EUGENE, Ore. – A few more kids are on their way to Brazil after Saturday’s racing at the U.S. Track and Field Trials.
In this case, they are 41-year-old Bernard Lagat’s son and daughter, Miika and Gianna.
The American record-holder runner flipped the script on a youth-filled trials on Saturday, running his final lap of the 5,000 meters in 52 seconds to charge from sixth to first and earn his fifth – and most surprising – trip to the Olympics.
Lagat, who won in 13 minutes, 35.50 seconds, will have his kids in tow on the way to Rio.
Joining them there will be 34-year-old Justin Gatlin, who made his third Olympics, holding off LaShawn Merritt and a duo of high schoolers, Michael Norman and Noah Lyles, who stood as the latest examples of the growing youth movement in American track.
Like Gatlin, though, Lagat isn’t quite finished.
“There were people going, ‘You never know how he’s going to perform.’ They were saying I’m done and cannot make the team,” he said. “That didn’t sound right to me.”
That talk picked up last year, when the Kenyan-born runner missed his first worlds or Olympics team since he became an American citizen in 2005 – a failure he said “crushed him” because his kids were pushing hard for him to make the trip. The murmurs came back after he dropped out of the 5,000 earlier this season at the Prefontaine Classic and only got louder when he pulled out of 10K qualifying earlier in trials.
But Lagat was far from finished in his own mind, and those competing against him felt the same way.
“We know Bernard Lagat will be done,” said third-place finisher Paul Chelimo, “when he’s not running anymore.”
Nobody ignores Gatlin, the world silver medalist at 100 and 200 meters, though he may have been hard to miss early in the 200-meter final – stuck on the outside lane thanks to finishing behind Norman in the previous day’s semifinals.
Unable to see the competition as he worked the curve, it turned the race into what he called “a glorified time trial.”
It turned into quite a showdown along the stretch, with Gatlin finishing in 19.75 seconds and edging Merritt – the 400-meter specialist who’s pretty good at 200, too – by a mere .04 seconds.
“I said, ‘You know what, if Lagat had the guts to go out there and do what he needs to do at his age, I can go out there and do what I need to do, especially from Lane 8,’ ” Gatlin said.
Like Merritt, Allyson Felix remains in the mix for the 200-400 double; she made it easily through her semifinal round. Like Merritt, Felix turned 30 in the past year. And like Merritt, she is an expert at pacing herself through the rounds in multiple races.
“Experience means a lot,” Merritt said. “It’s being comfortable once you get out there. Being able to use the nerves as positive energy. And knowing you’ve been there before and know how to handle it, it gives you a chip on your shoulder.”
Lagat certainly had one.
He heard the whispers from fans, felt the pressure from his own kids. When the race ended, he dropped to the ground and shouted: “Love you, Gianna. Miika!” They shared a long, cheer-filled victory lap, and Lagat said he did it for them as much as him.
Great when a plan goes right.
“My daughter said, ‘I want you to win,’ ” Lagat said, “ ‘So I can go see gymnastics.’ ”