EUGENE - The 41st annual Prefontaine Classic, held Saturday at Historic Hayward Field on the 40 th anniversary of Steve Prefontaine’s death, gave the sold-out crowd of 13,278 fans the full spectrum of superlative performances on and off the track.
Only at the Pre Classic do phrases like “the fastest-ever in the U.S.,” “the best-ever mark on American soil,” and “fastest time in the world this year” start to become routine, as each event brings another outstanding performance.
Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia ran completely on her own for most of the women’s 5,000 meters in a bold attempt to take down the world record held by her sister, Tirunesh, who is currently on maternity leave. With the Hayward faithful urging her on over the last few laps, Dibaba ran 14:19.76 – the fastest 5000 ever run on American soil and the fifth-fastest anywhere – but fell eight seconds short of the world record. She won the race by over 12 seconds.
Mutaz Essa Barshim of Qatar wore a Marcus Mariota #8 jersey to the press conference on Friday, then turned in a Mariota-like near-perfect performance on Saturday in the high jump. Barshim had no misses at the four heights he attempted, and won the event at 7-10 ¾, a quarter-inch higher than his Pre record and the best jump ever on American soil. Barshim did not attempt to go higher.
Renaud Lavillenie was another crowd pleaser on Saturday. The French vaulter survived an early scare, missing twice at his opening height of 18-8 ½ before clearing on his final attempt, then went on to clear 19-10 ¼ to become the second-best vaulter all-time outdoors behind Sergei Bubka. Lavillenie’s all-time best of 20-2 ½ came indoors.
Lavillenie was already looking ahead after the competition, saying “It’s just the beginning of the season. I have a lot of work to do to get myself ready to jump even better for the next week.”
Former two-time NCAA champion in the 100 for Oregon English Gardner showed she is back on top of her game after a rough season in 2014.
Gardner won the “B” race of the women’s 100 meters in 10.84, which was the world-leading time in 2015. That lasted about five minutes, until the “A” section of the 100, when Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Murielle Ahoure hit the line together in 10.81, with Fraser-Pryce getting the nod – and the new world-leader.
Gardner was still ecstatic about her performance, though.
“I was so emotional (after the race) I couldn’t even talk,” Gardner said. “A lot of people don’t realize how tough this sport is on an individual. I feel like I was on top of the world at one point and I fell all the way to the bottom. I had a couple injuries last year and everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
“I’m just happy and excited now. The lion is finally back. I’m glad I was able to come back home and get a season best and a career best.”
Matthew Centrowitz was another former UO star who made a big splash at Pre. Centrowitz finished second in the Bowerman Mile in 3:51.20, nearly catching winner Ayanleh Souleiman of Djbouti at the line. It was Centrowitz’s best finish ever in a Diamond League meet, though the 25-year-old does have silver and bronze medals from the last two world championships.
“I’m very happy with it,” Centrowitz said. “It’s nothing but exciting to be in the thick of things. I’ve been talking for years now about mixing it up on the DL circuit with these guys and today was a good step in the right direction.”
While noting that making the U.S. team will be difficult, Centrowitz said he has only one goal for the world championships in Beijing.
“The only thing I don’t have now is a gold medal so I would be lying if I told you that wasn’t the goal,” he said.
The women’s 1500 was another fast, close race. Shannon Rowbury took the pace out hard and kept the lead until the final straight. Jenny Simpson led a trio of runners past Rowbury, and held on to win in 4:00.98.
“Oh man, it just feels good be out in front of a big crowd and pull it off,” Simpson said about her fast finish. “I mean it’s not as easy as it looks . I’m just so happy I won today.”
Less than three seconds behind Simpson, back in seventh place, Camas (WA) High School senior Alexa Efraimson finished in 4:03.39, breaking Mary Cain’s two-year-old American Junior Record by more than a second. The time was four seconds faster than her previous best, and Efraimson seemed shocked by it after the race.
“I’m really happy with it,” Efraimson said. “I just knew I was going to be pulled into a PR. It’s really humbling to be in this race.”
Coming off his world-leading 9.74 100 meter time two weeks ago, Justin Gatlin ran another sensational sprint race – this one a 200 meters. Gatlin exploded out of the blocks, accelerated nicely on the curve and finished very strongly in 19.68 to tie his personal best and set a new meet record. His time is a world-leader by .31 seconds.
“I’m very proud of that to come out here and run with these young guys,” Gatlin said in response to a question about his age. “I think that age is nothing but a number and I just want to come out here and show the fans that it doesn’t matter what race you’re in you’ve got to give it your all. Prefontaine, nationals, a little local meet, I want to go out and give it all I have that day.”
Tyson Gay, who, like Gatlin did in 2010, is returning to sprinting from a drug suspension, shortened because of his cooperation with authorities, made a successful stop at Hayward by winning the 100 in 9.88 seconds, edging Michael Rodgers.
Former McKay HS standout Ryan Bailey was entered did not compete in the 100 meters due to a minor hamstring issue in practice, according to his coach, John Parks. Parks said, “(It was) just tightness. He had the best start of his life in practice on Tuesday and he looked ready. It’s always frustrating not to run here, and he’s crushed. But, at the end of the day, it’s about being ready in four weeks (for U.S. nationals).”
Doubly frustrating for Bailey was the fact that he recently ran 9.93 in the 100 in Jamaica, even though he had what Parks said was a “terrible start.” Parks said he feels Bailey will be ready to try to make the world championship team at nationals here in late June.
The first race of the day was another one in “fastest-ever” category. Kenyan Ezekiel Kemboi got the upset win over countryman Jairus Birech in 8:01.71 – fastest ever on U.S. soil. Fast-closing Evan Jager just missed his American record, taking fourth in 8:05.28.
The favorites dominated the 400’s, with Allyson Felix stepping up from the 200 to defeat Sandra Richards-Ross in 50.05, and Grenada’s Kirani James running a world-leading 43.95 to score a convincing win over LaShawn Merritt’s 44.51.