London 2012: 6 Amazing U.S. Athletes and Their Last Chance at First Gold
They're caught between the jaws of a vise.
Pressing in on one side are the youthful challengers, seemingly fearless in their attempts to expand the human limits of speed, strength and stamina.
Squeezing from the other side are the not-so-subtle internal signals warning that time will indeed take its toll.
They've accumulated almost every other competitive prize imaginable, yet there remains a huge void on their personal wall of honor—Olympic gold.
London 2012 may be their last best chance to fill that vacancy.
Lolo Jones, 29, 100-Meter Hurdles
World Indoor Champion, 2008 and 2010
American Record, 60-meter hurdles (7.72)
You may remember Lolo's stumble in the finals at Beijing, 2008. She was favored to win and was indeed pulling away from the field when she clipped the ninth hurdle, breaking her stride just enough to allow six rivals to beat her to the finish.
She was 26 at the time and dominant among the world's elite hurdlers. It was Jones' golden moment for the taking. But it was not to be.
Yet here she is again, in 2012, having clawed her way back from such a devastating blow, injuries and back surgery in the interim. She had an impressive indoor win (7.89) at the U.S. Open this month.
And as if she needed any more motivation, there is the matter of a young lady from Australia who stepped in and tore up the 2011 hurdles scene in Lolo's absence—Sally Pearson.
Christian Cantwell, 31, Shot Put
World Champion, 2009
Three-Time World Indoor Champion
Silver Medalist, 2008 Olympics
As a young pup in 2004, Cantwell unleashed a massive throw of 22.54 meters (73', 11.5") in Gresham, Oregon. Since that time, he has been playing catch-up, never quite attaining that distance again.
But then, neither has anyone else in that same time frame.
Cantwell had shoulder surgery in early 2011 and spent most of the year recovering. However, 2010 was a textbook example of total domination. He won 23 of 25 competitions, heaving the 16-pound cannonball over 70 feet in 22 of those wins.
While Cantwell was mending in 2011, a young German, David Storl, was grabbing the headlines...and the World Championship gold.
Christian already has one of those. Now he's hungry for something else.
Shalane Flanagan, 30, Marathon
American Record, 10,000 meters
Bronze Medalist, 10,000 meters, 2008 Olympics
Bronze Medalist, World Cross Country Championships, 2010
With distance runners able to compete well into their 30s, this may not be Flanagan's last shot.
Still, her pursuit of Olympic gold seems most formidable considering her relative inexperience in the marathon and the utter world dominance of the East African runners.
And with kindred spirit and training partner Kara Goucher also on the Olympic team, who knows what devious plans they might devise mid-race against those Ethiopians and Kenyans?
Tyson Gay, 29, Short Sprints
American Record, 100 meters (9.69)
World Champion, 100 meters, 200 meters, 4x100, 2007
World Record, 200 meters Straight Track (19.41)
In 2007 and early 2008, Tyson Gay was on top of the sprint world.
Then in Eugene at the 2008 US Olympic Trials, Gay went down with a hamstring injury in an early heat of the 200 meters.
It was the last time we would see a healthy Gay. And for many, it was the first time to see the emergence of the phenomenon known as Usain Bolt.
But now, in 2012, we may have the privilege of seeing a healthy Gay run again.
The question is...is it too late? The sprint landscape has changed dramatically since 2007. The Jamaicans have a seemingly endless supply of quality sprinters—of note, young Yohan Blake.
But if it comes down to hard work, motivation and overall sprint mastery (Gay is the only man to have run a sub-10 100 meters, a sub-20 200 meters and a sub-45 400 meters), Tyson should get his gold.
Update: March 31, 2012 - If Gay does get his gold, it will have to be in the 100m or 4x100m relay. Citing a nagging pelvic disorder, Gay eliminated the 200m as an Olympic target. His total focus will be on the 100m, with minimal racing before the US Olympic Trials the end of June.
Sanya Richards-Ross, 27, Long Sprints
American Record, 400 meters (48.70)
Five World Titles (400 meters, 4x400)
Bronze Medalist, 400 meters, 2008 Olympics
Gold Medalist, 4x400 relay, 2008 Olympics
Okay. Richards-Ross does have an Olympic gold. But it's not all hers (4x400 relay).
In Beijing 2008, she was the odds-on favorite to bring home the 400-meter gold. But her legs failed her in the finals. She faded to third. The 4x400 gold must have felt a little like having a date with her brother.
The next three years would be marked by injury, Behcet's disease and marriage...to cornerback Aaron Ross, who at the time, played for the Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
But early in 2012, Sanya seems to be back to her world-leading self, having posted the world's top two indoor times: a 50.89 at Millrose and a 50.71 (at altitude) in Albuquerque just yesterday.
Could 2012 find two huge trophies in the Ross household this year?
Brad Walker, 30, Pole Vault
American Record, 6.04 meters (19', 9.75")
World Champion, 2007
World Indoor Champion, 2006
So dominant was the legendary vaulter Sergey Bubka that his name must be included in any serious discussion concerning the pole vault.
Brad Walker's connection? His American record is the closest to Bubka's world outdoor record of any active vaulter.
It appears Walker has found his "second wind" at age 30.
In January, he had a very good 5.8-meter (19', 0") vault in Reno. Then, just yesterday in Albuquerque, he jumped 5.86 meters (19', 2.75"), showing just the gradual improvement one should expect on the ascending curve designed to peak in August.
Yes, August. London. Where the elusive gold awaits.
In the meantime, get out and take in a track meet or two.