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Allyson Felix to English Gardner, Thursday night, August 18, 2016, 7 pm local time, photo by PhotoRun.net


USA Relay Woes Continue

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

Yesterday at the Olympic Stadium as the USA women's 4x100 meter relay team was preparing to compete in their preliminary round, you could look around the stands and easily identify the American fans. They were the ones - in fearful anticipation - who were averting their gaze, shielding their eyes, afraid to witness yet another Team USA relay disaster.

The team the USA was sending out onto the track made sense. Tianna Bartoletta - fresh off her clutch, gold medal long jump performance the night before - was scheduled to lead off, just as she had done in the 2012 Games when the Yanks grabbed the gold with a world record performance. She would then hand off to the veteran Allison Felix who would race the backstretch before handing off to English Gardner to run the curve. The former Oregon star would then pass to Olympic newbie anchor Morolake Akinosun. Keen observers anticipated that when - or if - the Americans would make the final, a rested Tori Bowie would step in for Akinosun to run the anchor.

As the heat got underway, the seasoned Bartoletta got out well and flew around the curve. It was clear the Americans had the early lead. The first exchange between two veterans was just what you'd expect - conservatively scripted and carefully performed. Felix looked solid down the backstretch.

But then it happened.

As Felix was sailing toward Gardner who was just beginning to take off, the team on USA's outside - Brazil - was executing its exchange. Not uncommonly, Brazil's third sprinter was crouched in the left section of her lane to give her incoming teammate maximum room to perform the handoff. But Brazil's outgoing third athlete was too far left, stepping on the line between the host team and the US and causing her elbow to make contact with the incoming Felix on the inner lane. As the Brazilian elbowed Felix, the American athlete - still in full flight and preparing to hand to the accelerating Gardner - was jostled and thrown off stride. Slowed, Felix could not reach Gardner to hand off the baton. Understandably flustered and running out of exchange zone real estate, Felix attempted an awkward shovel pass - actually attempting to toss the stick into her teammate's open hand as Gardner - looking straight ahead - was tearing into the curve. As in football, forward laterals are not permitted in track & and field. Pandemonium resulted: Felix crashed into the halting Gardner, the baton went flying, and the USA women's relay hopes went down the drain. Or so it seemed....

After the baton was retrieved and the US loped in to cross the line in 1::06.71, the Americans filed a protest alleging obstruction by Brazil. "I got bumped coming into the exchange zone. It just completely threw me off balance," explained Felix afterward in the mixed zone. "I tried to hold it together to get it to English. Maybe, if I had one more step I could've, but I was falling as I was going through." Upon review, the host team was disqualified and - in a nearly unprecedented move - the U.S. women were granted an unusual remedy. They would be given a single-team re-run - a "do-over" as the kids would say - to be held before the start of the evening session later the same day. For the additional opportunity to be fruitful, the American women would have to run faster than the Chinese quartet which captured the last time qualifier with a 42.70 in the morning session. This time the Americans got it right. Running in the first Olympic race with only one entrant since 1908, the U.S. women got the stick around, clocking 41.77 - the fastest semi-final time - to unseat China and gain a Lane 1 spot in today's final.

Stick exchanges are an integral part of our sport. The baton pass is a relay race procedure which - if honed through practice - is not intrinsically difficult. Attend the Penn Relays and you'll witness hundreds of teams - many of them high school squads - execute precise passes all day long. The difficult element is the ability to coolly perform this maneuver in the heat of the battle. Baton exchanges are the track & field equivalent of the last-second field goal attempt to capture the Super Bowl trophy, the basketball foul shot with no time left on the clock to win a playoff game, the 8 foot putt to win the Master's.

So what does Team USA need to do to master this - as many other nations have? Two steps come readily to mind. First of all, Team USA must abandon the notion that the team's relay coach position can be treated like a ceremonial appointment to be conferred as a reward upon an aging American sprinter. Team USA needs to secure the services of a proven, no-nonsense sprint and relay coach. Our country is replete with experienced and knowledgeable individuals who have a firm understanding of sprint mechanics and exchange zone best practices. A case in point would be veteran coach Loren Seagrave, an international consultant, Director of Track & Field and Cross Country, and the Director of Speed and Movement at IMG Academy. After being retained by China to work with their young and promising sprinters and to harness their relay teams, Seagrave prepared China's sprinters to perform at the highest level at last August's World Championships in Beijing. Primed through Seagrave's guidance, sprinter Bingtian Su made the 100 meter final. And the Chinese men's 4x100 meter relay team crossed the line third in the Beijing final and were actually awarded the silver medal. How is that possible, you ask? The second team across the line - the US of A - was disqualified for passing outside of the zone.

A second, essential ingredient for relay team success is practice - and lots of it. Successful place kickers, basketball players, and golfers spend endless hours cultivating the poise and muscle memory necessary to ensure perfect field goal, foul shot, and putting execution when that big moment is upon them. Sprint squads from other nations do so as well - devoting countless hours perfecting timing and stick passing . It is manifestly apparent that our athletes to do not attend to this to the degree necessary to skirt disaster. To those who would yelp that our sprinters actually do devote sufficient time and attention preparing properly and religiously, the endless string of big stage gaffes suggests otherwise.

There is little reason to believe that USA relay team disasters can be averted until changes such as these - and others - are implemented.

As for the current United States' women's 4 x 100 meter relay team, they have been granted one of the rarest opportunities in track & field: a second chance. The American women responded with gusto last night by achieving a time qualifier in a most-unusual single team re-run. Tonight we will see if the women's sprint quartet can take full advantage of this second chance by performing under pressure and executing precisely in a filled stadium against 7 other world-class quartets. Resist the instinct to look away.

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2020 Mid-American Conference Indoor Track & Field Championships

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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.


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