RIO de JANEIRO – In the final event on a busy track and field calendar Wednesday at Olympic Stadium, Americans Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin swept the women’s 100m hurdles, Rollins winning in 12.48 seconds.
The sweep by the U.S. women marked a significant first in Olympic history.
According to the Olympic historian Bill Mallon, there had been 61 such American track and field 1-2-3’s in prior editions of the modern Games, dating to 1904 (in events such as the 200-meter hurdles, which back then was a thing). The most recent U.S. 1-2-3’s: the 400 and 400 hurdles at the Beijing 2008 Games.
All 61 were in men’s events.
Wednesday night thus made for the first medals sweep for American track and field women.
“What? Oh, my goodness!” Ali said when told of the historical significance.
To be sure, American women have gone 1-2-3 at previous editions of the Games – as far back as 1904 (again), in archery, and in other disciplines.
But, remarkably, never before had the American women gone gold, silver, bronze in track or field.
Making it all the sweeter, as Rollins would say: “We are genuinely friends.”
The victory also made for the first gold medal for the 2016 U.S. team on the track. The prior four came in field events: Michelle Carter, women’s shot put, Jeff Henderson, men’s long jump; Christian Taylor, men’s triple jump; and just before the hurdles, Tianna Bartoletta in the women’s long jump.
A quirky point of contrast: in Tuesday night’s men’s 110m hurdles final, the Americans were shut out of the medals the first time in a non-boycotted Games. Jamaica’s Omar McLeod won; Americans Devon Allen and Ronnie Ash finished fifth and eighth.
The women’s hurdles served as Wednesday’s marquee event amid a crush of other races:
– Jamaica’s Usain Bolt jogged to a 19.78 semifinal victory in the men’s 200m, chatting it up coming down the stretch with Canada’s Andre de Grasse, second in a national-record 19.8. The American LaShawn Merritt won the first semi, 19.94. In the third semifinal, the
American Justin Gatlin, ahead at the turn, eased off the gas – too much – and finished third in 20.13, an overall ninth-best in the three heats; Gatlin will not run in the final.
Bolt said afterward, referring to de Grasse, “He was supposed to slow down. I said, ‘What are you doing? It’s a semifinal.’ “
“We were having fun,” de Grasse said. “I just wanted to go out there and push him to his limits a bit.”
– Evan Jager won the first medal in men’s 3000m steeplechase for the United States since 1984, a silver.
– Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson, already the winner here of the women’s 100m, pulled the sprint double, winning the 200m in 21.78. Holland’s Dafne Schippers took second, 21.88. American Tori Bowie, silver medalist in the 100, got bronze, 22.15.
– Bartoletta and fellow American Brittney Reese went 1-2 in the long jump. Bartoletta, the 2015 and Helsinki 2005 world champion, took long jump gold with a fifth-round jump of 7.17m, 23-6 1/4. Reese, the London 2012 winner, went 7.15, 23-5 1/2 on her sixth and final jump.
– With his wife, the Canadian heptathlon bronze medalist Brianne Theisen-Eaton, cheering from the stands, the American Ashton Eaton finished the first day of the decathlon with 4621 points, 121 ahead of Germany’s Kai Kazmirek.
The 10-part decathlon wraps up Thursday. Eaton, the 2012 gold medalist, will be a heavy favorite to become the first to repeat as Olympic decathlon since Great Britain’s Daley Thompson did so. Thompson won in Moscow in 1980 and in Los Angeles in 1984.
In his world-record performance at the 2015 Beijing worlds, Eaton finished with 9,045 points, the first day at 4,703.
The long road to Wednesday night’s hurdles final featured a series of plot twists, turns and family ties – any of which, standing alone, would have made the event must-see.
To begin, there was for sure going to be a new gold medalist in the sprint hurdles.
Sally Pearson of Australia is the 2011 Daegu world champion and London 2012 gold medalist. Pearson tore a hamstring in training in January; that followed a broken wrist she suffered in a gruesome fall in a 100m hurdles race at the 2015 Rome Diamond League meet.
Meanwhile, seven of the year’s top performances in the event came from Americans, including Keni Harrison’s 12.2, a new world record, run July 22 in London.
Harrison picked a bad day to have a bad day at the U.S. Trials in Eugene. There, in the 100m finals on July 8, she finished sixth, running 12.62.
Rollins, who turns 25 Thursday, won the Trials, in 12.34. She is the 2013 Moscow world championships 100m hurdles winner. Her personal-best, 12.26, is the fourth-best performance of all time.
Castlin, 28, took second, in 12.5. Her father, Rodney, a hotel night manager, was murdered in December 2000, when Kristi was 16. In 2007, a week after she helped lead her Virginia Tech team at the ACC track and field championships, a gunman opened fire on campus, killing 32 people. She dedicated her Olympic appearance to victims of gun violence.
She said late Wednesday, referring to her family, “This wasn’t just a representation of me. This was a representation of them as well. We’ve held each other up. We came through. I’m just happy to be in such a great family.”
Ali, 27, came in third in Eugene, in 12..55. She is the two-time 60m world indoor champion, at the 2016 meet in Portland, Oregon, and in 2014 in Sopot, Poland. At that meet, Ali out-leaned Pearson for the gold. Seven years ago, Ali’s father died in a murder-suicide in Philadelphia.
The Nia Ali story, by itself, holds so many facets it is truly just remarkable. She comes from a family of 25 – 25! – siblings. She is now a mom herself: she and U.S. 400m hurdles runner Michael Tinsley are parents of Titus, who turned 1 in May. Tinsley, the London men’s 400m hurdles silver medalist, qualified for the 2016 U.S. team but didn’t make it out of Monday’s first round.
Ali’s Twitter handle is @it’sPooda – the expression a college roommate would say when she saw Ali. No reason. Just – it’s Pooda.
One of the 25 siblings, Ameer Ali, plays professional basketball in Barcelona. A sister, Kalenna, used to be part of the hip-hop band Diddy-Dirty Money alongside none other than Puff Daddy.
When elegantly run, to continue the music analogy, the sprint hurdles turns into something of a rhythmic dance.
One-two-three go, one-two-three go – for 10 hurdles. When you’re in that rhythm, you feel it, and it can look so easy – which it for sure is not.
In the second of the three semifinals earlier Wednesday, for instance, Puerto Rico’s Jasmine Camacho-Quinn was feeling it. Until the last two hurdles. She hit them and her Olympics was, just that fast, over.
Rollins won the first semi in a smooth 12.47. Then Ali the second, 12.65. Then Castlin the third, 12.63.
This meant that, for the third straight Games, the Americans put three women in the field of eight. In 2012, Dawn Harper-Nelson and Kelli Wells went 2-3; Harper-Nelson won in Beijing in 2008.
Also in Wednesday night’s final: sisters Tiffany Porter and Cindi Ofili, representing Britain. Their father, Felix, was born in Nigeria; mother, Lillian, in Britain. Tiffany Porter’s American husband, Jeff, the special projects coordinator at the University of Michigan athletic department, raced in the 110m hurdles here; he did not make it out of the semifinals.
Coming out for the final, Rollins blew a kiss to the crowd. Ali, her hair dyed green, looked calm and serene. The always fashion-forward Castlin, too, sporting a glittering bindi between her eyes.
Rollins had the race from the start. Ali clearly was second. Castlin and Ofili were neck and neck over the final hurdle and then Castlin found just enough for third.
The times: 12.48, 12.59, 12.61.
Ofili crossed in 12.63.
“Girl power,” Castlin said afterward. “Super.”