Hometown sweep in 800m lives on at U.S. Olympic Trials

One of the most famous finishes in Hayward Field history took place in the 800-meter final at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. Nick Symmonds, of Oregon Track Club Elite, is triumphant as he makes his first Olympic team; Oregon sophomore Andrew Wheating is shocked at his second-place performance and OTC Elite’s Christian Smith dives across the finish line to complete the hometown sweep. (Photo courtesy of The Oregonian)

EUGENE, Ore. – Somewhere in the ether, the roar that erupted on the evening of June 30, 2008 must surely still exist as a palpable entity for the passion it represented from thousands of fans that day at Hayward Field.

In what turned out to be the signature event of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, three men with Oregon ties made a spirited dash down the final straight to earn their way onto the U.S. Olympic team for Beijing. It was an 800-meter run for the ages.

As Nick Symmonds, Andrew Wheating and Christian Smith drove toward the finish, fans on both sides of the field, but especially those seated on the West grandstand, roared their support for these Oregon men. Waves of noise became trapped under the roof of the grandstands and reverberated back down, where it joined forces with fresh hollering traveling up to create a stunning soundscape.

Propelled by such a robust level of vocal support, the men from Oregon did their part on the track. Symmonds, a 2006 graduate of Willamette University, living in Springfield and competing for the Oregon Track Club Elite at the time, won in a then-personal best 1 minute, 44.10 seconds as he finished well clear of the desperate runners behind him.

Second across the line was Wheating, the towering Oregon sophomore, in 1:45.03, raising his clenched fists in celebration of making the Olympic team.

The real drama was behind him. Locked in a battle for the third and final spot on the team were Smith, a Eugene resident and OTC Elite runner, and veteran Khadevis Robinson, a 2004 Olympian. It took a final desperate dive across the line by Smith to secure third place by .06 over Robinson, 1:45.47 to 1:45.53.

“I saw Khadevis and I knew he was the guy I had to get,’’ Smith said after the race. “I just took the lean and dove. I (didn’t) think a lean would be enough.’’

While Symmonds would go on to establish himself as the pre-eminent 800-meter runner among Americans, eight years in track and field is an eternity.

Now 32, two-time Olympian Symmonds is dealing with a left ankle problem that caused him to scratch from recent races in Portland and Seattle, thus putting his participation in the Trials in some jeopardy. Wheating, 28, no longer runs the 800 and as of June 27 had not made the Olympic Trials qualifying mark of 3:38.00 in the 1,500. And Smith no longer runs competitively.

But that’s OK. Fret not. Although the men’s 800 at the upcoming Olympic Trials will not be the Oregon-centric event that it was in 2008, it should nevertheless be compelling and well worth all the lung capacity that fans at Hayward Field can bring in support of the runners.

If Symmonds runs, will he be at or near 100 percent, which he’ll need to be in order to win? In the last two years, indeed the last few weeks, the 800 has gotten crazy-competitive.

“If I don’t feel I can make the team, if I don’t feel I’m 100 percent, I’ll have to make that decision,’’ Symmonds said at the Brooks PR meet in Seattle.

Boris Berian burst onto the scene a year ago, seemingly out of nowhere, at the New York Diamond League meet when he finished second to 2012 Olympic champion and world record-holder David Rudisha. Berian chased Rudisha the whole way in posting an eye-popping time of 1:43.84 to the Kenyan’s 1:43.58. Berian later improved his time to 1:43.34 as he led the U.S. list for 2015.

As new to the elite level of the event as Berian is, Donovan Brazier is even newer. The Texas A&M freshman, just 19, stunned the crowd at Hayward Field when he won the recent NCAA title in a remarkable 1:43.55 on the very day, 50 years earlier, that the great Jim Ryun established an American junior record of 1:44.9 over 880 yards while running for Kansas.

With that 1:43.55 time, Brazier established six 800-meter records, in descending order of importance: Collegiate, American Junior, Hayward Field, NCAA meet, Southeastern Conference and Texas A&M. As of today, Brazier’s time leads the U.S. and is No. 3 in the world for 2016.

Brazier recently announced that he will pursue a professional career in track and field and forgo his remaining three years of college eligibility.

It’s certainly asking a lot of a college athlete to extend his season into July, yet such is Brazier’s talent that making a run for the Olympic team seems like the right thing to do.

“I thought @Donovan Brazier was the future, turns out he is the present! He will break AR very soon,’’ Symmonds tweeted recently.

Imagine an 800-meter final on July 4 as the last event of the day at 5:51 p.m. featuring Symmonds trying to make his third Olympic team, Berian and Brazier trying to make their first, and such worthy runners as Duane Solomon, Eric Sowinski, Clayton Murphy, Robby Andrews, Casimir Loxsom, Charles Jock and Shaquille Walker all chasing them.

That sounds like something worth cheering for … loudly.

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