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Gabby Thomas, Rai Benjamin and Grant Holloway have a brush with history at U.S. track trials

Gabby Thomas blitzed her way to the 200-meter title and a spot in Tokyo. (Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)
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In late May, Gabby Thomas learned doctors had found a tumor in her liver. She did not worry at first. Thomas possesses a more pragmatic outlook on health than most 24-year-old sprinters: She graduated from Harvard with a major in neurobiology, and she is now working toward a master’s degree in epidemiology. She knew it could have been benign. As days passed, though, her concern mounted.

“The more I started talking to doctors,” Thomas said, “the more they started saying the word ‘cancer.’ ”

Thomas fretted not only for her health but also for how the scare may affect her at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials. A few days before she traveled to Eugene, Ore., tests provided relief. The tumor was benign. It made Thomas recall what she had told God during the weeks of uncertainty: “If I am healthy, I’m going to go out and win trials.”

Thomas did more than win the Olympic trials. She did more than anybody expected, herself especially. Anytime a performance raises the name Florence Griffith Joyner, it is extraordinary. Before this weekend, Thomas had never run 200 meters in less than 22 seconds. After Thomas ran it in 21.61 seconds Saturday night, the only woman who has ever sprinted half a lap faster is Florence Griffith Joyner.

“I haven’t processed that,” Thomas said. “I … I … I don’t know.”

How to process what happened Saturday night at Hayward Field? The penultimate night of the U.S. Olympic track and field trials provided nothing less than some of the greatest performances the sport has ever seen. Temperatures that hovered around 100 degrees and friendly-but-legal wind created a fast track. World records did not fall, but they trembled.

Four athletes left Hayward Field ranked second-best all-time in the world their event. Three of them, as if to underscore the precocious excellence of this U.S. team, made their first Olympics. Two of them, hurdlers Rai Benjamin and Grant Holloway, came within a half of a tenth of a second of toppling a world record. One of them, hammer thrower DeAnna Price, broke her own American record — twice.

It was the kind of night when a runner could break a record held by Usain Bolt — Usain Bolt! — and be rendered a side note. Erriyon Knighton, a 17-year-old from Tampa, chased down Noah Lyles in the homestretch of a 200-meter semifinal and pointed at the clock as he crossed the line. It read 19.88, .05 seconds faster than the junior world record Bolt set in 2004, and a declaration the kid could actually make it to Tokyo.

“Good run,” Knighton said. “Shut it down the last 20 meters.”

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It was the kind of night when Allyson Felix, royalty in a tracksuit, could bid farewell almost without notice. Having already made her fifth Olympic team, as a mother at 35, in the 400 meters, Felix finished fifth in the 200 final, the last race she will ever run at the trials.

“It’s been a long journey,” Felix said, holding back tears. “To see it all finish up, it was really special. I think I feel a mix of all emotions. There’s a part of me that’s sad. This has been a part of my life for so long. That this is my last time around, I feel sad about that but also excited of what’s to come.”

It was the kind of night when a world record could be threatened in a semifinal. Holloway, the world champion, had shown his intentions Friday night, when he ran the first round of the 110-meter hurdles in just over 13 seconds. “I didn’t come to this party to sit on the wall,” Holloway said. “I came to this party to dance.”

In the first race of Saturday night, Holloway blazed through in 12.81 seconds, missing by .01 seconds the record of Aries Merritt. (He won the final in 12.96 seconds.) Holloway said he would celebrate with a “fat-ass glass of wine” and then return to Florida to start preparing for Tokyo.

“No emotions at all,” Holloway said. “That’s what happens when you execute at a high level.”

When Benjamin watched Holloway, he said, “it made me want to do something crazy.” Benjamin may be the most dominant athlete in Eugene. He jogged home so slowly in his Friday semifinal, which he won by acres, that he scanned the crowd for his mom. “The world record,” he said Friday, “is not on my mind.”

Benjamin runs with languid ease, leaping over hurdles as if stepping over puddles outside his front door. He almost broke the record by accident. When he crossed the line in 46.83 seconds Saturday, Benjamin knew immediately how close he had come to Kevin Young’s mark of 46.78 from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

“Point zero five,” Benjamin said. “Point zero five. That’s not even anything in the grand scheme of things.”

As Benjamin walked off the track, he held his thumb and index finger almost together. He will have to chase the record again in Tokyo, where he will also try to avenge his 2019 world championship loss to Norwegian Karston Warholm. The gold medal winner will almost certainly break Young’s record. His performance Saturday reassured Benjamin that it will be him.

“It hurts a little bit to know it was right there and I couldn’t grab it,” Benjamin said. “But it’s just more fuel for the fire, man. It’ll come when it comes. Now that things are settling in, I’m kind of happy I didn’t do it now. If I would have broken the world record now, what would I have done in Tokyo? Would I have been able to maintain that level of fitness?”

“It wasn’t the perfect race,” Benjamin added. “I know I can run 46 [seconds] low right now if I actually tried. My main goal this meet wasn’t to break a world record.”

Benjamin was expected to dominate. Thomas was a revelation. She recalled the first track meet she ever watched was the 2012 U.S. trials, when she began to look up to Felix. When she thought about running alongside her, it made Thomas want to cry.

“To be making a team with her, and to be here and running that fast, I really cannot believe it,” Thomas said. “I feel empowered. I feel like if I can do it, anybody can do it and go make it happen.”

Since she started training with the Buford Bailey Track Club in Austin, where she studies public health at the University of Texas, Thomas has taken off. But she never expected to run a time that nudged her past Marion Jones by .01 seconds for second all-time. Late Saturday night, she had only started to grapple with what it meant for her career.

“It definitely has changed how I view myself as a runner,” Thomas said. “I think the standard for myself is a lot higher. I am still in shock. I cannot believe I put up that time. I just want more for myself now. Now, I’m going to have to start thinking about different goals, different visions. Because this was my dream — my dream was to make the Olympic team, not to win Olympic trials, not even to break the meet record. Now that I’ve accomplished those, I’m going to set higher goals.”

Price, a world champion and the only prior Olympian in the near-historic bunch, had an unforgettable day. She twice broke her own American record and become the second-longest thrower in history. Only Poland’s Anita Wlodarczyk has ever hurled a hammer further.

She screamed as she let fly her third throw, and when it plugged into the grass she placed her hands over her mouth and bulged her eyes. When the mark was announced at 79.98 meters (262 feet 5 inches), Price shrieked. Her husband and coach, J.C. Lambert, told her she had more in the tank. She proved him right on her fifth throw: It sailed 80.31 meters (263 feet 6 inches), the second-longest ever.

Price said some of her best throws didn’t even feel like good ones, which made her believe she could one day take aim at the world record. No records fell Saturday night, for Price or others. But next month in Tokyo, after a remarkable night in Eugene, they will be on notice.

“It is on my whiteboard,” Price said. “It’s in the sights.”