"Here we are," Symmonds announced to reporters, letting the words briefly sink in as he clutched an American flag in his right hand. Going through his mind was the journey it took to get here, back atop the podium.
In 2008, Symmonds won a memorable contest at the Olympic Trials, flexing his muscles as he qualified for his first Olympic team. He had made it to the big dance, achieving the feat while still only 24-years-old. Four years later he'd make his second Olympic squad in Track Town USA, ultimately finishing fifth at the London Olympic Games, running a lifetime best of 1:42.95.
It was in the years after that he'd be tested, parting ways with longtime sponsor Nike, uprooting from his beloved Eugene and Oregon Track Club Elite, and leaving an amazingly supportive community behind.
Watching last year's national championship from a couch at his home, Symmonds pondered retiring. New life was breathed into the muscular half-miler after he moved north to Seattle, where the Brooks Beasts and coach Danny Mackey had welcomed him. Constant support from close mentor and friend Sam Lapray helped even more, providing hope for another season.
Returning to Eugene this weekend, Symmonds was bound and determined to give his adopted hometown fans a glimpse of the old Nick, complete with his come-from-behind finishing kick, jaw dropping power, and brazen confidence. He did just that.
After Friday's semi-finals, Duane Solomon promised to take the 800 meters out at a pace he described as the "twilight zone," a tempo only he thought he could maintain. Through 400 meters in 49.76 (just a hair over David Rudisha's world record pace), Solomon stayed true to his words, pushing so hard that the closest challenger --Symmonds's teammate Cas Loxsom-- was a good seven meters behind. Even farther adrift was Symmonds, who felt Solomon's pace was a suicidal, and those who dared follow may pay the price with death on the homestretch.
"I did say [pre-race] if Duane goes out in 49 and 1:16 [for 600 meters] he's going to take some people with him that might not be able to maintain that pace," recalled Symmonds, who found himself in a distant fifth as they ran down the backstretch. "When Duane said he's going to make the race honest, it helps me out a lot. If I'm going to go from eighth to first, it's a lot easier to do that in the outside of lane-one than in lane three trying to battle bodies."
Solomon's wheels began to fall off around the final bend, and they disappeared just past the top of the homestretch. Closing fast were Loxsom, Erik Sowinski, and Symmonds, the last of whom had made up chunks of ground and caught everyone's attention.
With 90 meters to go, Solomon reached that "twilight zone" he talked so confidently about two days prior, but got swallowed up in its darkness. He began to "black out" in lane one, and when his three rivals came up on his shoulder, Solomon had no response. As the trio battled for the podium spots and births in August's IAAF World Championships, Solomon began walking, then fell to his knees.
"The last 100 I just could not control my body at all. Like, there was nothing I could do, my body just wanted to slow down and got to a point where I was almost blacking out. Yeah, I was pretty much black out. I had nothing left," said Solomon, his sunglasses perched on his forehead. He eventually walked over the finish line in 3:08.74.
In classic Symmonds fashion, pumping his chiseled arms and sticking out his tongue, the 31-year-old powered into the lead as Solomon faded, breaking the tape in defiant fashion to the delight of the crowd of 10,746. He'd returned to the pinnacle in Eugene, his hometown, his happy place, his old stomping ground. What followed was elation.
"This was my home. I own four businesses here, created Run Gum here, I own two houses. I want to spend the rest of my life in Eugene," said Symmonds. "It was a hard transition for me last year."
With the win Symmonds earned his first outdoor 800m national title since the 2012 Olympic Trials. Making the accomplishment all the more meaningful was that his teammate Loxsom placed third in 1:45.35, also earning a ticket to the World Championships in Beijing. Taking second was Erik Sowinski in 1:45.35.
"The pace was a little hot and it took a little out of me the last 100, especially with running that fast in the rounds," said Loxsom. "I was happy to hold on for the third spot."
On top of the podium Symmonds waved to his adoring fans, hoisted an American flag, and showed off his many Run Gum tattoos (shoulders, biceps, anywhere visible to cameras). "This morning as I'm putting my tats on I said 'If I win, I'm going to throw the double biceps up and maybe, just maybe, get that perfect picture for Run Gum'").
MONTANO TIES RECORD WITH SIXTH TITLE
The women's two-lap race was nearly as exciting as the men's. Alysia Montano --the five-time national 800m champion who competed at last year's national meet while eight months pregnant-- showed world-class form here today, despite still breastfeeding her daughter, Linnea. With her signature yellow flower in her hair, Montano followed the fast early pace set by Phoebe Wright (58.1 at 400m), surged on the backstretch to take the lead, then held off key rivals Brenda Martinez and Ajee' Wilson in the homestretch to collect a record-tying sixth title in 1:59.15.
"Honestly, I'm just so thankful to everyone who has supported me," Montano told reporters holding Linnea with one arm. "I don't think I would have been able to do such an amazing feat of coming back from pregnancy and winning another national championship. I just wanted to go out there and do my best."
Wilson, last year's national champion in this discipline, got her feet tangled with Maggie Vessey about 200 meters from the finish and lost a shoe (Vessey went down and would finish in over three minutes). Listing slightly to one side, Wilson just managed to hold off Molly Ludlow in the final meters to take third in 2:00.05 behind the 2013 World Championships bronze medalist Brenda Martinez (1:59.71).
"I really didn't have time to think," Wilson told reporters about losing her shoe. "It was kind of like halfway on so I just pulled it off a little bit. I just decided I'm going to try to finish."
Ludlow, who followed the early pace set by Wright, nearly caught Wilson in the homestretch, finishing just 4/100ths behind her. Ludlow had also finished fourth in the 2012 Olympic Trials on the same Hayward Field track. Visibly distraught, Ludlow hustled through the mixed zone and did not speak to the media.
MEET RECORD, FOURTH CONSECUTIVE STEEPLECHASE TITLE FOR JAGER
With three laps to go in the men's 3000m steeplechase, national record holder Evan Jager assumed the lead, beat back a challenge from fellow Olympian Donn Cabral, and went on to earn his fourth consecutive national title in a meet record 8:12.29. With four national titles he has already eclipsed the three won by his coach, Pascal Dobert.
"That was definitely the hardest one so far," Jager said of winning today's title. "I think, showing myself that I can close out a race like that off of a decent pace is helpful. I doubt I'll have to lead a race like that at World Champs, but it's nice to know I can do something like that."
Jager, who is among the best hurdlers in the sport and can lead with either leg, was technically flawless today, gaining ground on Cabral with each barrier clearance. He looked comfortable throughout the entire race, but said the latter stages were taxing.
"It was probably comfortable until, like, 500, 600 to go, and then it started getting tough. I did feel Don just off my shoulder. He wasn't going away. He toughed it out; he's a really tough competitor."
Cabral clocked a personal best 8:13.37 to take second, and Jager's Nike Bowerman Track Club teammate Dan Huling finished third in 8:14.11, less than a second short of his personal best.
"He forced me to keep the pedal down and keep squeezing," Jager said of Cabral.
SIMPSON DEFENDS 1500M TITLE
As so often happens in championship-style 1500 meter races, the pace in the women's discipline dropped to a crawl, one that all 13 competitors could easily maintain. No one wanted to make a move, passing the kilometer in over three minutes.
Among those congregated towards the front of the pack were lesser known competitors like Oiselle's Kerri Gallagher and Nike Oregon Track Club's Lauren Johnson, both of whose resumes aren't quite to the level of 2011 World Champion Jenny Simpson or two-time Olympian Shannon Rowbury.
"For once I felt like I was doing a good thing, running out to the outside and going to the front," Gallagher told Race Results Weekly. "You know, it was bunched up. We were a little slower than most of the women are used to. So, I know if I didn't get out that it could get kind of dicey."
It did get dicey, reaching a crescendo when Gabe Grunewald was knocked down 600 meters or so from the finish. Hearing the bell, Gallagher and the entire field's tempo increased, ready to compete for tickets to Beijing.
Looking like a NASCAR race, the women went down the backstretch as a bunched cluster before making the final charge for home. It was then that Simpson, hoping to retain her title, kicked it up a notch and powered home. Already possessing an automatic birth in the IAAF World Championships 1500m by virtue of winning the IAAF 1500m Diamond League title in 2014, Simpson wanted simply to win, which she did in 4:14.86 ahead of a kicking Rowbury, running with her foot heavily bandaged (4:14.99).
"My strategy was, of everyone in the race I had the least burden, or pressure to make something happen. I think that's the gift of having the bye. I think what it afforded me was the opportunity to go out and allow a race to unfold in a way I wouldn't normally allow it to unfold," Simpson would say, adding that her style of victory likely gave her parents a bit of a scare.
But it was what happened behind Simpson and Rowbury that was most intriguing. Treniere Moser, Heather Kampf, Rachel Schneider, Gallagher, and Johnson were fighting to stay in the top four; if they did so, it'd mean a trip across the world.
Gallagher's early positioning --towards the front and outside of lane one-- came in handy late in the race, as she'd fight hard to take home third in 4:15.81.
Now only one spot remained, and it'd be a barn burner between Moser, Kampf, Schneider and Johnson. Neck and neck, Johnson would get tripped right at the line, inadvertently giving her a dive-like lunge across the stripe. She'd reach it one-one hundredth of a second ahead of Schneider, 4:16.08 to 4:16.09.
"I tucked and rolled a bit," joked Johnson, running with a heavy heart in honor of a cousin who tragically passed away this spring and a grandmother who was diagnosed with cancer earlier in the year.
With that, the USA's 1500m team for Worlds was complete. Left out were Moser, sixth in 4:16.18, Kampf (seventh in 4:16.25), and Mary Cain, eighth in 4:16.77. Simpson, was delighted to once again walk away with the national title.
"I only have one championship at the U.S. level to speak of [in the 1500m]," she said. "So, trying to get another one and reaffirm and prove and validate that I'm the top American 1500-meter woman was important to me today."