Tensions, talent mounting in women's 200

EUGENE, Ore. -- The U.S. Olympic Committee likes to trot out the phrase, "The Hardest Team to Make," to sell the Olympic track trials.

Often, it's just hype. In the women's 200 meters this week, it's a cruel fact.

The depth of the field in the half-lap sprint has some of the fastest women in the world running in awe. Or fear. Or silence. And this was after just the first of three qualifying rounds Thursday night.

"It's unbelievable," said Lauryn Williams, the Olympic silver medalist in the 100 at the 2004 Athens Games and the 2005 world champion who scraped into Friday's semifinal round as the 21st and final qualifier in 23.20 seconds. "This is the best 200 I've ever seen in all my years competing, for sure."

Bianca Knight, one of the top curve runners in the world who was part of the U.S. world champion 4x100 relay last year at Daegu, was only the 17th fastest qualifier (23.11). She tried to conserve as much energy as possible. She has no choice. "I have to save everything I can," she said, "because the next round will definitely be run like a final. The heats are so stacked."

You couldn't throw a rock without hitting a major championship medalist Thursday afternoon. And if you had, they probably wouldn't have noticed. Carmelita Jeter, the fastest woman alive and reigning 100-meter world champ, clocked the second-fastest time of the day, then kept right on sprinting past the media, without so much as a sideways glance.

Allyson Felix, the Olympic 200 silver medalist in Beijing (2008) and Athens (2004) and world champion at the 200 in 2005, '07 and '09, smiled but said nothing as she moved on by. Felix and fellow Nike runner Jeneba Tarmoh had other reasons not to talk.

They're mired in USA Track and Field's 100-meter dead heat controversy, which won't be resolved until after Saturday night's 200 final. Even if they wanted to talk about the 200, they wouldn't risk having to answer questions about who's going to London as the third member of the 100 squad.

The top finisher Thursday, Tianna Madison, was asked to stop and talk the media after coming home in 22.57, but she just shook her head and kept going. Too tired, she said.

One reason everyone's ratcheting up their intensity is Sanya Richards-Ross, the 400-meter standout who is trying a 200-400 double for the first time. Richards-Ross qualified easily for the 400 earlier this week, and she has run the fastest 200 in the world this season. She alone looked carefree among the contenders Thursday evening.

"That first race is the hardest," Richards-Ross said, "because you really want to go for it, but you want to stay controlled."

It certainly didn't appear difficult. She flew out of the blocks and scorched the curve, then jogged home in 22.67. Richards-Ross is running with as much confidence as anyone anywhere right now, and that includes the Jamaican Olympic trials. "I felt good today and I'm looking forward to tomorrow."

She's the only one. Richards-Ross' presence in the field almost certainly means someone like Jeter or Felix, two of the sport's elites, or Tarmoh or Madison, who are having outstanding seasons, or Knight, who has worked steadily toward the Games for the past four years after a standout career at Texas, will be left off the team.

Knight figures it will take a time of 22.6 or better just to make it out of the semifinals; to win the final, or even make the team, it may take under 22 seconds. "I'm definitely going to have to PR," Knight said.

It's some frightening math.

"You have that top six in the 100," said Williams, referring to the number of 100-meter finalists who entered the 200. "And then you have three or four others who threw their name in the hat, people like Sanya Richards. It's going to be a great race."

And that's just the semifinals.