PAN AMERICAN GAMES/Athletics: Four wins for U.S., including come-from-behind relay win for Courtney Okolo

Courtney Okolo bringing the U.S. from third to first on the anchor of the women's 4x400 m relay in Lima (Photo: Lima 2019)

The final day of action in the track & field stadium at the 2019 Pan American Games was a good one for the United States, which despite not bringing anything close to its best team, nearly doubled up the medals on the second-place Jamaicans.

Because of the timing of these Games – considered far less important than the IAAF World Championships coming at the end of September – the U.S. was never likely to field a deep, high-quality team, and USA Track & Field’s internal errors made a shambles of the selection process, ultimately decided by an arbitrator.

Will the situation get better for 2023, when the Games will go to Santiago in Chile? Nope; that event will be held in late October and early November and the U.S. teams in almost all sports will be worse. But in Lima on Saturday, the American squad won four events on the final day on the track and infield.

The U.S. started the day well, with a 1-2 sweep of the women’s hammer, with Brooke Andersen taking and holding the lead in the first round at 71.07 m (233-2). But Gwen Berry, wearing florescent blue lipstick, unloaded in the fifth round at 74.62 (244-10) and ended the issue, with her fourth-best meet of the year.

The men’s triple jump was a showdown between American veteran Omar Craddock and Cuban Jordan Diaz, 18, the World Youth and World Junior Champion over the last two years. Diaz took over the event in the fourth round, reaching 17.38 m (57-0 1/4) and pushing Craddock down to second. Under pressure, Craddock responded with 17.42 m (57-2) in the fifth round and Diaz could not match him.

The men’s vault was tricky due to a crosswind, but NCAA champ Chris Nilsen of the U.S. cleared his first four attempts, then slammed the bar at 5.76 m (18-10 3/4), but it stayed on. Augusto Dutra (BRA) managed 5.71 m (18-8 3/4) for second and American Clayton Fritsch (5.61 m/18-4 3/4) took the bronze.

The running events started with a wild final in the men’s 110 m hurdles. Crashes in the middle of the race eliminated Brazil’s Gabriel Constantin and American Jarret Eaton, but in lanes 6-7-8, Freddie Crittenden of the U.S. had a slight lead over Shane Brathwaite (BAR) and Eduardo Rodriguez (BRA), but Brathwaite was best on the run-in and won by 0.01 in 13.31 over Crittenden (13.32). Two more athletes pushed the hurdles down so the race had only four official finishers!

The men’s 800 m was a showcase for Canada’s Marco Arop, the SEC runner-up for Mississippi State, who inserted himself into the World Championships medal conversation with a brilliant stretch run and win in 1:44.25. Puerto Rico’s Wesley Sanchez made the race with a speedy 49.74 opening lap and he held on for second in 1:44.48 with Ryan Sanchez (PUR) third in 1:45.19. American Bryce Hoppel couldn’t move with the top three around the final 200 m and ended up fourth in 1:47.48.

Arop’s Mississippi State teammate Anderson Peters (GRN) unloaded a lifetime best of 87.31 m (286-5) in the first round and shocked the field, notably including 2012 Olympic champ Keshorn Walcott (TTO), who finished second at 83.55 m (274-1).

The Steeplechase races were studies in perseverance. Canada’s Genevieve Lalonde had the lead and kept it over American Marisa Howard over the last two laps, winning in a Games record of 9:41.45 to Howard’s 9:43.78. The men’s race saw Brazil’s Altobelli Santos hold the lead … and hold it … and hold it … and when the hard running started, no one could pass him. Gritting his teeth down the final straight, he won in a season’s best of 8:30.73; behind him, Carlos Sanmartin (COL) and Peru’s Mario Bazan sprinted of the last hurdle to pass American Benard Keter for the silver and bronze medals: 8:32.24-8:32.24-8:32.76.

The concluding relays were both come-from-behind affairs. The women’s 4x400m started with Lynna Irby of the U.S. well behind, but brilliant middle legs by Jade Stepter and Anna Cockrell got the U.S. into contention and then anchor Courtney Okolo took it from there. She started third, but made up the difference on Canada’s Sage Watson and Jamaica’s Roniesha McGregor coming into the home straight. Okolo had a lot more left and breezed to a half-second win with a 51.15 final leg.

The men’s 4×400 m was just as crazy, with the U.S. well behind after two legs, but a brilliant third leg by Justin Robinson brought the U.S. into the lead at the last pass. Machel Cedeno of Trinidad & Tobago took the lead over Wil London on the backstraight, but London was waiting with a burst onto the straightaway and looked like a possible winner. But Colombia’s 400 m winner Anthony Zambrano had a lot more left and whizzed by London, celebrating with 20 m left and won, 3:01.41-3:01.72.

With just the 50 km walking events left, the U.S. has grabbed 33 medals (7-14-12) in track & field to lead all countries, followed by Jamaica with 17 (6-5-6) and Brazil (16: 6-6-4). You can find the complete results here.