Gay wows crowd speed

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 30, 2008

The Associated Press

EUGENE, Ore. — When you enter the emerald gates of historic Hayward Field, you know what to expect from track and field’s most knowledgeable fans.

They will stomp and clap rhythmically for long-limbed jumpers and muscle-bound throwers, but we all know that in Track Town, U.S.A., their hearts will always hold a special place for distance runners.

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The middle-distance runner is a prince, and the 5,000- and 10,000-meter men and their coaches are kings of the city.

Yet even in a town made famous by distance-running legends such as Steve Prefontaine and Bill Bowerman, nothing stimulates the Hayward audience like the white-hot electricity of witnessing dizzying world-class speed.

The Hayward crowd does not chant or clap or politely acknowledge sprinters.

It oooooohs and ahhhhhhs them.

So late Sunday afternoon, in the sensational 9.68 seconds it took Tyson Gay to burn down the track to capture the finals of the men’s 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, Hayward Field let out the most ridiculous collective gasp of stunning disbelief.

Nine sixty eight.

“If you had blinked, you would have missed it,” said sprinter Darvis Patton, the third-place finisher in this dazzling race in 9.84 seconds. “For the human body to go that fast is just awesome.”

By the end of another ultra-hot day, long after all the spectators had left the premises, the old-school legends of the sport, and a few of the new breed too, were still milling about trying to comprehend the full magnitude of what they’d just witnessed.

The soft-spoken Gay, who says he wants to pattern his life and career in the modest and low-key image of the late Jesse Owens, stole the show in Day 2 of the trials by sprinting the fastest 100-meter dash in the history of the sport.

From start to finish, Gay was a stoic sprint machine, gobbling up his competitors barely 30 meters into the race, then blazing to a wind-aided 9.68 seconds, 0.04 of a second faster than Jamaican Usain Bolt’s 9.72 world record.

“I don’t care if the wind was 1.4, 4.1 or he did it in a tornado,” East St. Louis’ former Olympian Al Joyner said as he shook heads and hands with his old Olympic teammate Harvey Glance.

“I can’t begin to tell you how amazing that was,” said Glance, the U.S. team’s sprint coach for the Beijing Olympics. “It’s hard to comprehend what he just did no matter what the conditions were.”

What happened out there on that straightaway might have been the most technically sound sprint race ever put together, and what makes this even more remarkable is that Gay did it essentially by completely changing his running technique over the course of the last four weeks.

On May 31, in New York City, Gay finished second in a race against the 6-foot-5-inch Bolt during the world record sprint, and he and his coach, Jon Drummond, realized that they couldn’t beat the long-striding Jamaican by running the way Gay was doing.

So they essentially rebuilt the engine, concentrating on a faster start and longer drive phase that emphasized getting Gay’s knees underneath him like driving pistons pounding into his chest.

In the finals, that’s exactly what Gay did. As the other seven sprinters were uncoiling their bodies around 20 meters and preparing to essentially let their starting speed propel them through the last 75 meters, Gay still had his head buried in his chest, still powering hard for another 15 meters, and by 35 or 40 meters, he took the lead with an explosive torque of power and speed.

When someone asked him about the technical advantage of that power phase of his race, in typical low-key Tyson Gay fashion, he shrugged his shoulders. “You don’t really gain any advantage (staying in his drive phase so long),” he said. “It’s just something that looks kind of neat.”

As Gay spoke, Patton and second-place finisher and fellow new Olympian Walter Dix sat beside him listening. Patton elbowed Dix and started laughing.

“Did he just say ‘kinda neat’?” Patton said.

Dix just nodded his head and laughed.

“I was like, ‘He just ran the fastest race in the history of mankind, and he thinks it’s kinda neat,’” Patton said. “Only Tyson would say that.”