Missed opportunities

Brian Mahoney
Yahoo! Sports

ATHENS, Greece – After watching her favored teammates struggle early in track-and-field events, U.S. runner Carrie Tollefson predicted they would put things together as the competition went on.

"In the 4x1s, the 4x4s [4x100 and 4x400 relays] ... we have lots of people coming back," she said.

Unfortunately for the United States, its puzzling struggles kept coming back as well.

Saturday was another day where everything from slight mistakes to bigger injuries kept the Americans from performing better in events where expectations were high.

For the second straight night, a U.S. 4x100-meter relay team favored to win gold couldn't execute a handoff properly.

But at least the men still won a silver medal.

The Marion Jones-featured women's team never made it past the third-leg handoff Friday. That team had run the fastest time in the world this year in qualifying.

Whether it's because of injury, bad luck or maybe even choking, some American stars have come up small on the world's largest stage.

"It happens every year, every Olympics, every big meet," javelin thrower Breaux Greer said. "Weird things happen, and that's just the way track is. That's the part everybody loves about it, too."

The United States Olympic Committee can't be loving it, though.

Not when it watched national or world champions fail to make it through the preliminary rounds of their events.

Greer did make it through qualifying in his event, but he wasn't immune to the disappointing result that struck many of his teammates.

Competing with a torn knee ligament, he finished last among Saturday's finalists with a throw that was nearly 43 feet below his personal best.

You can trace the letdowns from the start of competition – the shot put at the site of Ancient Olympia.

Americans could only manage Adam Nelson's silver medal in an event where a sweep seemed likely. Nelson, John Godina and Reese Hoffa all have thrown farther than winner Yuriy Bilonog's winning mark of 69 feet, 5 ¼ feet multiple times, but Hoffa never made it out of morning qualifying.

The rest of the disappointments came here in Athens.

Stacy Dragila, the 2000 gold medalist and former world-record holder, failed to qualify for the women's finals. Melvin Lister, whose leap of 58 feet, 4 inches to win the triple jump at the U.S. trials last month was the longest of the year, came up well short.

Alan Webb finished ninth in his heat and couldn't make it out of 1,500-meter qualifying. His time of 3 minutes, 41.25 seconds was nearly 10 seconds slower than his personal best and more than five seconds slower than time he won with at the U.S. trials.

Two top U.S. hurdlers never even made it to the finish line. Gail Devers pulled up lame before reaching her first hurdle in the 100 and Wednesday night, Allen Johnson crashed into the ninth hurdle in his heat, leaving the four-time world champion lying face down on the track.

Was it a fluke that arguably the two best hurdlers ever came up so short in the same meet?

"I'm not one to believe in flukes," said Terrence Trammell, who did reach the 110-hurdles final. "Anything can happen at any given time."

Perhaps more likely an explanation is a case of the nerves. Track-and-field athletes face no more intense pressure than performing at the Olympics, not to mention the pressure of the USOC's goal of winning 100 medals.

"At the Olympic Games, no one is immune from messing up," said high jumper Amy Acuff, who qualified for her event's final, but finished fourth. "There's so much pressure at this meet, and you have to understand, the mind has to work within a millisecond to execute these technical details."

Even with the stars who unexpectedly failed, the Americans still won plenty of medals at the track. Their total of 24 was the best of any country, and except for Russia's 20, no other nation had more than seven. And Saturday night, with help from the track-and-field athletes, the U.S. met its goal of 100 medals in Athens.

Shining achievements that might just take the edge off so many lackluster moments.

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