Photo Courtesy: www.teamusa.org/Alan Abrahamson - Jennifer Simpson won the 1500
An American woman hadn't won the 1500 meters at the track and field world championships since 1983. Those were the very first worlds, in Helsinki. And the winner of that race was the one and only Mary Decker. That's how long ago it was.
In the high jump, an American man hadn't won a medal at these championships since 1991. Not just gold, any color. Twenty years.
An American woman hadn't won the 400-meter hurdles in 16 years.
Jennifer Simpson won the 1500, Jesse Williams won the high jump and Lashinda Williams the hurdles in bang-bang-bang fashion here Thursday night.
The rapid-fire string of victories, while cause for celebration in the American camp, pushing the U.S. into a tie with Russia for the lead for overall medals here in Daegu, with 12, also underscores the incredible conundrum that is the U.S. track and field program.
The United States produces, and keeps producing, world-class track and field athletes. But it does so in about as haphazard a way as one could imagine.
There is no bureau, no directorate, no anything responsible for finding, shaping, organizing a path from high school to college to the world championships to the Olympics. To generalize, it all kinda-sorta just happens.
That explains why, systemically, the United States of America can go 20 years without producing a medalist in the high jump. Why nearly 30 years can pass without a medal in the 1500, which is just astonishing.
Anyone ever been to Boulder? Flagstaff? Mammoth Lakes?
There is no federalized sport system in the United States, and this is not to suggest there should be. Instead, the fantastic efforts of individual American athletes on a night like Thursday -- which tend to draw comparisons to the glory days of the U.S. track program -- obscure the structural problems that get in the way of what could be.
Because if the United States ever got serious, really serious, about winning in track and field -- watch out.
As it is, it's simply a matter of talent and moment.
The men's shot put here Friday night could be epic; of the 12 guys in the field, four are American. In the long jump, Dwight Phillips went a season-best 8.32 meters, or 27 feet, 3 3/4 inches, to lead everyone in qualifying Thursday morning; that final is Friday night, too. So is the women's 200; three of the eight in that final are American.
Meanwhile, the women's high jump on Saturday could be Brigetta Barrett's coming-out party on the world stage.
Talent and moment.
Simpson (pictured right) is a former steeplechaser. She used to be known as Jenny Barringer; she got married last year. She had the flu earlier this summer and came here with virtually no pre-race hype. In the semifinal, though, she showed was here to run. In the final, she ran easily and fluidly in and then kicked strong to the line, crossing in 4:05.40.