The 2012 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials begin this Thursday at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., and with them comes the promise of dreams fulfilled and hopes dashed.
To get you ready for the week ahead, we've compiled a quick primer on the American athletes with the most to prove heading into this much-anticipated competition.
In some cases, the performers must prove they're worthy of an Olympic spot. For others, qualification is all but assured, but the onus to perform well remains.
The one common baseline is pressure, and the track world will have a keen eye on these five as the drive toward London hits high gear.
Legendary decathlete Bryan Clay stands on the precipice of history.
With a podium appearance in London, the defending gold medalist can became the first man in his sport to medal in three Olympic Games.
Only one question remains: Will his body allow it?
Thanks to a cocktail of setbacks—including an injured right knee, a pulled hamstring and a painful parting of ways with Nike, his longtime sponsor—Clay has completed just one decathlon since his Beijing triumph.
Clay told me in April he feels fit and confident, but proof is in the performance.
Fans in Eugene will be anxious to know if his body can withstand the 10-event grind after such a pronounced layoff.
Still eyeing her first individual gold medal, sprinting standout Allyson Felix hopes a change in strategy will yield Olympic glory.
Felix announced Tuesday that she will double in the 100- and 200-meter sprints at U.S. Trials with the hope that a more speed-oriented training regiment will earn her an elusive victory in the 200.
By doing so, Felix has resisted the urge to run the 400—this despite the fact that she won silver in the event at last year's World Championships. Felix appears keenly aware that the 400, because of its distinct physical challenges, can sabotage her chances at a 200 title.
But the decision also comes with risks, chiefly in dropping an event (the 400) that she runs well for an event (the 100) that has never been a staple of her competitive program.
In Eugene, we'll start to see if the new thinking pays off or if she's merely sold herself short.
Among the big names at risk of not making the U.S. team, few will create more buzz this week than Jeremy Wariner.
The 2004 Olympic champ and 2008 runner-up at 400 meters finished fifth at the Prefontaine Classic in early June and ran a pedestrian 45.30 one week later at the adidas Grand Prix .
Wariner's season best, 44.96, ranks eighth among American runners, and he's barely a blip on the medal radar compared to favorites like fellow Americans LaShawn Merritt and defending world champ Kirani James and Dominican sensation Luguelin Santos.
Four Olympic medals (two in the 400 and two more in the 4x400 relay) have earned Wariner his reputation as a big-race performer, but is experience enough to overcome an evident regression in skill?
Justin Gatlin has the makings of a nice comeback story and Walter Dix remains a medal threat, but in truth there is only one American fast enough to run down Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash: Tyson Gay.
Unfortunately, as has so often been the case in Gay's star-crossed career, he's on the mend from injury. Hip surgery sidelined him for most of the past 12 months and he just recently ran his first race of the 2012 season at the adidas Grand Prix in New York City.
There, Gay was impressive, clocking a solid 10 seconds flat despite significant headwind. Considering the length of his convalescence, it was an encouraging result.
If he can hold that form in Eugene and avoid re-aggravating his balky hip, Gay is a fairly safe bet to make the U.S. team.
But more than that, track fans will be eager to know if he can dip down into the 9.9 range and establish himself as a credible medal contender.
Gay has the talent to play spoiler. Is this the year he finally makes his Olympic mark?
This week in Eugene, Carmelita Jeter revisits the site of her greatest professional failure.
It was here four years that Jeter, coming off an 100-meter bronze medal at the 2007 World Championships, shockingly failed to qualify for the U.S. team.
Since then, she's runs like a woman possessed. In 2009 she became just the second woman ever to run the 100 in under 10.65 seconds, and last year she won her first 100-meter world championship.
But signs of another Trials letdown are bubbling. Although she owns the world's best time for 2012 at 10.81, Jeter has finished north of 11 seconds in her last three races.*
The pressure is on Jeter to prove that these latest hiccups aren't due to another case of pre-Olympic jitters.
*Information via "Taking Stock" by David Epstein, Sports Illusrated, 6/18/2012