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Quincy Wilson falls short of Olympic berth; Athing Mu takes shocking tumble



Quincy Wilson falls short of Olympic berth; Athing Mu takes shocking tumble

EUGENE, Ore. — The tears formed and fell less than 13 minutes apart. They welled out of pride in the eyes of a grown man leaning against a fence inside a white tent. They rolled down the face of an anguished woman on a track inside a stunned stadium. Tears emerged out of memories that would last a lifetime, out of shock that would last always, out of a wait that would take four years, out of joy and pain that would linger forever.

Joe Lee, the track and field coach at Bullis School in Potomac, had just finished extolling the character of 16-year-old phenom Quincy Wilson through pauses to gather his emotions and a break to wipe away tears. Out on the Hayward Field track, Athing Mu was just starting her race in the 800-meter final, a steppingstone in her defense of her Olympic gold medal and another moment to heal her fractured relationship with a sport she once conquered with ease.

The U.S. Olympic track and field trials are a cruel spectacle. It does not matter if you are a wunderkind whom America is starting to fall in love with — there are grown men with livelihoods on the line who want to leave you in the dust. It does not matter if you appear on magazine covers or your face rings Hayward Field in an ad campaign — if you trip on someone’s leg a quarter into your race, you must wait four years to prove you’re still the best in the world.

Wilson, at 16, managed to finish in sixth place in the 400-meter final, a remarkable feat that capped a week in which he twice broke a high school record that had lasted 42 years. Mu, the graceful and shaken queen of American middle distance running, tripped and fell less than halfway through her first lap while running amid a dense pack of limbs and spikes. In the stands, her family members stood and screamed, “No!” Mu rose from the track, sprinted at a pack of runners that had moved 50 meters ahead and began to grapple with a shocking reality.

Mu continued running all the way to line. She crossed in 2:19.69, more than 22 seconds behind champion Nia Akins, more than 20 seconds behind podium finishers Allie Wilson and Juliette Whittaker. Mu is used to crossing the line finish alone after 800 meters. She could not fathom doing it like this. Her face contorted into a tormented frown, and she buried her face in her hands.

“It’s definitely one of the toughest parts of this sport — and this event in particular,” Whittaker said. “The cruel nature of the sport is, however fit you may feel going into the race, you never know what’s going to happen.”

Wilson’s history-making, joy-inducing bid to claim an automatic Olympic berth at the trials came to an end Monday. But he would not bow out without a fight. Wilson, the phenom who finished his sophomore year at Bullis a few weeks ago, passed three sprinters in the homestretch and finished sixth at his first Olympic trials in 44.94 seconds, at an age when friends are busy trying to get a driver’s license. Quincy Hall was a surprise winner in 44.17, followed by Michael Norman (44.41) and Chris Bailey (44.42).

As Lee considered what Wilson had shown the world, he walked away and removed his sunglasses. Once he returned, emotion still choked his words.

“He showed his character, his fight, his determination,” Lee said. “He’s a great kid, man. He’s a great kid.”

In Friday’s opening round, Wilson broke the national high school record by winning his heat in 44.66 seconds. In the face of doubt he could maintain his stamina throughout the trials’ grueling rounds, Wilson reset the record to 44.59 in Sunday’s semifinals, zooming from fifth to third over the final 100 meters to qualify for Monday’s final. He met heroes such as Noah Lyles and Grant Holloway and received well-wishes from Tyreek Hill, Deion Sanders and Snoop Dogg.

“All I know is I gave everything that I had and then some,” Wilson said. “I can’t go back and be disappointed. At the end of the day, I’m 16 running grown-man times.”

Wilson could finally answer yes when friends back home ask if he wants to play video games, but he’s not quite ready to relax. Though his run at an individual spot ended Monday, Wilson could still become a Paris Olympian. USA Track & Field can choose two additional 400-meter sprinters for its 4×400 relay pool, with all U.S. trials entrants eligible. Based solely on performance over the past four days, Wilson has built a compelling case. The roster submission deadline is July 7.

“I don’t know if my season is over yet,” Wilson said. “I don’t want to go out and eat some ice cream too soon. I could be getting that call.”

If chosen, Wilson would become the youngest American man to compete in track and field at the Olympics. He would break a mark held since 1900 by Arthur Newton, who ran the 2,500-meter steeplechase at 17 years 166 days.

Lee knew Wilson had exceeded any imaginable expectation by finishing sixth in the country. He knew and hoped USATF would choose him for its relay pool, an option that brims with possibility. He knew Wilson wanted to make the Olympics, but he was not crying over the result. He was crying over the way he felt about Wilson.

“Yeah,” Lee said. His voice caught again, and he tapped the fence to gather himself. “I know that he wanted it. You’re happy, too. They’re happy tears because you know he’s making history. He’s got the pressure of the world on him. We’ll be back.”

All Mu had was the result. She arrived at the trials with an irksome hamstring and a relationship with her sport that had been shaken since her Olympic starburst three years ago. Mu had not raced all year, forced to make her 2024 debut with an Olympic spot at stake. Her path back to the trials, after taking them by the throat three years ago, was even harder.

Mu remains one of the most magnetic runners on the planet and a face of U.S. track and field. She adorns the latest cover of Sports Illustrated. Giant photos of her and Sha’Carri Richardson in a Nike ad campaign ring Hayward Field. It would have surprised no one if she downed Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson and Kenya’s Mary Moraa, the rivals who surpassed her at the world championships last year, in Paris.

Her ascension once felt ordained. She obliterated the 800-meter field at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. She wore a beret stamped with the word “confident” and declared she would break the world record. On a dream 4×400 relay foursome, Mu won another gold with Allyson Felix, Sydney McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad. Teamed with the all-time U.S. leader in track and field medals and two women who broke the 400-meter hurdles world record, Mu ran the anchor leg.

When Mu paused to take a breath, she felt overwhelmed. She struggled to adjust to the pressure of pro track and field. She still dominated, still controlled races with her elegant stride, but the weightlessness she operated with away from the track started to vanish. “I was just happy it was over,” Mu said after she edged Hodgkinson to win the 2022 world title. “Today was kind of a rough day for me.”

The burden she felt only intensified. Mu considered skipping the world championships last summer. At the last minute, she decided she would defend her title. In the last 300 meters, two rivals passed her. She still won bronze, but for the first time on a world stage, Mu had been beaten.

“There’s so much pressure overall,” she told reporters in Budapest afterward. “You’re overthinking. The past few years have been a lot.”

Mu remained atop the 800 in this country, but she had work to do to reclaim global superiority. She injured her hamstring in April, which prevented her from racing and cost her precious training time. She still won her semifinal heat here, but then came the unthinkable. Then came the cruelty of the trials. Then came the tears.

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