Dreams come true at the U.S. Olympic trials, but many find only heartbreak

Story Highlights

  • At age 39, Justin Gatlin fell short of his bid to make Olympic team in 100 meters
  • Donavan Brazier shockingly finished last in the 800-meter final
  • Three-time Olympian Jenny Simpson was 10th in the women's 1,500

EUGENE, Ore. — Justin Gatlin stared off into space during a post-race news conference Sunday night, fighting back tears as the finality of the moment sank in.

For the better part of four years, the 39-year-old Gatlin ran, ate, lifted and trained with the Tokyo Olympics in the back of his mind. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and four years became five. The U.S. Olympic track and field trials were the culmination of all that work, and all of that waiting.

And then, in less than 11 seconds, it was over.

Gatlin, a three-time Olympian, aggravated a hamstring injury in the men's 100-meter final Sunday and limped across the finish line in last place in what will almost certainly be his final appearance at the Olympic trials.

"It’s a very rare opportunity," Gatlin said through tears, "that you are witnessing something you’re going to do for the last time, when you’re doing it."

Former Duck Cravon Gillespie sits on the track while the winners of the men's 100 meter dash are interviewed on TV during the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene. (Photo: Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard)

The spotlight at the ongoing track and field trials has largely been on the triumphant, feel-good moments – from Ryan Crouser's world record, to Allyson's Felix making her fifth Olympic team, to Sha'Carri Richardson running into the stands at Hayward Field to hug her grandmother.

Yet for every athlete whose competition ends with an bouquet of flowers and a victory lap, there are at least a dozen others who are left to quietly reckon with failure – watching their dreams vanish in a matter of seconds, minutes, inches or feet.

"Our sport is so unforgiving," said 400-meter hurdler Rai Benjamin, who will compete later this week. "Nobody really cares about what you ran before, or what you’re running after. It’s achieving it and doing it and getting things done in this moment right here."

There's a unique brand of heartbreak that comes with the Olympic trials, particularly this year, after an additional year of training during the pandemic.

While athletes in other professional sports can always look ahead to next year, Olympic athletes have a much longer wait – and significantly higher stakes. National and world championships matter, but success in their sports is ultimately defined by Olympic medals. And in U.S. track and field, Olympic teams are not selected by a committee or determined by performances over time. It all comes down to one meet.

"Victory doesn’t belong to you," men's pole vaulter Sam Kendricks said. "It’s easy to look at statistics and say ‘this guy is likely to win, I’m going to put my money on him.’ And that’s fun. That’s fun to look at the sport in a broad spectrum like this. But we’re the pieces on the board. We’re the mercenaries and the gladiators in the pit. We have to make it work and happen."

The qualifying format means that years of hard work – and even world titles or record-setting performances can be undone in a single race. 

Take Donavan Brazier, the reigning world champion at 800 meters who shockingly finished last in the final to miss the Olympic team. Or high-school sprinter Jaylen Slade, who appeared to trip in his preliminary heat. Or middle-distance runner Jenny Simpson, a three-time Olympian and favorite to make this year's team before she finished 10th in the 1500-meter final Monday.

"Maybe it’s hard for some athletes to admit or say this out loud, but the sport goes on without you," Simpson said. "You don’t make the Games, and the Games go on. And they’re fine without you."

When asked about her plans for the coming months, Simpson said she wasn't sure. She hadn't checked if there are other races being held. She hadn't even considered the possibility that she wouldn't be in Tokyo this summer.

The same is true for Gatlin. He had spoken about the 2021 Olympics being his swan song, a chance for his youngest son to see Dad compete at the Games before he retired. So when he came up lame in the final, it wasn't just the end of his competition, but of his Olympic career.

"One thing y’all got to realize is that – not just myself, but any athlete across the board … we put our heart, our blood, sweat and tears into this moment," Gatlin said. "Some of them last for three jumps, three throws. Some of them last for nine seconds. Some of them last for five (minutes), two laps. But you’ve got to realize that the performance we all put out there as athletes, it’s our heart."

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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