EUGENE, Ore. -- Every athlete at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials felt for Tyson Gay, knowing the chill of that sudden strike of pain and the hazy uncertainty that descends while you take stock of your body and desperately hope years of training have not been lost in one swift and terrible instant.
Gay’s stumble and fall about 40 meters into his quarterfinal heat of the men’s 200 on Saturday was attributed to a muscle cramp in his left leg, and no lasting damage was found. If that’s the case, he is far more fortunate than he appeared when he toppled to the Hayward Field track, his number loosened from his back to flutter in the breeze.
“My eyes started to well up,” said Lauryn Williams, who watched Gay’s race after her 200 quarterfinal, “and I was like, ‘Please, God, no, don’t take him away from us now. The USA needs him.’ ”
Fright undoubtedly inflamed Gay’s anxiety, as well as a sense of deja vu: He cramped during the 200 in the Olympic trials four years ago and lost a chance to compete in Athens, though it had less impact because he was not the defending world champion in that event, as he is now.
His mishap also stirred memories of the 200 finals at the 2000 U.S. trials, when a much-awaited race between Michael Johnson and Maurice Greene fizzled after Johnson hobbled off the track because of a cramped left hamstring -- at about the same spot Gay did Saturday, starting the curve -- and Greene quit with 80 meters to go because of a strained hamstring.
If it means anything, both went on to win gold medals at Sydney, Greene in the 100 and Johnson in the 400.
Gay, who last week earned a Beijing berth by winning the 100, said in a statement that his leg hurt less when he hit the ground than when he initially felt the pull. That’s encouraging for him and for the U.S. track team’s medal chances.
He also pronounced himself “very disappointed,” and there was a lot of that going around Saturday. Those who avoided disaster, the legions who ran and jumped on bandaged thighs and sore knees, knew that but for the grace of athletic tape and hope, their dreams could have shattered too.
“The Olympics are not about the people that are in shape, it’s about what they fought through to get there,” said Michelle Perry, who got through the first two rounds of the women’s 100 hurdles Saturday with her left leg wrapped from hip to ankle to protect a nearly healed muscle tear.
Some don’t make it there at all.
Before Gay’s fall, 37-year-old Allen Johnson crashed out of his qualifying-round race in the 110 hurdles after he aggravated a sore tendon behind his left shin.
The 1996 Olympic gold medalist and seven-time U.S. champion -- most recently in 2005 -- had suffered the injury earlier this season and prayed it had mended enough to carry him through four rounds here. He made it through only four hurdles.
“It’s been bothering me for the past six, seven weeks, so I knew this was a possibility,” he said. “I hoped that it wouldn’t happen.”
Also in the hurdles, American-record holder Dominique Arnold of Diamond Bar false-started out of his heat, the trials and the Olympics.
“What really separates guys at major championships is being able to get through these rounds,” Dan O’Brien said, and he knows about the pitfalls of such things.
Remember, it was O’Brien who famously had a no-height in the pole vault at the 1992 trials, ending his decathlon gold-medal hopes -- and spoiling the Reebok advertising campaign he had starred in with Dave Johnson.
David Oliver, who had the fastest 110 hurdles times in the preliminary round (13.24) and the quarterfinals (13.07) on Saturday, called the rounds a matter of survival.
“That’s what’s important. Whether you’re first or 16th, we’re all going to the semifinals and we all have a chance to make the team still,” said Oliver, who trains in Orlando, Fla.
He was sympathetic to Johnson but said USA Track and Field’s Olympic selection process -- which doesn’t allow medical petitions, as gymnastics and figure skating do -- is evenhanded.
“The hardest event in track and field is the U.S. Olympic trials,” Oliver said. “And life is brutish. It’s not fair. So you know, things happen. It just comes with the territory.”
Williams said her coach, Amy Deem, warned her not to watch replays of Gay’s mishap but she had already seen it and was appalled.
“It’s such an awful thing when bad things happen to good people,” she said. “And I’m just glad they’re saying it’s just a cramp as opposed to what it looked like.”
To their credit, those whose Olympic chances suddenly improved Saturday also wished him well.
“I feel bad if any athlete gets injured because I’ve been there too many times,” said Shawn Crawford, who ran a 20.33 in the quarterfinals and 20.21 in the semifinals.
Rodney Martin, who was in the same quarterfinal as Gay and won it in 20.52, said he took no joy from Gay’s misfortune.
“I’d like the best USA team to go to Beijing,” Martin said. “So I would rather Tyson to be here. He’s one of the best to go to Beijing.”
The best will still go, some sore and all sobered by what they saw Saturday, but they’ll be there.
“Champions,” Perry said, “show up no matter what.”
Helene Elliott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.