It was doubly dispiriting to see sprinter Tyson Gay hanging out in street clothes at the USA Track and Field national championships last weekend in Eugene, Ore., sidelined with a right hip injury. For one, Gay draws his identity from his sport and his future is very much in doubt. "I wake up every morning not knowing if I can train; I just want to get healthy," said Gay last Friday, after pulling out of the 100 meters, the race in which he had hoped to challenge the mighty Usain Bolt of Jamaica at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea, at the end of August. Also, Gay's absence leaves Team USA without a true superstar for the first time in many years.
Who might fill that role? The obvious choice is Allyson Felix, 25, who was first profiled in SI as a Los Angeles Baptist High senior in 2003 and has won three world championships (2005, '07, '09) and two Olympic silver medals in the 200 meters. In Eugene, Felix won the 400 meters (50.40 seconds) to become the first woman to win U.S. titles in the 100 (2010), 200 (six times) and 400 over the course of her career. She is considering a legacy-deepening double (200-400) at Daegu and even if she doesn't do that, she might attempt a double in the 2012 Olympics at either 100-200 (in which she would likely face the reborn Carmelita Jeter, the U.S. champion and world leader at 100) or 200-400. "I'm working her toward [both]," says Felix's coach, Bob Kersee, who said a decision will be made "sooner than later."
Other candidates would include chiseled sprint hurdler David Oliver, 29, who won his third U.S. title in the 110-meter hurdles in 13.04. He ran a 12.89 in 2010, a time bettered only by Dayron Robles of Cuba (12.87 in 2008) and Liu Xiang of China (12.88 in 2006). "I've just been trying to get better every year," says Oliver, who only began hurdling as a junior at Denver East High. "I intend to improve on my PR, get down into the mid-12.80s."
Or perhaps sprinter Walter Dix, whose 100-meter victory in 9.94 seconds was overshadowed when 2004 Olympic gold medalist Justin Gatlin, who ended a four-year steroid suspension last spring, earned a place on the world championship team by finishing second in 9.95. On Sunday, Dix, 25, won the 200, burnishing his reputation as a big-race sprinter; he earned bronze medals in both events at the '08 Olympics. The track world is buzzing with talk of Jamaican sprint sweeps in Daegu, but Dix says, "Bolt's the only [Jamaican] that's beaten me in a championship. If you know track, you know what I'm about."
As a historical bonus, Dix is coached by former 100-meter world-record holder Rey Robinson, who was a gold medal threat until he infamously missed his heat at the 1972 Olympics due to a coach's mistake. He has been to just one Games since, in '96.
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Track and field is a revolving door of young and old. Last Saturday afternoon Hayward Field shook as Matthew Centrowitz, 21, a rising senior at Oregon, held off American record holder Bernard Lagat to win the 1,500 meters in 3:47.63. Centrowitz, the son of two-time Olympian Matt Centrowitz, still needs a qualifying time of 3:35.00 by Aug. 15 to run at Daegu and will pursue it in European meets. And rising Florida junior Tony McQuay, 21, took the 400 meters in 44.68 to stun struggling Olympic medalist Jeremy Wariner.
At the other end of the spectrum, shot-putter Adam Nelson, 35, winner of two Olympic medals, won with a throw of 72' 5¾", his longest since '08. A father of two with an M.B.A., Nelson says, "It's really about the passion, and I've found that again."
DUAL EXHAUSTION? Felix, the 400 champ, might also attempt the 200 in Daegu, and another double in London.