RIO DE JANEIRO —Shaunae Miller lay on her back for a full seven minutes, trying to catch her breath and process what had just happened. She stared up at the dark Rio de Janeiro sky, wearing a smile that shined brighter than any Olympic medal. The Bahamian runner had just turned the women’s 400-meter sprint into a diving competition, a golden gamble that paid off, dashing the hopes of American superstar Allyson Felix in the process.
Miller, 22, nipped one of the best runners to ever represent the United States by launching herself head-first across the finish line and winning the biggest race of her life in 49.44 seconds. She was just 0.07 seconds ahead of Felix, who despite a late charge, remained upright and stunned at the finish.
“This is the moment I have been waiting for,” said Miller, a former runner at the University of Georgia. “I just gave it my all.”
Miller didn’t violate any rules or sense of track decorum, and while diving across the line is uncommon, it’s hardly surprising. But the moment, the circumstances and the stakes of her tumble sent the Olympic Stadium crowd into a frenzy. Miller said she reacted instinctively. She had no time to plan or calculate.
“My mind just went blank,” Miller said. “The only thing I was thinking was the gold medal. Next you know, I was on the ground.”
Running out of lane 4, Felix appeared to be making up ground on Miller but couldn’t quite close the gap over the final couple of strides. “I didn’t feel like I had any more left to give,” Felix said.
Miller’s body thudded hard on the blue track. She earned red scrapes on her legs, hips and arms for efforts, but the pain wasn’t immediate apparent. She was soon joined on the ground by an exhausted Felix, who stared at the same night sky. In her fourth visit to the Olympics, Felix became the most decorated female athlete in U.S. track and field history. The silver was her seventh Olympic medal, breaking a tie with Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a bittersweet feat Monday night.
“I just really wanted it. . . . I think in the moment, it’s painful,” said Felix, who initially targeted gold in both the 200- and 400-meter races . A spring ankle injury limited her to one individual race here.
The exciting finish capped a busy night for the U.S. team. The Americans enjoyed a big medal haul — one silver and three bronze medals — but didn’t manage a gold. The veterans and the rookies alike shined at Olympic Stadium, as 21-year-old Clayton Murphy finished third in the men’s 800-meter race, 17-year-old Sydney McLaughlin overcame nerves to advance in the women’s 400-meter hurdles, Emma Coburn took bronze in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and 23-year-old Sam Kendricks finished third in the men’s pole vault, clearing a height of 19 feet 2.3 inches.
In the men’s 800, all eyes were locked on Kenya’s David Rudisha, the world record-holder and defending Olympic champion. He did not disappoint, streaking around a rain-soaked track and posting an impressive time of 1:42.15. He called it “the greatest moment of my career.”
Murphy, fresh off his junior year at the University of Akron, finished in 1:42.93 to become the first American to medal in the race since Johnny Gray at the 1992 Games — 2½ years before Murphy was born.
“Last night I kind of ran the race in my head a couple of times and ran through it with a medal,” he said. “That was just a big goal I had going in. It hasn’t sunk in yet. I’m sure it’s not gonna sink in for awhile.”
The track was much drier when Coburn stepped on the track earlier in the day for the steeplechase race. Coburn set a new U.S. record with her time of 9:07.63 and became the first American win a steeplechase medal since 1984 — and the first U.S. woman to win one at all since the event was added to the Olympic slate in 2008.
“I feel so lucky that that’s a part of my story,” she said.
The steeplechase race was one of many here where the absence of Russian competitors was noticeable. Since the event was added, Russia won the Olympic women’s race both times it was contested. In 2008, in fact, Russia runners claimed three of the top four spots.
Just eight days after celebrating her 17th birthday, McLaughlin became the youngest member of the U.S. track and field team to compete in an Olympics since 16-year-old Rhonda Brady at the 1976 Games. Her 400-meter hurdles race didn’t go quite as planned, but it was good enough to advance into the semifinals.
“It’s exciting to be here, but it’s also really intimidating,” she said. “A lot of people who’ve done this before and have more experience than me.”
McLaughlin finished fifth in her heat and but her time of 56.32 seconds was just good enough to earn her a spot in the semis. The finish was more than two seconds slower than her time at the U.S. Olympic trials.
“It is the weather and thousands of people in the crowd and I have a cold — just so much to process into one race and try to overcome at one time,” she said. “I’m not really particularly happy with my performance.”
McLaughlin was at least three years younger than the 47 other 400-meter hurdlers here, and said she was caught off guard by the speed in the first-round heat. But on a rainy day at Olympic Stadium, it wasn’t difficult to find the silver lining.
“Just to be here at this age and representing my country is amazing,” she said.