Nico Young claims spot on Team USA, finishing 3rd in 10,000 meters

EUGENE, Ore. — First place was long gone.

So was second.

As the final lap of the Olympic Trials 10,000 meter final on a hot Friday night at Hayward Field turned onto the backstretch, Nico Young snuck a peak over his shoulder.

Drew Hunter, like Young a former prep phenom, was still there.

At several points Young appeared on the verge of cracking only to dig deeper.

Finally Young, a two-time NCAA indoor champion at Northern Arizona, finally opened up a gap to secure the third spot on Team USA and fulfill a destiny first projected for him as a Newbury Park High School superstar.

Nike’s Grant Fisher ran away with a 27 minutes, 49.47 seconds victory that did nothing to discourage speculation that he could be the first American to win an Olympic 10,000 medal since 2012, only the second since 1964.

Woody Kincaid, the former University of Portland standout and Fisher’s former training partner, was a safe second in 27:50.74.

Then came Young, clocking 27:52.40 in his professional debut, .95 ahead of Hunter.

Nike’s Conner Mantz, the Olympic Trials marathon winner in February, pushed the pace from the gun through 7,200 meters when Sam Chelanga, a five-time NCAA champion at Liberty, took over for two laps, briefly opening up a gap, before yielding to Young.

Young also led for 800 meters before Fisher put the hammer down with 1,200 to go, covering the final 800 in 1:58.61.

Dawn on the opening day of the Olympic Trials arrived with three major questions left unresolved — would Olympic champions Matthew Centrowitz, Ryan Crouser and Athing Mu actually show up, and if they did would they have what it takes to make it to the Paris Games?

The first answer came before breakfast: hometown hero Centrowitz, the 2016 Olympic 1,500 gold medalist, announced that a hamstring injury had forced him to withdraw from the Trials ending the former Oregon star’s bid to compete in a fourth Games.

“Unfortunately, I won’t be having the fairytale ending I was hoping to have this week at my fourth Olympic Trials,” the former Oregon star said on his social media accounts.

Crouser and Mu kept their Olympic dreams alive for at least another day.

Of the two Crouser, the two-time Olympic shot put champion and the world record holder in the event, was the more convincing of the two, posting Friday’s third best qualifying round throw, 70-feet, 4 1/4 inches, to easily advance to Saturday night’s final after a series of injuries had prevented him from competing this spring.

“You get out there in front of the crowd and it doesn’t feel so bad,” Crouser said.

“It” could have been any one of a series of injuries, or all of them.Crouser, who grew up in Boring, Oregon in the shadow of Mt. Hood, hadn’t thrown since injuring his right (throwing) elbow while winning the World Indoor title March 1 in Glasgow.

“After that it was one thing after another,” Crouser said.

He tore a pec while bench pressing. The elbow flared up again. Then he injured his back. And then the elbow was injured again.

“It was very frustrating,” he said. “I was dealing with a lot of self doubt. I’d take one step forward and two steps back. ‘Am I ever going to get over this?’

Adding to his anxiety was the form of longtime rival Joe Kovacs, who heaved a world leading 75-2 3/4 at the Los Angeles Grand Prix May 25.

“I was sitting on my couch watching (on TV),” Crouser said. “(Thinking), ‘Man, I need to get out there.’”

Four days later he tried throwing during a training session in his Fayetteville, Arkansas training base.

“I was thinking it was OK,” he said. “Three days later I couldn’t straighten my arm.”

His goal this week is simple.

“Make the top three,” he said, “and get myself three more weeks.”

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Mu, the 2021 Olympic and 2022 World champion, had not raced since last September’s Prefontaine Classic, a 1-minute, 54.97 victory and the high spot in a season that saw her finish third at the World Championships and limited her to just four meets because of hamstring issues.

Her continued absence and hamstring issues made Mu perhaps the season’s biggest question mark.

Friday night she finished third in her heat, 15th overall but still advanced to Saturday’s semifinal with a 2:01.73 clocking.

“Just felt like my first race back,” said Mu, who trains in Los Angeles with 400 meter hurdle record-holder Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone under Bobby Kersee. “Of course the legs were getting a good old wake-up.”

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