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Abrahamson: U.S. relay moves on after one-off run-off

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RIO de JANEIRO — Some people love, in their lives, to create drama. Allyson Felix is not one of these people. She is calm, steady, composed, even-keeled. Pretty much all the time.

Some mysterious karma, however, seemingly delights in connecting the Olympic experience and Allyson Felix with weird mega-drama.

“Why me?” Felix said Thursday evening with a smile.

Referring to her brother and manager, Wes, she said, “I was laughing with my brother about it. Sometimes you just have to laugh. Yeah … it’s just very, very strange.”

In what is widely believed to be an unprecedented Olympic relay do-over, the U.S. women’s 4x100m team — with Felix pulling the second leg — ran Thursday morning in a tangled mess, then got the chance Thursday evening to run again, in a time trial, to try to qualify for the relay final back here Friday night at Olympic Stadium.

To qualify, the Americans had to go better than 42.7 seconds. That would bump out eighth-place China.


Like it was practice at an American junior college track, the four women — Tianna Bartoletta to Felix to English Gardner to Morolake Akinosun — crossed in 41.77, the fastest mark of the eight qualifiers. 

Olympic Stadium has hardly been full for track and field’s run here to begin with, but there were precious few fans in the stands for this very first event on the Thursday evening program.

Indeed, the boom from the starting gun rattled around the place.

“It was weird but it was a lot of fun doing it,” the 22-year-old Akinosun would say after, adding, “It kind of felt like a glorified practice.”

Race-offs are super-common in swimming. If in the heats two athletes register the same time for, say, the last lane in a final, the two line it up and swim it off, the faster one moving on.

The track version can be either run-off or time trial. They do happen. But infrequently.

For instance, at the 2014 world junior championships in Eugene, Oregon, Ecuador’s Angela Tenorio was initially disqualified in the 100m for a false start. Replays showed she had not gone too soon. So she was allowed to re-run the race by herself after the rest of the day’s events had concluded.

She ended up qualifying and, moreover, taking second in the final.

Going back to London in 1908 and the men’s 400m, and what remains one of the most controversial races in Olympic history:

Britain’s Wyndham Halswelle won Olympic gold in a re-run. In the originally scheduled race, one of the leading Americans would end up being disqualified. Two others refused to run the second time through. So Halswelle ran the track by himself to Olympic victory.

Felix is herself part of arguably the most infamous tie in U.S. Olympic Trials history. At the 2012 Trials, she and Jenebah Tarmoh ran to a dead heat for the third spot in the 100m, and thus the London Games. 

Officials ultimately decided to conduct a run-off. NBC was going to show it in prime time, along with its coverage of the swim Trials. But shortly before the race, Tarmoh announced she was dropping out — giving the spot to Felix. 

You couldn’t write a movie script featuring that much drama.

In London, Felix finished fifth in the 100m. She — finally — won gold in the 200m, after coming up just short (drama that lingered for years) with silvers in 2008 in Beijing and 2004 in Athens. In London, she was part of the U.S. teams that won gold in both the 4x100m and 4x400m relays, the sprint relay setting a world record, 40.82 seconds.

At the 2016 U.S. Trials, Felix won the 400. But, running on an injured ankle, she took fourth in the 200, meaning (drama) she did not qualify for the event.

Here at the 2016 Olympic 400, Shaunae Miller of the Bahamas fell, or tripped, or dove across the line to win, Felix taking second. The drama increased when, afterward, Felix spent 20 minutes lying on the side of the track, collecting her thoughts. An hour after the race, she met with reporters to say, fighting back tears, “It’s just painful.”

That 400m silver made Felix a seven-time Olympic medalist. That is the most any American woman has won in track and field. Felix called the moment bittersweet.

Big picture-wise, Felix said, "It hasn’t been easy."

In Thursday morning’s relay heats, the U.S. women dropped the baton, Felix stumbling toward Gardner and trying to toss Gardner the baton. It glanced off Gardner and hit the track. 

“I think I was in disbelief,” Felix said. “I couldn’t believe  … more things were happening. So, really, I think, I was stunned.”

Quick thinking — Felix told Gardner to pick it up and run. 

Good thinking — because the only way a protest could have been reviewed, and ultimately accepted, is if the Americans had finished.

“It just flashed into my mind: in order to appeal, you’ve got to finish the race,” Felix said, then turning to the others, adding, “These ladies did such an amazing job uplifting me.”

Instant replay showed what happened: as Felix was about to enter the exchange zone, a Brazilian runner in the next lane, bumped her. 

Formally: Felix’s progress was impeded by contact.

“If you think about it,” Gardner said, “we are going about 20 mph, so if a foreign object comes in front and throws off your momentum, that’s going to mess up a hand-off.”

All that set up the do-over, at 7 p.m. sharp.

Easy. Weird. Fun.

Immediately afterward, Bartoletta — who had won gold in the women’s long jump Thursday night — got her medal. That made for a happy scene.

As for everything else: less drama, maybe, going forward?

“We all,” Allyson Felix said, laughing, “agree with that.”


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