USATF announced the winners of the Jesse Owens Award today. Because this is the first year I’ve been eligible to vote, I was particularly interested in the winners. I voted for one, but not the other.
Stephanie Brown-Trafton was the women’s winner, and I thought when I voted for her that she was unlikely to win. It would’ve been much easier to pick, for example, Shalane Flanagan, who won the first U.S. medal in the distances since 1992 and set an American Record in the process. Brown-Trafton won the first U.S. gold of the Beijing Olympics in the discus after never having won any major championships ever, including the USATF championships. (In other words, Brown-Trafton didn’t even win the U.S. Trials.)
Sure, the competition in Beijing was sub-par; Brown-Trafton’s first attempt turned out to be the winning mark, and most of what I remember from the competition was the growing disbelief in the press box that nobody else, net even Brown-Trafton herself, had managed to fling the disc out beyond that starting throw. But if I had to pick someone for that first win, she was a great one.
In Eugene, before the Trials began, she showed up at a TAFWA lunch and answered questions for twenty minutes about how she trained, and more particularly, how she managed to train and compete at an Olympic level while holding down a part-time job. That’s right, the Olympic gold medalist is not a full-time athlete. I can’t name any female throwers in this country who are; there may not be any. Brown-Trafton’s story is a great one, and more people should know it. Apparently several others of the voters agreed with me. (Given that many of the voters may have been TAFWA members, it’s possible that Brown-Trafton’s appearance at that informal lunch meeting was what tipped her over the other contenders for the award. But that’s pure speculation on my part.)
Bryan Clay was the men’s winner, and I voted for LaShawn Merritt. Walter Dix and Angelo Taylor were the other nominees. This was a tough choice and I’m not at all disappointed to see Clay win; after all, he did win the decathlon in Beijing, and he put up an awesome score at the Trials in Eugene.
Taylor would also have been a strong contender; he tried to make the team in both the 400m and 400m hurdles, and might have done so if not for a schedule in Eugene which didn’t allow him enough recovery between the hurdles final and the first round of the flat 400m. Instead, he ran a dominating hurdle race in Beijing, becoming the first man to recapture that title after missing an Olympics (a long story) and then coming back to participate in the gold-medal-winning 4×400m relay.
Merritt was on that relay as well, and like Taylor a double gold medalist in Beijing. More importantly, Merritt won his gold by upsetting the man who has ruled the flat 400m since 2004, Jeremy Wariner, and by a large margin to boot. Wariner’s approach to 2008 was questionable at best; Merritt proved to him, I think, that you can’t start letting things go and expect to stay on top.
Clay had an awesome 2008 from start to finish, and the only reason I didn’t vote for him is actually a little pique I’m not terribly proud of. I hate watching decathletes blow off the 1,500m. It’s a silly thing for me to say, because even at my best I would have a hard time hanging on to Bryan Clay over 1,500m, but the fact is that there are world-class decathletes who are capable of competing with Clay in other events who also run the tenth one as though their life depended on it. Clay appears content to jog at the back, and even though he’s earned it (and usually is going to win anyway) it bugs me, and it bugged me enough that I didn’t vote for him.
Still, he had a great year, and he’s earned this award. Congratulations Bryan and Stephanie.