U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials: Noah Lyles, Sha'Carri Richardson sprint to Paris with high expectations

EUGENE, Ore. — Kenny Bednarek finally appeared poised to upstage his biggest rival. The perpetually overlooked American sprinter had opened a gap on Noah Lyes last Saturday as they rounded the curve in the men’s 200 meters final at the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Bednarek could have been distraught when he failed to hold his form late in the race and Lyles surged past him. He could have fumed over how the race mirrored the previous weekend’s 100 meters final when he also finished a close second to Lyles.

Instead, Bednarek chose to focus on the bigger picture. He had lowered his personal-best time in the 100 and 200 and qualified for the Olympics in both races. He’d get another crack at Lyles later this summer in Paris when it really counted.

“I’m healthy and dangerous,” a grinning Bednarek said. “That’s all I can ask for.”

With those words, Bednarek might as well have been summing up the state of USA Track & Field as athletes scatter after Olympic Trials. Over nine compelling, record-breaking days in Eugene, high-profile stars solidified themselves as medal favorites and a new generation of fresh talent emerged.

The athletes expected to lead USA Track & Field this summer mostly survived America’s unforgiving Olympic selection process. Lyles, Sha’Carri Richardson, Gabby Thomas and Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone each claimed victory in their signature events, as did Grant Holloway, Rai Benjamin, Ryan Crouser and Valarie Allman.

The highest-profile casualty at Trials was Athing Mu, the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the women’s 800 meters and a leading contender to repeat in Paris. Her hopes vanished last Monday when a stunning fall midway through the first lap of the two-lap race left her too far back to regain contact with the rest of the runners.

Other countries have built safety nets into their Olympic selection process for situations like this. They’ll consider previous Olympic or World championship results when selecting their team. In the U.S., big names can’t rest on past achievements. At Trials, it's top three or bust, whether you're a past champion or a young unknown.

“I can see it both ways,” Bob Kersee, Mu’s coach, told Yahoo Sports last week. “If discretionary picks were used after competition, that would give us a chance to send a stronger team. But you also would be leaving somebody off who earned the right to make the team through competition.”

As usual, the strength of U.S. track and field at the Olympics will be the sprints and hurdles. Ten individual sprints and hurdles races will be contested next month on the strikingly purple track at the Stade de France. An American athlete owns the world-leading time this season in seven of those races.

In this Olympic cycle, the U.S. is especially deep in the 200 meters. The nine fastest women at that distance this season are all Americans. Lyles and Bednarek have unleashed the fastest times in the men’s 200 so far this season, while promising 20-year-old Erriyon Knighton ran his way onto the team in Eugene despite not having raced in months.

American sprinters and hurdlers openly spoke of the possibility of a couple of 1-2-3 U.S. sweeps in Paris, but Jamaica’s stable of accomplished veterans and promising newcomers should offer formidable competition. Sprinters from both countries spent the past week waging a spirited game of “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

When Richardson covered 100 meters at U.S. Trials in a blistering 10.71 seconds, Shericka Jackson responded with her two fastest races of the season to win Jamaica’s 100- and 200-meter national titles. When Lyles matched his personal best time of 9.83 seconds to win the men’s 100 at U.S. Trials, 22-year-old unknown Kishane Thompson answered by capturing Jamaica's 100-meter national title in world-leading 9.77 seconds.

Medal opportunities may be less abundant for the U.S. in other events, but American distance runners have no intention of leaving Paris empty-handed.

In the men’s 1500, it will be fascinating to see if Americans Cole Hocker or Yared Neguse can keep pace with pre-race favorites Jakob Ingebrigtsen of Norway or Josh Kerr of Great Britain. In the women’s 800, rising star Nia Akins has the best chance to help the U.S. salvage a medal despite the absence of Mu.

While field events tend to get less coverage in the U.S., expect NBC to devote ample airtime to the men’s shot put. Crouser, the shot put world record holder, has captured all but one Olympic or World Championship gold since 2016. The one year that Crouser settled for silver, it was fellow American Joe Kovacs who beat him.

American medal contenders in other field events include Allman in the women’s discus, Tara Davis-Woodhall in the women’s long jump and Chris Nilsen and Sam Kendricks in the men’s pole vault. They each own an array of medals from previous Olympics or world championships.

Three years ago in Tokyo, the U.S. piled up 26 Olympic medals in track and field yet flew home with the sickening sense that it could have won more. An American man failed to win gold in an individual running event for the first time at an Olympics that the U.S. didn’t boycott. The U.S. also yet again dropped the baton in the 4x100-meter relay, an outcome that Carl Lewis called a “total embarrassment.”

Since then, the U.S. men have made big strides and have dominated the medal count at the past two world championships. Lyles, in particular, has stacked up gold medals. Bednarek has pushed him but now hopes this is his year to shine.

When asked what “dangerous” meant to him, Bednarek responded, “It means that they should all fear me.”

If he can back up that big talk, Bednarek will only make the U.S. team that much harder to beat.