With still three laps to go in the 5,000-meter run at Saturday's U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Doug Padilla looked over his shoulder to check the competition - and liked what he saw. Nothing. No one was within 15 meters of him and the gap was widening, as he ran briskly on the heels of Terry Brahm and Sydney Maree. "You've done it!" shouted Henry Marsh, Padilla's training partner, from the stands. "You're on the team!"
But there was more. With 250 meters to go, Padilla shot past Brahm and moved into the lead. Brahm, who had twice run down Padilla in races earlier this year, responded and stayed close on the turn, but there would be no catching him this time. As Padilla hit the homestretch, he accelerated again, lifting into his long, light-footed stride, and pulled away to win the Olympic trials for the second consecutive time.For the record, Padilla clocked 13:37.86. Brahm was second in 13:40.08, and Maree, the American record holder in both the 5,000 and 1,500, was third in 13:44.71. On a day of upsets, this was the threesome most had expected to make the Olympic team in the 5,000. As John Gregorek, the 14th-place finisher, told Padilla afterward, "Its a good team; it's the best one."
As Padilla crossed the finish line, he raised his arms in triumph, then threw his head back, closed his eyes and dropped his hands to his forehead, a picture of relief, joy and pain. He jogged around the turn, waving a small American flag, but even before he could reach his family's small cheering section Marsh jumped out of the stands and hugged him on the track (just as Padilla had hugged him the previous night following Marsh's second-place finish in the steeplechase). Padilla then jogged over to the stands to hug his wife, Lynette, and his coach, Sherald James, before taking the traditional victory lap with the other two top finishers.
"That was the hardest race of my life," said Padilla. "You just can't imagine the pressure of the trials. This is such a relief."
Especially for a man whose career has taken a drastic nosedive in recent years. Cursed with allergies, Padilla has claimed only three major victories at 5,000 meters since 1985 while dropping out of the world rankings and surrendering his ranking as the No. 1 American. He had lost both of his 5,000-meter races this year to Brahm, and, in his last outing, could do no better than third place in a two-mile race, his best distance. Privately, many close observers were saying, "I'm worried about Doug."
James was concerned, too, but he remained hopeful. "Doug responds to emotion better than anyone I know," he said. "When he gets out on the track and hears the crowd, something happens."
And it did. As Padilla's confidence has sagged in recent years, so has his pace in the middle of his races, and thus he often loses contact with the pack, rendering his considerable finishing kick useless. But on this day, Padilla responded to the pack's every move, and willed himself to maintain contact. When Mark Nenow dragged a reluctant field through the first two laps in 66 and seconds, respectively, Padilla was there, following closely in the middle of the pack. Maree took the lead on the third lap and slowed the pace to 70 seconds - "That helped me," said Padilla. "I needed a breather" - but then Keith Brantley took the lead from Maree and pushed the next lap to 64 seconds. Still, Padilla followed, moving up a place, into seventh.
Seeing this, Olympic marathoner Ed Eyestone, a friend of Padilla's who was watching from the stands, was sure it was a good sign. "He's going to make the team. He's running strong. Anyway, he has no alternative. Henry and I have already made it."
Padilla looked strong and easy, but privately he was fighting to convince himself to maintain contact. "I was hurting," he would say. "There was all that pressure, plus there was the heat and trying to stay with the pace. They kept surging, so I could never get comfortable."
Still, Padilla gamely tagged along with the leaders as a pack of eight pulled away from the rest of the field, towed by Nenow. They hit two miles in 8:46, and now it was a waiting game. Who would move, and when? With three laps to go, it was Maree. He swung wide and moved into the lead and Brahm and Padilla quickly followed, and suddenly the Olympic team had been chosen. They stayed that way until Brahm moved around Maree with 500 meters to go. Again, Padilla followed. "I was relieved with one lap to go," said Padilla. "I knew I had made the team." At the sound of the bell, Padilla moved to Brahm's shoulder and stayed there until the middle of the backstretch, and then he was gone.
"He looked like the old Doug," said Lynette Padilla, smiling broadly. "I don't think it's really sunk in yet. It's been really hard the last couple of years."
Marsh's wife, Suzi, had said much the same thing while watching her husband's race the previous night, and indeed, at least for one race each, they were the Marsh and Padilla of old.
Curiously, the careers of Padilla and Marsh have been remarkably similar. Both won the '84 Olympic trials, both made the Olympic Games finals, both peaked in 1985, losing just one race and ranking among the top two in the world, and both have slumped since then as a result of illness. Yet both managed to make the Olympic team.
"I think it shows that when Doug and Henry are healthy, they are among the best in the world," said James. "Not only is the old Padilla back, but I promise you, he's going to be better than ever and do some great things. Now we've got time to do some background work."
Looking ahead to the Olympic Games, Padilla knows he must run faster, and, in truth, he has lingering doubts that he can handle a faster pace. But in some ways, he was saying, his toughest test is behind him. "The Olympics is not as difficult as this," he said. "There is more pressure to make the team."