RIO DE JANEIRO — They couldn’t know the result immediately, not in a race decided by a fraction of a drum beat, so the three Americans stood near each other, waiting. There was some measure of celebration and certainty only for Brianna Rollins. Yet even she stared up at the giant scoreboard above one end of Olympic Stadium, wondering.
“I knew that I got the gold,” Rollins said. “But I just wanted to make sure that my other teammates medaled as well.”
It took Rollins just 12.48 seconds to cross the finish line in the women’s 100-meter hurdles Wednesday night. The next few moments had to feel 10 times as long. But when the numbers and names flashed up — Nia Ali, 12.59 for silver, Kristi Castlin 12.61 for bronze — the three women jumped spontaneously and squealed, because no celebration for a sweep could be planned. No three American teammates, in any women’s event in the history of Olympic track and field, had taken all three medals. Rollins, Ali and Castlin, understandably, fell into a deep and deserved hug.
“We’ve talked about it, but it’s not something that we focused on,” Rollins said. “We just wanted to focus on being our best, and being our best would get us on the podium.”
The podium was a popular place for Americans on Wednesday, a day that provided almost unsurpassed glory — and one major hiccup, which we’ll get to. But not long before the hurdles ended the evening, Tianna Bartoletta, who turns 31 later this month, managed to power past 2012 Olympic gold medalist Brittney Reese in the long jump, a back-and-forth battle between teammates that ended with a gold-silver American finish.
And that followed Tori Bowie in the women’s 200. The silver medalist in the 100 meters, Bowie couldn’t catch the woman who vanquished her there — Jamaica’s Elaine Thompson won gold in 21.78 seconds — nor could she catch up with Dafne Schippers of the Netherlands, who won silver 0.1 seconds back. But put Bowie’s bronze-medal sprint of 22.15 seconds in with the rest of the program, and it was a six-medal night — and seven-medal day, considering the afternoon silver from Evan Jager in the steeplechase – for USA Track and Field.
“It was an awesome hour, for sure,” Bartoletta said.
There was but one exception: Justin Gatlin. The 34-year-old is a secondary act on the national sprint stage to Jamaican legend Usain Bolt, and that was his lot Wednesday night. Bolt ran in the second of three semifinal heats in the 200 meters, Gatlin in the third. Bolt won his race easily in 19.78 seconds, though as he jogged the final 30 meters, he looked quizzically at 21-year-old Canadian Andre de Grasse, running in an adjacent lane.
Why, Bolt wanted to know, had de Grasse raced so hard given that the top two finishers in each heat advance to the final?
“That was really unnecessary,” Bolt said. “I don’t know what he was trying to do. But he’s a young kid. He’s great. He has a lot of talent. I’m looking forward to the competition.”
The competition — the final — is Thursday night. On another night, Gatlin’s race might have been the undisputed U.S. story line. The five-time Olympic medalist, who was second to Bolt in the 100 meters Sunday night, led his heat of the 200 as the runners came out of the turn Wednesday.
Gatlin, though, was dealing with a problem: a right ankle he twisted early in the season, one he said affected both his schedule and his training. As he warmed up Wednesday night, it stiffened. When the gun went off, it still wasn’t loose.
“Coming off the turn, felt pain in the last 20 meters,” Gatlin said. “I looked over and I tried to hold on as long as I could.”
The glance was at Panama’s Alonso Edward, who won the heat in 20.07 seconds. It was at Churandy Martina of the Netherlands, who finished second in 20.10. Gatlin thrust out his chest at the finish line, but his time of 20.13 wasn’t among the remaining two fastest from those who didn’t finish 1-2 in their heats. Thus, Gatlin will be a spectator for Thursday’s final.
“At the end of the day, I’m just glad I was able to walk off the track without such a real harmful injury,” Gatlin said. So it will be left to Bolt to try for a historic sweep of both Olympic sprints — races he won in 2004 and 2008 as well. He also has another number in mind: 19.19 seconds, a number he set in 2009, a number no one has matched or surpassed since.
“I definitely think I can try for the world record,” he said.
That might trump the performance of the American women, should he pull it off. The sweep stole the night. “You would think something like that happens on the collegiate level,” Gatlin said.
The ping-pong match of Bartoletta and Reese was mesmerizing as well. On her fifth of six attempts, Reese, the favorite, launched a leap of 7.09 meters.
“I expected that from Brittney,” Bartoletta said.
Bartoletta had her own expectations, too. She won world championships in 2005 and 2015, so there is savvy earned over a decade. She responded immediately with a 7.17. Reese’s final leap was powerful, and she gestured confidently to the crowd afterward. Alas, it was two centimeters shy.
“To win that medal after all that time, and still be here and be a more mature athlete, a more serious athlete, more deliberate in my approach to the sport, more businesslike,” Bartoletta said, “it’s really validating for sure.”
Rollins and her mates did the final bit of validating for the Americans. The three hurdlers are remarkably close. “It’s like a sisterhood,” Rollins said. They also compete in an event that is so tightly contested in the U.S. that the woman who finished sixth at trials, Kendra Harrison, responded to that disappointment — and resulting failure to make the U.S. team — by setting the world record in the event at a July meet in London.
“It just shows you how strong our event is,” Rollins said.
The strength, though, was apparent during the race, which each executed cleanly. And it was apparent afterward, when Rollins, Ali and Castlin each grabbed an American flag from the crowd, each draped it over her shoulders, and each made her way around the track, soaking in the final bit of adulation on a night full of such for the Americans.