On a folding chair in the shade of a pop tent, George Williams watched his four Olympians go through their paces Monday at St. Augustine’s University-. Everyone was hiding from the heat, enjoying the sporadic breeze, the runners occasionally emerging to sprint or stretch in the withering sun.
All four have a chance to medal, but it’s still a slightly smaller group than the one Williams expected to take to Rio de Janeiro. Two of his best hurdlers – the Americans Johnny Dutch and Bershawn Jackson – didn’t make it out of the U.S. Olympic Trials earlier this month. Nor did Clayton’s Keni Harrison, who on Friday proceeded to set a new world record in the 100-meter hurdles in London.
“If you had told me that Harrison and Dutch weren’t going to make the team, I would have bet all of my money,” Williams said. “You would have seen a broke coach here today, you know what I mean? So you never know whether it’s the weather, whether it’s the mental attitude – 80 percent of this is mental – or whether it’s the pressure.
“Coach (Sandy) Chapman and I had stopped looking at Dutch and started looking for Bershawn. We tried to figure out where he was, because we thought Dutch had already won it. We were at the 9th hurdle, he was leading everybody. You never know how this business will work.”
Dutch led almost the entire 400 meters but clipped the final hurdle and staggered home fifth.
“It’s a brutal trial, man,” Williams said.
Jamaica held a spot open for Usain Bolt, who didn’t participate in the Jamaican trials, but the United States makes no such allowances. The top three at trials go to the Olympics, period. Williams would like to see the IOC and IAAF allocate a potential fourth spot for the world’s best time of the year in each event – that would have opened slots for Dutch and Harrison – but as things stand, the track trials are a cruel, fickle decider, four years of work whittled down to a few crucial seconds.
Williams, with dozens of NCAA Division II championships in 40 years at St. Aug’s and 40 Olympians, has seen it all over the years, from stars such as Dutch and Harrison inexplicably falling short to Ronnie Ash, who spent a year at Knightdale High School, becoming a surprise qualifier in the 110-meter hurdles.
We’re going to go to Rio and have a good time. Then we’re going to come back and tell the story.
St. Aug’s coach George Williams
This will be Williams’ eighth trip to the Olympics, seven of them more relaxing than 2004, when as head coach of the U.S. team in Athens he led the Americans to a record 19 medals – a successful, but stressful, campaign.
The failure of Dutch and Jackson to qualify for Rio deprived Williams of his dream of a podium sweep in the 400 hurdles with the runners he coaches, but he still has two in the event who he thinks can, and perhaps should, medal: Jamaica’s Roxroy Cato and the Bahamas’ Jeffery Gibson. Both have run medal-worthy times in the past. Gibson won gold at the Pan-American Games and bronze at the world championships last summer; Cato, a 2012 Olympian, was third at the Pan-American Games.
“One of these two guys is going to be on the podium,” Williams said. “Maybe both of them.”
Williams’ two other Olympians, 20-year-old hurdler Tia-Adana Belle and 200-meter runner Burkheart Ellis Jr., are both competing for Barbados, although Ellis was born in Raleigh and went to Knightdale High School. Both of his parents ran for Williams at St. Augustine’s. Belle was the Division II champion in the 400-meter hurdles and Ellis won the 200-meter hurdles.
It’s not the group Williams expected to take to Rio, but he’s no less optimistic about it.
“We’re going to go to Rio and have a good time,” Williams said. “Then we’re going to come back and tell the story.”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock