RIO DE JANEIRO -- Nobody really thought the United States would be shut out of Olympic gold medals on the track at these Summer Games, but the bullion still wasn't in the bank when the three 100-meter hurdlers crouched at the start Wednesday.
Brianna Rollins projected the aura of a former world champion. Nia Ali proved she could return to world-class form after becoming a mother last year. Injury impeded Kristi Castlin's path to the 2012 Olympics, but she'd been through far worse, losing her father to murder at age 12 and living through the slaughter of 32 innocents as a Virginia Tech student.
The trio represents the latest wave of U.S. excellence in the event, accelerating out of a talent pool so deep that a defending Olympic champion and a current world-record holder were left at home on the bench. Any one of them could have won it, but they approached ambition as a team. They understood they could be greater than the sum of their parts if they swept an Olympic podium for the first time in U.S. track history. They stayed off social media in the days before the race and prayed together instead.
"We said it was our time, let's go, let's do this and get it out of the way," Ali said.
They broke the mini-drought and propped open the floodgates. Rollins won going away in 12.48 seconds. Ali knew she'd finished second in the hubbub when she saw her time of 12.59. Then Castlin's name popped up in third place on the scoreboard just two-hundredths of a second behind and the flags came out and the women who leap for a living jumped for joy and posterity and the cameras, this time in unison.
"I typically run in seventh place until about the last three hurdles," said Castlin, who pirouetted for the crowd as she came out of the tunnel. "I'm a closer. I'm a finisher. My thing was not to win a bronze medal for myself, it was about upholding the team."
Rollins rolled through interview after interview clutching an apple in one hand, too busy to take a bite. She said she clipped a few hurdles and felt relieved at the outcome.
The U.S. women long jumpers doubled down on gold and silver as the versatile Tianna Bartoletta sent the sand flying with a personal-best mark of 7.17 meters -- enough to edge defending champion Brittney Reese's 7.08.
Bartoletta, who has moonlighted as an elite bobsledder, was trying to stay earthbound after her clutch win, because she has to run a preliminary round of the 4x100-meter relay Thursday. "My work is not yet finished," she said. Tori Bowie added a bronze in the 200-meter event.
The men's 200 will be missing the amiable but polarizing figure of Justin Gatlin, who fell one spot and .03 short of advancing to Thursday's final and another duel with two-time defending champion Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Gatlin said he is still bothered by lingering soreness in his right ankle after rolling it last November, an issue that didn't prevent him from finishing second to Bolt here in the 100.
Gatlin spoke to reporters at length, saying he hasn't been fazed by the booing that has greeted him in the Olympic Stadium -- a reception that may owe partly to his past but mostly to Bolt's extraordinary persona.
"The rivalry I have with Usain has turned it into a professional wrestling feel," Gatlin said. "Everyone's cheering for Usain, but they have somebody they've got to boo against. It would be an immature mindset for me to come out here and think that every Brazilian is against me. They want to see a great show, and Usain is a great competitor and a showman. He puts on a great show."
Gatlin's two previous doping suspensions have made him a human heat conductor at these Games where the debate over sanctions has boiled over into numerous athletes' public comments. "I don't really focus on likes and dislikes," he said. "I try to give everyone around me respect. I try to get to know them." He predicted a strong final for teammate LaShawn Merritt, whose 19.94 seconds seeded him third behind Bolt and Canada's 21-year-old Andre De Grasse.
Bolt continued his frisky romp through Rio, casting an amused eye to his right when De Grasse came up on his shoulder in their semifinal and forcing him to hustle a little more than he'd planned. Bolt finished in 19.78 seconds and the men's playful double-takes and interaction lacked only the passing of a torch.
"I see the talent in him," Bolt said. "I see that he got a national record, actually, so he means business."
Bolt, somewhat superfluously, added that he is "on the right track. ... I felt energetic and everything was going smooth."
But the charisma award Wednesday night went to Ali's adorable 15-month-old son with the formidable name -- Titus Maximus Tinsley -- who starred in her victory lap.
"I'm happy we have photos, 'cause then he'll know I'm not making up stories about that one time I ran in the Olympics," Ali said. But what happened was better than fiction.