Jager, present, Centrowitz, present, Chelimo present, Rupp present, excuse me while I hand out a major upgrade to America's distance running efforts at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Does any team from any country deserve an A+ more than the USA? Ethiopia came close with Anaya's amazing World Record run in the women's 10,000 and a silver in the men's the marathon. Kenya, no finalists in the men's 5,000? Impossible. The usual steeple gold and Rudisha in the 800 but then a disappearing act in the 1,500. The Kenyan women at least held their own.
When last we met a mere short five days ago the United States Olympic track and field team was on a roll. The distance running hot streak continued right through Sunday requiring a major upgrade that the original B+. In fact, we've just witnessed the greatest distance throw down at the Olympics by the USA ever.
There were so many surprises and so much to celebrate. We'll start with Evan Jager, who cemented his place as America's greatest steeplechaser. Henry Marsh held that title for years but Jager's American Record last year along with his silver medal in brutal conditions Wednesday morning closes the book. Jager ran a gutsy race, pushing the pace, forcing the Kenyans hand. It was America's first medal in the men's 3,000 steeplechase since 1984.
The most incredible fireworks came on the last night of the Games. Matt Centrowitz, Jr. fulfilled the promise he first showed with his unexpected bronze medal at the 2011 World Championships. He finished a disappointing 4th at the 2012 London Games but showed he was on a mission this year by breaking the long standing U.S. Olympic Trials 1,500 record.
Centrowitz was able to slowly ratchet up the pace with 700 meters to go, sprinting the last 400 in 50.6 to win the slowest Olympic final in more than 80 years. In doing so he not only beat the world's top-ranked 1,500 runner, Kiprop, but took down the defending gold medalist. For baby boomers like myself that have lived almost 50 years with the agony of Jim Ryun's silver medal of 1968, Saturday night was redemption.
The men's 5,000 meter final that followed was icing to the cake. Great Britain's Mo Farah did what Mo Farah does. He ran a brilliant race staying out of the mess that trailed behind him. It was like watching roller derby over the last 800 or so. Somehow, unexpectedly, the U.S.A.'s Paul Chelimo ran a massive PR to grab the silver medal. Just two places behind him, 41-year-old Bernard Lagat capped his amazing career with another Masters World Record with his 5th place finish.
All that remained was Sunday morning's men's marathon. Could the U.S.A. come close to duplicating the previous Sunday efforts by the women where Shalane Flanagan,
Desiree Linden and Amy Cragg, who all finished in the top nine? The boys answered with another trip to the podium.
Behind Rupp was an amazing run by Jared Ward. A running every man, who carefully picked his way through the field that gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge laid waste to. Ward judged his pace properly to run a PR in hot conditions and finish 6th.
Then there was Meb. Yes, Meb Keflezighi finished a mere 33rd, but consider this, he's 41-years-old and he ran a solid 2:16:46 despite an unforgiving stomach. Yes, this old man, barfed his way to a sub 2:20 marathon. Think about that for a second.
So in the end, from the 800 meters to the marathon, the United States took one gold, two silver, and four bronze. That's seven medals at one games. That's distance medals than the U.S. won over the last five Olympic Games.
The question is why has it taken so long? Well, it takes time for the seeds to grow and take root. Those seeds were planted more than a decade ago. Some of the credit can go to Meb and Deena Kastor. Meb's marathon silver medal and Deena's marathon bronze in Athens showed that American's didn't have to take a back seat to the East Africans.
But I will argue that the bulk of the credit should go to a trio of three American high school boys. Alan Webb, Dathan Ritzenheim and Ryan Hall sparked a running revolution that stirred the internet and sparked a renewed interest in what was possible in distance running at the high school level. It gave us Rupp, Jenny Simpson, Clayton Murphy, Emma Coburn, Evan Jager and yes, the amazing Matt Centrowitz, Jr.