Lagat Leads Rise In U.S. Credibility

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007

OSAKA, Japan, Sept. 2 -- The furious race for the top three spots in the homestretch of the 5,000 meters on the final day of the 11th IAAF world track and field championships Sunday featured this astonishing surprise: the active involvement of two American men.

One made history.

The other helped bring further credibility to U.S. distance running, which soared in status during these nine-day championships.

Kenyan-born Bernard Lagat, who won his U.S. citizenship three years ago, waggled two index fingers at television cameras after overcoming fatigue and 2003 world champion Eliud Kipchoge with a late sprint to become the first man to win gold medals in the 1,500 and 5,000 in the same world championships.

Little-known U.S. teammate Matt Tegenkamp, meantime, passed two men in the last 100 meters and came within .03 second of claiming what would have been -- before these championships -- an unfathomable bronze medal. He couldn't quite catch Uganda's Moses Ndiema Kipsiro, who edged him by inches.

"Hopefully this is a good tipping point for American distance running," said James Li, Lagat's coach. "Great things happened here."

Sunday's highlights followed American Kara Goucher's unexpected bronze in the 10,000 last week and Lagat's first gold in a 1,500 final that included Alan Webb, who had been favored to win a medal but faded to eighth. The United States also placed three men in the final of the 5,000 -- another first.

For a nation that showcased a pair of triple gold medal winners (sprinters Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix) and dominated the medal table by matching its 1991 world championship record with 26 total medals and 15 gold, the achievements in the distance events might seem small. Their significance, however, can hardly be overstated.

These championships represented the best middle-distance and distance performance for the United States in Olympic and world championship history, with only a three-medal performance (a silver in the 10,000 and bronzes in the 1,500 and marathon) at the 1912 Olympics coming close.

Lagat, who has lived in the United States since receiving a running scholarship to Washington State in 1996, immediately made the U.S. squad a distance threat after waiting the required three-year period to begin competing for his adopted nation. While running for Kenya, he had won Olympic and world championship medals, but never a gold in a major global championship.

"It is a dream come true," he said. "I would not even imagined when I landed at the [Osaka] airport that I would ever win two events at these championships. To do it at the world championships, following in the footsteps of Hicham El Guerrouj, is fantastic to me."

The legendary El Guerrouj achieved the same double at the 2004 Olympics. Distance great Paavo Nurmi also achieved it at the 1924 Games.

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