When the U.S. Olympic track and field trials open in Eugene, Ore., Friday, keep this in mind: Winning doesn't matter. Making the top three and punching a ticket to Beijing does.
The big American track stars of 2007 -- Tyson Gay (100 and 200 meters), Jeremy Wariner (400) and Bernard Lagat (1,500 and 5,000) -- should make it through the rounds and qualify without problems. All are having solid seasons after piling up gold in last year's World Championships at Osaka, Japan.
But keep this in mind, too: In the trials, a single Dan O'Brien stumble can ruin a four-year plan. And every four years, somebody like Wariner, who stormed out of a Baylor classroom to take the trials and grab gold in Athens in 2004, emerges to steal somebody else's Olympic dreams.
In addition to the Big Three, keep an eye on these five men (we'll preview the women's field on Friday):
Event to watch: 400; Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 182; Age: 22; Residence: Suffolk, Va.
Breakdown: The Americans are always loaded in the 400, and Merritt is loaded for bear -- in this case, former Baylor Bear Wariner. He beat Wariner head-to-head in Berlin on June 1 with a time of 44.03 seconds, but Wariner answered two weeks later by putting up the best time in the world this year (43.98) in Oslo, Norway. Their battle for bragging rights in Eugene might be the race of the meet. Merritt is entered in the 200 and has the speed to be one of the best in the world at the event, but the Beijing meet schedule makes an Olympic 200-400 double virtually impossible.
Event to watch: 1,500; Ht.: 5-9; Wt.: 145; Age: 25; Residence: Reston, Va.
Breakdown: The one-time wunderkind had a career year in 2007. Webb beat Lagat at U.S. nationals, ran the fastest 1,500 in the world (3:30.54) and broke Steve Scott's 25-year-old American record in the mile (3:46.91). And it was still a disappointment. He peaked too soon for the worlds and struggled to an eighth-place finish in Osaka. This year? He's done the opposite, running only twice outdoors -- slowly. But he insists it's part of a plan and that he'll be ready for the trials, which he won in 2004. He's also entered in the 800.
Event to watch: 400 hurdles; Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 184; Age: 22; Residence: L.A.
Breakdown: A remarkable athlete, Clement has the speed and strength to medal in the open 400. In 2005, the then 19-year-old Clement ran 44.57 to break Michael Johnson's indoor 400-meter record. But he began focusing on the hurdles two years ago. Good choice. He won the gold in Osaka with a time of 47.61, and is fastest in the world this year (47.79). In a deep event for the United States, look for former world champ Bershawn Jackson to push Clement.
Event to watch: Pole vault; Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 185; Age: 27; Residence: Mountlake Terrace, Wash.
Breakdown: Like Clement, the 2007 world champion has quietly become dominant, and is jumping better than ever. His 19-foot, 9¾-inch vault last month in Eugene at the Prefontaine Classic is the best ever by an American, and it broke the meet record held by the great Sergei Bubka. Right now, he's in a class by himself. The question for this meet: Will Walker take a shot at 20 feet?
Event to watch: Shot put; Ht.: 6-0; Wt.: 255; Age: 33; Residence: Charlottesville, Va.
Breakdown: The best show on the infield will be in the thrower's ring, where the U.S. boasts the top three shot putters in the world. Christian Cantwell won the 2008 world indoor championship. Reese Hoffa is the 2007 world outdoor champ and currently tops the world rankings. Nelson, a former Dartmouth football player, has a world-best 73-foot, 6-inch throw this year, the third best all-time. A bonus? The two-time Olympic silver medalist's psych-up histrionics are reminiscent of vintage Chris Farley: "I throw a 16-pound ball and I live in a van down by the river!"
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.