McLaughlin-Levrone sets tone, heartbreak for Mu at 2024 U.S. track and field trials

For the past week and a half, a miniature Eiffel Tower was positioned prominently in the track infield at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field. It was wrapped in material that could be scribbled on with Sharpie markers, and ended up getting covered with autographs.

Each of the signed names on the tower belonged to an American track and field athlete who, in the next month, will be competing in Paris — the signatures symbolically showing the world who had qualified for the Olympic Games.

Now that the U.S. Olympic track and field trials are complete, it’s worth looking back at the nine days in Eugene, Oregon, that helped craft Team USA. The trials had their share of major disappointments, broken world records, winners, losers and other surprises.

While Sha’Carri Richardson, Noah Lyles, Gabby Thomas and Ryan Crouser put on their expected displays of Olympic-qualifying dominance — and 16-year-old Quincy Wilson became a star — other athletes who made headlines, too.

Here are several key takeaways from a wild week at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials:

Sydney sets stunning tone

With two Olympic appearances already under her belt, 24-year-old Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone is in prime position to make even more noise at her third Olympic Games, after setting the trials ablaze in Sunday’s 400-meter hurdles final.

She already took gold in the Tokyo Games three years ago, sprinting to a 51.46-second finish in the event. But in Paris this summer, it’s possible her times will dip significantly lower.

On Sunday at the trials, she stunned everyone watching inside the oval and across the country, when she ran a world-record 50.65 seconds in the final. It’s within the realm of possibility that she nudges the 50-second mark further — if not outright goes below it — in Paris.

No other woman has consistently run fast times like this in the 400-meter hurdles.

“Just shock. Honestly, shock,” McLaughlin-Levrone said upon reacting to her time following Sunday’s final. “I wasn’t expecting that time.”

She has now set a 400-meter hurdle world record on five separate occasions in her storied yet young career.

Heartbreak hits for Mu

The biggest surprise of the trials came in the women’s 800-meter final. Reigning Olympic gold medalist Athing Mu failed to qualify after early-race jostling for position caused her to fall and drop to the back of a pack she couldn’t catch.

Mu got up, but she had lost too much ground and finished last.

The 22-year-old later appealed the result on the grounds that contact from a competitor caused her to trip and go down. But the appeal was denied.

Mu came to the trials with a bit of race rust. She hadn’t participated in a meet in nearly nine months, spending much of that time managing multiple hamstring injuries, including one she suffered as recently as late April.

After her fall, a video from mid-May began circulating that showed the Olympic champion riding a scooter around a track with her left leg propped up. In it, Mu can be heard saying, “Four weeks before Olympic trials, I tore my hamstring. So fun.”

Moments after winning her trials semifinal heat on June 23, she alluded to her limited preparation.

“We missed a little while of training,” Mu told reporters. “But we got back to it, and here we are.”

In that same postrace interview session, Mu was asked about a separate fall involving another runner right at the finish line of her semifinal. She acknowledged that she had been bumped and tripped throughout her first two heats at the trials, chalking it all up to the race’s close-quarters style of competition.

At 41, Lolo Jones shows what’s possible

The last time Jones, an accomplished Summer and Winter Olympian, had participated in a track and field trials, Team USA was readying for another Olympics in Europe.

The year was 2012. London was the host city. She ended up qualifying for those Olympics in the 100-meter hurdles but ultimately finished fourth, missing out on a medal.

At this year’s trials — her first in 12 years — Jones’ goals looked a little different. This time around, she simply wanted to be an example to young Olympic hopefuls of what can be possible for them.

“You sometimes feel your world is over in your 20s if you don’t make a team,” Jones said. “I hope to show them like, ‘You can still be in your 40s and be good enough to qualify for the Olympic trials.

“And I hope someone after me is going to be good enough to throw down in their 40s. The sports science is getting better.”

Following a series of meets in March and April, Jones qualified for the Olympic track and field trials at the Drake Relays in Iowa.

A month after her 13.10-second mark secured her spot in Eugene, Jones got hurt. Both her hamstrings went through injuries that persisted up until the day before her trials preliminary heat.

The pain was so bad she could clear only one of the 10 hurdles in her path during practice the day before.

“This was a Hail Mary miracle, part-the-Red Sea kind of thing,” Jones said following the 14.86-second finish in her opening-round heat. “What do you expect? I’m almost 42.

“But look, what I ran was one of my slowest times of the year. I’ve run faster. So I don’t want people to think this is what a 40-something-year-old can do. I was in the 13s and I was on pace to run 12 seconds, and I just got injured. And it’s not an injury due to old age. It’s an injury I get all the time as a hurdler.”

Jones said she overcame two Grade 2 hamstring tears and a serious cramp in the couple of weeks before the trials.

“So I’m actually so grateful for everyone who cheered for me,” Jones said, beginning to tear up while discussing an ovation for her during introductions. “It’s been so long I thought people forgot. It just means the world for me to have people even remember or shout my name because I was terrified on that start line.

“For me to just get through that start line and get through all 10 hurdles was a huge victory.”

In the semifinal heat a day later, Jones ran 14.50 seconds, failing to qualify for the finals.

Olympic expectations end in disappointment

Victories and qualifications eluded several athletes who were expected to be Olympic medalists in Paris.

Among them were the world’s top-ranked 100-meter sprinter, Christian Coleman, veteran hurdler Nia Ali and pole vaulter KC Lightfoot. Ali and Lightfoot have been to the Olympics before, and Coleman has won gold medals on the world championship stage.

Lightfoot, the American-record holder, was unable to advance out of the opening round.

For Ali, a fourth-place finish in the 100-meter hurdles final sealed her fate. She was just 0.06 seconds off the time shared by Olympic-bound hurdlers Alaysha Johnson and Grace Stark. Both of them finished behind race winner Masai Russell, who ran it in 12.25 seconds.

As for Coleman, he left Eugene empty-handed in his individual events, which serves as a testament to the depth of talent among American sprinters. He was the fourth fastest in both the men’s 100- and 200-meter finals.

The top three finishers qualify for Paris.

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