|Miranda Melville (left) and winner Maria Michta-Coffey
The Olympic Trials 20K Race Walk found a new home in Salem on Thursday morning, as the race walkers were cheered on by a large and enthusiastic crowd on Cottage and Court Streets, just feet from the Oregon State Capitol.
However, the feel-good atmosphere of the event, which kicked off the 11-day U.S. Olympic Trials run, was tempered by disappointment and controversy for local favorite Erin Gray, who was disqualified half-way through the 12.4 mile race with three red cards for rules violations.
As expected, favorites Maria Michta-Coffey and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant John Nunn emerged as victors. American record holder Michta-Coffey opened a gap on training partner Miranda Melville midway through the race, and built her lead to 31 seconds by the finish, winning in 1:33:40.80. Both Michta-Coffey and Melville had their Olympic qualifying times and will represent the U.S. in Rio next month.
The result was not as positive on the men's side, where none of the 15 competitors began the race with an Olympic qualifier and none ended it with one, either, so the U.S. will not have any male entrants in the event in Rio.
Eventual third-place finisher Nick Christie took out the pace early but could not sustain it. Nunn, who will go to Rio in the 50K race walk, and 2012 Trials champion Trevor Barron caught him just past the halfway point, as Barron took the lead briefly. But Barron couldn't maintain the pace either, and Nunn went on to claim the win in 1:25:36.10, more than a minute and a half slower than the Olympic standard of 1:24:00.
"All three of us talked before and the whole goal was to get under than 1:24:00 mark," Nunn said. "I would have been very happy today to third if these two were able to get under it. Unfortunately, it just didn't work out that way."
No one was more disappointed and upset than Gray, though.
Race walk rules specify that three red cards for walking violations from three different judges disqualify an athlete from continuing the competition. Each red card is posted next to the athlete's number on a large board that athletes pass by on each lap during the race.
Controversy ensued, however, when Gray's first red card was mistakenly posted to athlete number 8, rather than 18, which was Gray's number. Bob Gray, Erin's coach and father, said the error occurred early in the race and was not corrected for "at least 25 minutes."
Due to the error, Gray said she didn't know she had received a red card, and thought her second red card was her first. Then she received a third before her coach could let her know of the officials' error, and she was pulled off the course.
Moments later, Gray was fighting back tears and expressing understandable frustration with her Olympic dreams going up in flames.
"We're filing a protest because the notifications were wrong today . . .," Gray said. "I don't know what's going to come of this protest, but we are going to protest because they messed up.
"I went from having one (red card) to being completely out of the race."
Even before the Trials race, Gray has been critical of race walk judging, especially in the U.S. She feels that judges are too subjective and use a different standard than what is used in international races.
"I think that (judging) needs to be changed, and hopefully will be," Gray said. "I did everything I could. I cleaned up my form over the year. All my other races I came out fine and clean."
Bob Gray said the situation was "intolerable and completely unprofessional and wrong. She had no way of changing was what necessary to stay within the bounds of legality." The elder Gray also maintained that Erin would not have been disqualified for her technique in any other country.
"She's gone to a number of other countries (to race walk) and gets no warnings, no DQ's. All of a sudden you come into America and it is a different standard. There are athletes going to Rio who have never had to submit to these standards.
"The only recourse now is legal," he added.
Race walk referee Ron Daniel confirmed that Bob Gray's description of the error was accurate, saying, "The person putting the number up on the board misread the card, and put it up under 8 rather than 18. The second red card went up under her number. When the third red card came in the chief judge was notified that she had three red cards but there were only two up on the board. It was a posting error."
"The posting board is an aid, but it's not the mechanics of disqualification," added Maryanne Daniel, chief judge for the event. "It's unfortunate she wasn't able to use that aid but it's not a mistake that would engender any recourse."
Runner-up Miranda Melville expressed sympathy for Gray's plight.
"I saw her walking off the course and my heart broke for her at that moment because the dream of 2016 was over for her," Melville said.
"We come so far and work so hard, and we're close so I have nothing but love for her. I'm not sure what happened today but I know that mistakes have been made even internationally. That's part of race walking and we know that is part of the risk in race walk because we are the most technical event in track and field."
Nunn and several other race walkers repeatedly expressed appreciation for the innovative staging of the event, and for the large number of spectators who came out to cheer them on.
"This is the best crowd we have ever had for race walking," Nunn said. "Great course, phenomenal city, great people."