Lagat an Olympian - This Time for America

July 1, 2008 7:40:08 AM PDT
With a high leg kick and his trademark burst, Bernard Lagat has become an expert at putting people away in the last lap of races. For this race, though, it was getting ready for the first lap that posed the biggest challenge.

He kept telling himself he had to stay focused, not get carried away by what was happening on the track in the moments before the 5,000 meters Monday at the U.S. Olympic trials, where dozens of newly selected Olympians were parading around in their new, blue uniforms.

"I'm watching the entire parade and they're running on the track. I'm telling myself, `I've got to concentrate,"' Lagat said.

He did, and now he's the owner of one of those uniforms, the next step in a dream that began in the sands of his native Kenya and will carry on to Beijing, where he'll be not just an Olympian, but an Olympian for his new country, the United States.

"This is the one thing I've been thinking about," he said. "This is very special."

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, he hopes to win the gold medal that has eluded him in two previous Olympic trips.

He hopes to win it for the United States, 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.

The 33-year-old became the first runner to win both last year at the world championships in Osaka.

"This is something I've been thinking about since Osaka," Lagat said. "I've been looking forward to running in this meet."

On Monday, he ran the last 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.

"In 2004, I just wanted to win, wanted to win really bad," Lagat said of the last Olympics he ran for Kenya. "But right now, I think there's a little more motivation for me."

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 wrap-up 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, tail winds. 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 seconds to beat Merritt by 0.10 and set aside a surprising loss last month to the man who could prove to be his main rival. Neither man was hyping this qualifying 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."

Lagat will also be back at it Thursday night in the 1,500 quarters. The finals for that race are Sunday evening, the last event of this 10-day marathon of selecting Olympians.