Purrier St. Pierre scurried back to the track imbued with a mix of anger and determination. Having planned on making her move after one lap, she shifted her strategy. She would not be pushed around, and she would prevent another mishap with her speed.
“I tried to not let it bother me, but I think it gave me a little bit of a boost,” Purrier St. Pierre said. “I wanted to get out of the mess and go to the front. I was just like: ‘Screw it. I’m going for it.’ ”
Purrier St. Pierre’s bold move — which resulted in a meet record and a spot on her first Olympic team — provided an apt metaphor for the first four days of the U.S. track and field trials: jostled at the start, rollicking throughout and ultimately triumphant thanks to the audacity of the performers.
The trials started in Eugene, Ore., four days after double American record holder Shelby Houlihan revealed her four-year ban for testing positive for an anabolic steroid, which she blamed on tainted pork from a food truck burrito. That even anti-doping experts found her explanation plausible did not prevent jokes from flying online or yet another cloud from hovering over the sport.
The moment the trials began, athletes punctured the pall over Hayward Field.
There was incandescence. With orange flames for hair and talons for fingernails, Sha’Carri Richardson sprinted her way to superstardom at 21, showcasing her effervescent ferocity 100 meters and 10.7 or so seconds at a time.
That brought Richardson a new level of fame. On Tuesday afternoon, she joined a virtual news conference with a handful of U.S. stars, including hurdles dynamo Rai Benjamin.
“Hey, Sha’Carri,” Benjamin said as she joined the call. “You really gained half a million followers in 48 hours.”
Richardson noted more than 1 million people now follow her on Instagram.
“You saw Viola … what’s her name?” Benjamin said.
“Viola Davis!” Richardson replied.
The actress had congratulated her on Twitter.
Followers and Oscar-winner shout-outs aside, Richardson had turned her focus back to the track. She pulled out of the 200 meters, a common move for sprinters who win the 100, but declined to explain why. Instead, she looked to later this summer.
“Nothing,” Richardson said, giggling, when asked how her life had changed. “My life hasn’t changed, for the simple fact that my life that I live doesn’t include the media. It doesn’t include outside sources. It includes the people I consistently surround myself by — my training partners, my close friends. I just got more followers, but other than that my life is entirely the same. Ready to go back into the lab to do what it is we got to get ready for Tokyo for.”
There was power, too. Ryan Crouser hurled a shot put farther than any lifeform in recorded history, smashing a record held for 31 years by Randy Barnes, who was thrown out of the sport after failing multiple drug tests. Crouser had been expecting to break it for four years, and he thrust his arms in the air before the iron ball had reached the top of its long arc.
“It’s like he’s throwing a Skee-Ball and everybody else took a shot put,” 800-meter champion Clayton Murphy said.
And there was resilience. Every athlete faced the unavoidable obstacle of the year-long postponement of the Tokyo Games. Jenny Simpson had made every Olympic and world championship team since 2017, and in March 2020 she felt at peak form. On Monday night, diminished by injuries, she finished 10th in the 1,500. “Covid?” Simpson said, chuckling. “Can’t we all blame covid?”
Others faced even more. Trayvon Bromell was wheeled off the 2016 Olympic track with a torn Achilles’ tendon. He struggled to recover and, he said, was told by doctors he would never run again. Bromell has repeatedly told the story of how, in dark days on the outskirts on the sport, he discovered his faith. On Sunday night, he won the 100 meters and solidified himself as a gold medal favorite.
Triple jumper Will Claye tore his Achilles’ in November 2019. Had the Games been held last year, he would have been sidelined. Claye has won silver in the past two Olympics and at the past two world championships, finishing each time behind Christian Taylor. He is now America’s best hope for gold owing to a sad coincidence: Taylor tore his Achilles’ in May.
By his final jump Monday night, Claye had clinched his place on the team, but to win he needed to surpass Donald Scott’s 56 feet 4½ inches. Claye leaped past it by 1¼ inches.
“For what I’ve been through this past year and just all the work that I put in, I went and thought about that,” Claye said. “That’s what gave me that will to just put one out there on my last jump.”
One of the most dominant runners in the world, Donavan Brazier, fell victim to the trials’ any-given-day ethos when he panicked early, failed to kick late and finished last in the 800 final.
His shocking defeat upstaged the brashness of Murphy, who bristled at the idea he wasn’t considered a lock for the team and ran the world-leading time, and the nerve of Isaiah Jewett, who one week after winning the NCAA championship for Southern California decided he would charge off the line and dare the country’s best to come get him. He ran a blazing first lap in less than 51 seconds and still had enough stamina to hold off everybody but Murphy.
“I want to live in my world,” Jewett said. “I want to live inside this animated world, and I tried to make that race as animated as I could and try to keep where I’m going to be happy in the end, whether I win or lose.”
Tuesday and Wednesday are rest days at the trials. When they resume, the most anticipated clash will take place in the women’s 400 hurdles. In 2019, Dalilah Muhammad, now 31, broke a 12-year-old world record, and then at the world championships she lowered it to 52.16 seconds. Muhammad expects it to fall again, maybe soon. Sydney McLaughlin, who made the 2016 team as a 16-year-old, announced herself as a threat to break it during a dominant early-season stretch.
“I don’t look it as a rivalry,” Muhammad said. “We’re kind of coming in in different times in our careers. For me, it doesn’t seem like a rivalry. It’s actually unfortunate to me that it’s so looked upon that way, because it makes it seem like we’re always going head-to-head, where in reality I wish Sydney nothing but the best. I love seeing where the event can go.”
Muhammad will run after a challenging year. In February, she tore her hamstring. After she healed, she had a bout with the coronavirus and tried training through it, which led to setbacks. “Just by the grace of God, things turned around for me exactly when they needed to,” Muhammad said.
Noah Lyles, a reigning world champion in two events and a T.C. Williams alum, can redeem his seventh-place finish in the 100 in his bread-and-butter race, the 200, which will close the trials Sunday. The morning after the 100-meter final, he tweeted to his followers to let them know he was in a good place. He also vowed his 200 race would be “disgusting.”
The performances so far have given USA Track and Field cover to reconsider its own misstep. It added fuel to the Houlihan controversy when, two days before the trials, it released a statement suggesting Houlihan could remain on the start list, citing a pending appeal. Her case already had been expedited to the appeal process, where the Court of Arbitration for Sport had ruled against her.
Within hours, USATF’s statement drew rebuke from a diverse constellation of constituencies — the Athletics Integrity Unit, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and American athletes themselves, roughly 30 of whom signed a letter suggesting it had set a disturbing precedent. USATF may have simply overextended in trying to take a pro-athlete stance. It was not lost on many in the sport that the athlete it chose to do so for is successful, White and backed by Nike, a behemoth sponsor.
Simpson passed no judgment on Houlihan. She instead applied the essence of her sport to the fraught case. The clock determines who wins, and lab results dictate who gets to compete.
“At the end of the day, track and field is not a popularity contest,” Simpson said. “And I’m in favor of it being that way.”
Houlihan’s case could not rob track’s ability to produce joy. The athletes always save the sport from itself. In the 1,500, Purrier St. Pierre didn’t know what was happening behind her until she finished. She turned around and saw Heather MacLean, a training partner and a member of her wedding party, cross the finish line in third place. They would be going to the Olympics together.
“So excited,” Purrier St. Pierre said. “We’re going to go get matching tattoos.”