EUGENE, OR – Bernard Lagat said he took every word seriously when he recited the oath that made him a U.S. citizen. Maybe that’s why the smile was so wide when he finally became an U.S. Olympian, as well.
Lagat won the grueling 5,000-meter race Monday night at U.S. Olympic trials, taking the next step on a journey that began in the sands of his native Kenya and reached its high point on a college track in Eugene, Ore.
Make that one high point. The Beijing Olympics are coming next.
”This is a dream come true,” Lagat said. ”This is very special running tonight. Now, I’m part of the USA going to Beijing. I’m very excited.”
Having secured his trip with a time of 13 minutes, 27.47 seconds, he’ll also compete later this week in the 1,500 meters — his better race. And when he heads to China in August, he hopes to win the gold medal that has eluded him in two previous Olympic trips.
He hopes to win it for America, the country he adopted four years ago.
”The best thing that could happen for me is winning the gold for the United States,” Lagat said in an interview this spring. ”Being an American is not something I’m going to take lightly. When I took that oath, I meant every piece of it.”
No American has won the 5,000 since 1964, and no U.S. runner has ever won the 5,000 and the 1,500. Lagat has not yet decided if he’ll go for the double or concentrate on the 1,500, where he has won silver (Athens) and bronze (Sydney) but has yet to stand on the top step of the podium.
He became the first runner to win both last year at the world championships in Osaka.
He ran the final lap in 58 seconds flat, sprinting from fourth to first, with plenty of room to spare. He beat Matt Tegenkamp by more than 2 seconds, then turned around and hugged him at the finish. Later, he donned the cap given to all new Olympians, waved the American flag and took a bow, smiling through it all.
Ian Dobson finished third and also will go to Beijing. Adam Goucher dropped out late in the race, meaning the chances of a husband-wife distance pairing is slim. His wife, Kara, is expected to make it in the 10,000, but Adam is only a provisional entrant in the men’s 10,000.
Lagat was the headliner on a night that also included an impressive wrapup by Bryan Clay in the decathlon.
Clay made his second straight Olympics with a personal-record score of 8,832. That marked the best score by an American in 16 years, the best in the world in four years, and beat Dan O’Brien’s Olympic trials record.
”From the get-go, I said, ‘This is what I’m going to do, these are the marks I’m going to put up,”’ Clay said. ”I don’t care if it’s headwinds, tailwinds. I don’t care how I’m feeling. I’m going to make it happen today, and that’s what I did.”
In the men’s 400 semifinals, Jeremy Wariner and LaShawn Merritt gave a preview of their final, coming up Thursday.
Racing side-by-side, Wariner finished in 44.66 to beat Merritt by .10 seconds and set aside a loss last month to the man who could prove to be his main rival.
Neither man was hyping this race as much of anything — only a warmup for bigger things to come.
”I think all Merritt and me were trying to do was just qualify, and make sure we get a preferred lane,” Wariner said. ”We both qualified 1-2, so it’s going to be interesting to see how the lineup is come Thursday. But we’ll be ready.”
By Associated Press