Timing Is Everything: Chasing The Olympic “A” Standard

Dathan Ritzenhein blesses himself after finishing third in the 10,000m final last Friday under the Olympic "A" standard of 27:45.00. Photo: PhotoRun.net

For some Olympic hopefuls, a tactical race just won’t cut it.  

Timing is everything in track and field. Because there is a narrower window of time between the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games this year, athletes must already have the IAAF Olympic “A” standard for their event in their back pockets, or they must hit that mark (in addition to a top-3 finish) in their respective event at these Trials. It’s do or die — there’s no “chasing” the standard after the Trials, as has been possible in previous Olympic cycles.

“This time, the Olympic Games are earlier than in the past,” said USATF official Jim Estes. “Our entries are due to the U.S. Olympic Committee on July 3rd, literally one day after the last event at the Trials. It was a matter of timing.”

While the U.S. Olympic Track Trials have always been held in late June, this year, track events in London start on August 3rd, leaving barely a month of breathing room. In 2008, the Games started on August 8th, and in 2004, opening ceremonies were on August 13th.

The ramifications of this change became apparent on the very first day of competition, when fourth-place Lisa Uhl and seventh-place Janet Cherobon-Bawcom ended up on the 10,000-meter team because they already held the “A” standard that the second-, fifth-  and sixth-place finishers lacked (third-place finisher Shalane Flanagan has elected to focus solely on the marathon in London and gave up her spot).

Similarly, in the women’s shotput, the top two finishers will not be going to London while the third-, fourth- and fifth-place throwers, who had the “A” standard, are packing their bags.

In the men’s 10,000 meters, two-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein, who missed the Olympic “A” standard of 27:45.00 just a few weeks ago, traded fast laps in the pouring rain with his Oregon Project teammate Galen Rupp to finish third in 27:36.09, punching his ticket to the Games for the third time at the last possible moment.

In an epic example of post-Trials chasin’-n- racin’, Carrie Tollefson, who won the Olympic Trials 1,500m in 2004 with the “B” standard, then flew to Europe and raced five times over a nine-day period. “It wasn’t so much to achieve the “A” standard as to secure my place on the team,” she said. While she punched her ticket by placing first at the Trials, she could have been supplanted by Jen Toomey or Amy Rudolph, who finished second and third, if they hit the “A” standard in post-Trials races. So, Rudolph, Toomey and Tollefson all ran themselves ragged after an already brutal Trials gauntlet. “By the time the Olympics came around, I was absolutely exhausted. Exhilarated, but exhausted,” said Tollefson. “That was gut-wrenching, proving myself again and again, but this year, it’s tough in a different way. [If you don’t have the "A" standard] Having one chance to get it and make top three — that’s tough.”

Tell Gabriele Anderson about it. The 1,500m competitor, who lines up for her qualifying heat on Thursday evening, needs to place well enough to advance through the first two preliminary rounds, then finish in the top three in the final, somewhere along the way knocking a half-second off her personal best to achieve the “A” standard of 4:06.00. Since at least three of the 1,500 hopefuls already have the “A” standard,  their preference is for slow and tactical races.

“I can’t afford a slow pace,” said Anderson. “But there are enough other women in the field who also need the standard that I think it will go fast.”

RELATED: Gabriele Anderson Dreaming Big

While her situation is pressure packed, Anderson, like other candidates, accepts this as part of the sport. In fact, many Trials participants consider the competition to make the U.S. Olympic team stiffer than the Games themselves.

Do or die, the Trials deadline for hitting the “A” standard is black and white and provides quick and definitive closure, something track and field athletes thoroughly understand.

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About The Author:

Sarah Barker runs and writes in St. Paul, MN.

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