The Olympic Games 100 meter final is the ultimate - where the winner is anointed as the "World's Fastest Man" - or "World's Fastest Woman." But provincial versions of this distinction can be found. One can be, say, the "City's Fastest", or the "Conference's Fastest." Or as was at stake today at the USATF outdoor track & field championships: bragging rights as arguably "America's Fastest Man" and "America's Fastest Woman". Of course, there is no official "America's Fastest" recognition - just like there is no bona fide "World's Fastest" honor. They are merely unsanctioned, playful titles geared to recognize peerless sprinting performance.
After yesterday's opening round, 16 men and 16 women remained standing in the chase for the mythical "Fastest" title. All 32 would likely admit that finishing in the top 3 - thus gaining a sprint berth on Team USA for London's world championships - is a more important goal than winning. But more than a few likely also harbor the desire to win and stand as "America's Fastest." As is traditionally done, with both the semi-finals and the finals in the Century being raced today, the new champions would be crowned before action concludes today at Hornet Stadium.
First up were the women's 100 meter semi-finals, run into a hot and pesky headwind. There would be no messing around: 2 heats; no time qualifiers; top 4 advance to tonight's final 2 hours later. In the first heat, young professional Morolake Akinosun continued her year of sprint progression with crisp win in 11.17. She was joined in advancing to the finals by Oregon star Ariana Washington [11.18], multiple-time Olympian Allyson Felix [11.22] and LSU's Aleia Hobbs [11.23]. In the second semi, Tori Bowie - #5 on the world leader board at 10.90 - uncorked an impressive win with a sparkling 11.03, the fastest semi-final clocking of day. Also advancing was another Oregon sprint stand-out Deajah Stevens [11.15]; Olympic gold medalist English Gardner [11.23]; and Texas A&M's Aaliyah Brown [11.24]. Non-advancing casualties included 3-time Olympic gold medalist Tiana Bartoletta, Olympian and former NCAA champion Jenna Prandini; and Olympian Barbara Pierre. Only 8 were now left to battle for 3 sprint berths for the world championships, the outdoor 100m title, and arguably the claim to be the "America's Fastest Woman"...
Next came the men. In the first semi, hot-sprinting Christian Coleman looked very strong in crossing first in a semifinal round best of 10.02 into a -1.4 headwind. Jaylen Bacon [10.15], Beejay Lee [10.16] and Houston's Cameron Burrell [10.19] would join the winning Vol in the final. The second heat was all Justin Gatlin, as the ageless veteran with Olympic 100m medals of all colors grabbed the easy win with 10.04 clocking. Veteran Mike Rodgers [10.19], Nike's Isaiah Young [10.20]. and North Carolina A&T's Christopher Belcher [10.22] also advanced.
Sprinters advancing from the semis generally have an engrained ritual they follow in prepping themselves to bring their best 10 seconds of channeled fury to the final. But a few have special tweaks to get them ready physically and mentally. Understandably, many shun the press between the semis and the final. But some will share a quick thought. After the semis, here's what a few had to say about their pre-final preparation:
- Beejay Lee [10.16]: "Just go back and listen to my coach; review a few things; and prepare to get my mind right. This is my second final in two seasons. Obviously it is going to take a fast time to win. But I'll be ready."
- Christian Coleman [fastest semi clocking of 10.02] reigning NCAA 100m and 200m sprint champ: "Stay hydrated. Keep my head in the game. Hope to stay loose. Be ready to roll." As a semi winner, does that bring pressure? "Not really. I just come into each race with the same mindset. I go out there and try to execute my phases of the race and just try to come out with a win."
- Nike's Isaiah Young [10.20]: "Cool down a little bit and refocus; then come out here for the final to execute a good race and come out with a win." Can he win? "It is very doable. After qualifying, everybody is trying to put their best race together in the final."
- Michael Rodgers [10.19] veteran Olympian: "Rest; hydrate; message; put some music on; and get ready to go."
- Decorated long sprinter Allyson Felix [11.22] with an automatic world championship bye into the 400 meters: "This is kind of a work week for me. I want to just go in there and try to keep improving."
It's not all joy in the mixed zone. Half of the semi-finalists fail to advance. Those that don't move on to the final try to learn from the experience. A disappointed Ronnie Baker - one of the pre-race favorites - looked for something positive from his 6th place semi-final performance. "This is more motivation for next year. That's all I can say. I killed it this season. I just got eliminated in the same round last year in the Olympic Trials. I just got to find out what I need to do here to perform better."
In the women's 100 meter final, Tori Bowe left no doubt who currently is "America's Fastest Woman. With a solid start and a powerful drive phase, the Prefontaine 200 meter champion never was headed, winning going away in 10.94. The Oregon sprint duo of Deajah Stevens [11.08] and Ariana Washington [11.10] - well back of Bowie - still rallied for 2nd and 3rd.
"The goal today was to finish top 3, so finishing first is great," exclaimed Bowie who dominated from the gun. "I'm extremely excited and I still feel like I have a ton to work on before Worlds because I really hope to do well."
There was no hiding the excitement of the young Oregon sprint tandem, as both rising dash stars were thrilled to make the team. "I executed my race and stayed patient," said Stevens. "It has been a very rewarding season but it has also been a very difficult season. I am just happy I am here right now because of it. Everything happens for a reason and I live by that."
â€œ[It's a] dream come through," explained Washington. "Last year after making the team and not getting to run, I wanted to come out and not give them any excuses," offered the NCAA 200 meter runner-up who acknowledged some turbulence early in her outdoor season. "I had some up and downs beginning of season. Feel great coming off indoors; outdoors started a little rocky. But this is my result and I am completely happy with it."
The men's final - a competition that had been shaping up to be a tussle between The Young Guns and The Old Guard - did prove to be a clash of youth versus experience. Quickly after the gun, the 100 meter crown became a two-man contest between 35-year-old Gatlin and the 21-year-old Coleman. The two University of Tennessee athletes battled to the line, but a superior close by Gatlin proved to be the difference, with the 3-time Olympic 100 meter medalist edging the upstart, 9.95 to 9.98.
"I feel good," declared the ebullient winner afterwards. "As the race unfolded, I could see it unfold in slow motion. I just had to stay relaxed and make a charge for the finish line." Gatlin displayed respect for the young runner-up. "I've been watching Christian this whole season, he's been running well. Watching him blossom into a great sprinter and still hungry, that put a fire in me to be hungry."
The dual NCAA sprint champion was pleased with his performance that puts him on the team headed for London. "Up until the end, that race could [have] gone either way. I was reaching for the line and I guess that's something I could work on. I've gotta stay composed through the whole race," noted the Tennessee undergrad. "I'm still in college, though, so I'm just excited for the experience in general and ready for the new opportunities."
Rapidly improving Christopher Belcher surprised some as the 3rd place finisher, clocking 10.06. "We stayed hungry. The biggest focus this year was going to regionals, then NCAA and then USAs," explained Belcher who's 9.93 seasonal best ties him for 4th on the world list. "It is an honor to be able to represent my country. I am really excited for it."
So Tori Bowie and Justin Gatlin will lead America's 100 meter sprint corps across the pond as Team USA will take on the world in the 2017 IAAF world outdoor track & field championships in London in August. In an event where the top performers always seem to be changing, the U.S. of A. 100 meter squads will be led by two contrasting athletes: one ascending to what should be the pinnacle of her already-impressive sprint career; the other a seemingly-ageless veteran of the sprint wars who has seen it all and done it all. But the two also share something in common: At least for now, they both can legitimately claim the honor of being "America's Fastest." Dave Hunter