Ex-Cougar Bernard Lagat primed for another run at Olympic gold
Lagat made the U.S. team on Thursday at the Olympic Trials, finishing second at 13:22.82 in the 5,000 meters.
Seattle Times staff columnist
EUGENE, Ore. — Bernard Lagat knew. He fought the pain. He pushed through workouts. He focused on his Beijing races, the same way he has focused on so many races before that. But he knew.
"Man, that guy, when he's focused on a race, it's like nobody can get in his way," his brother and fellow 5,000-meter runner Robert Cheseret said. "He blocks everything out. Sometimes you can't even talk to him. He just has this look."
But even the look couldn't beat the pain. The troublesome Achilles that flared in the days leading up to his Olympic races in 2008 wouldn't be ignored.
Lagat never ran like himself, never looked like himself in Beijing. The placid confidence he takes onto the track was missing. His finishing kick was gone. He finished a badly beaten ninth in the 5,000 meters, then couldn't make it out of the semifinals of the 1,500.
I remember the look on Lagat's face after his 1,500-meter heat. He seemed more shocked than disappointed. He said he thought there was a way around the pain and he was stunned he couldn't find it.
"He was very upset after Beijing," his brother said on Thursday. "I think that's what's making him go out and really train so hard this time. And I think he's going to do it this time around and make up for Beijing."
Four years have passed. Lagat is 37. He is one of the most decorated runners of his generation, but he still is missing one decoration, one precious medal — Olympic gold.
He says that winning gold matters a lot to him. He says he came back to the track to hunt gold.
When Lagat ran for Kenya he won a bronze medal in the 1,500 in Sydney in 2000. Four years later, he lost a thrilling stretch run to Hicham El Guerrouj and settled for silver in Athens.
He became a U.S. citizen in 2005 and won both the 1,500 and 5,000 at the 2006 world championship. Beijing was going to be his Olympics. He was going to find gold in the Bird's Nest, the Olympic stadium.
He didn't lose those races. He just never got a chance to run them, really run them.
With a miler's speed and a long distance runner's strength, Lagat seems built for gold. But now, the former Washington State runner has this one last chance. London 2012. These are the last laps of a remarkable career.
On a damp Thursday evening in Tracktown, Lagat's hunt began.
This Olympic Trials 5,000 meters unfolded differently. Lagat let other runners set the pace. He settled into consistent 65-second laps, a relaxed, threatening presence lurking like a great golfer in the final pairing.
And in the final 200 meters, Lagat did just what he did four years ago on this same track. He accelerated into the lead. He pushed himself around the final turn. He seemed to have the race won. With 100 meters to go, he told himself to push a little harder, but on his left shoulder, former University of Oregon star Galen Rupp was coming, sprinting past Lagat, running the final 400 meters in 52.54 and winning in 13:22.67.
"In the last 100 meters, I told myself I have to push it hard now, you know make the wheels go faster and faster," Lagat said. "I passed him (Rupp) and then he passed me."
Still, Lagat made the U.S. team, finishing second at 13:22.82. He did what he came to Eugene to do.
"Making the team was the most important thing. That's why I came here," he said. "I came here for this one race, to get back to the Olympics. I made the team and that is the purpose of the Trials.
"It's something that's very important for me because I've been looking for something I don't have so far and that is an Olympic gold medal. I know I'm going to train well again and focus again to try to get that precious medal that is still missing in my collection."
Since becoming a U.S. citizen, Lagat has been a national treasure, mentoring Rupp, third-place qualifier Lopez Lomong as well as his brother.
"He's great that way," said Cheseret, who finished 12th in the 16-man field. "He's always helping me, ever since I was in college at Arizona he's helped me with my training. He's always motivating me. Even before the race he was talking to me, trying to keep me relaxed."
After the race Lagat walked around the track, holding hands with his two children, beaming as if he'd won the race. He got the trip he wanted. He was going to London. His hunt would continue.
"Did you see the looks on his kids' faces?" Cheseret asked. "The kids were so excited and happy for daddy. And I could tell how happy he was. This is his chance. He wants this gold. Maybe he needs this gold."
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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