsh steered clear of trouble for five laps of Wednesday's semifinals, running in the back of the pack, but then he worked his way up into the pack for the gun lap. As he hurdled the barrier on the backstretch, he was sandwiched by two other runners. The collided momentarily and Marsh went down, landing hard on his right hand and left knee.
"The thing I kept thinking about as I ran the last 200 meters was that I was expending a lot more energy than I wanted to," said Marsh. "My whole goal is to get through the heats using as little energy as possible."
After the race, Marsh blamed his fall on meet officials for their seeding of the heats. Marsh's heat was stacked with the likes Brian Diemer and Marsh (two Olympic finalists), Brian Abshire, Bret Hyde and Jim Cooper, while the other heat was soft. "It was a joke," said Marsh. "The whole World Championships team was in one heat. We had to run a lot harder than the second heat . . . That's why I fell. There were too many good runners all bunched together." Indeed, the top nine placers of Marsh's heat (headed by Diemer's 8:30.52) had faster times than the winner of the second heat (Ivan Huff, 8:38.84).
Padilla was also none too happy with the heats in his race. Because of scratches, only 26 athletes turned up for the first round of the 5,000, which meant only two runners would not advance to the semifinals. "It's stupid," said Padilla. "But they (meet officials) want it to follow the Olympic schedule."
Only Padilla seemed to realize all this as he dawdled through the first round. He lagged behind the field by some 25 meters, along with one other runner, while his coach, Sherald James, and others shouted at him to catch up. "It's OK," said Padilla as he ran past James. One lap later, he looked at James again and gave him the thumbs-up sign. Padilla finished 14 seconds behind the leaders, but outsprinted his one rival to guarantee a spot in the final. "Why should I run hard?" asked Padilla. "We've got two more rounds to go."
For her part, Jenkins didn't have the luxury of loafing in her heat. She had to run a personal record to advance, but, then again, she has run the 1,500 only a handful of times, the last time being a year ago. She decided to enter the race only after her disappointing fifth-place finish in Monday's 800 final. Jenkins ran under control throughout Wednesday's race and produced the fourth fastest time out of the four heats. Said Jenkins, "I've got nothing to lose."