USC freshman-to-be Michael Norman was almost shy about approaching four-time Olympic medalist Justin Gatlin on Friday after Norman won their 200-meter dash semifinal at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials.
Norman, whose time of 20.21 seconds ranks among the best ever by a high school sprinter, was unsure Gatlin would recall they had met, at a track clinic. “I just asked if he remembered me,” Norman said. “I didn’t want to talk to him before the race because everybody was getting into their zone.”
Gatlin, timed in 20.23 seconds, remembered him and embraced him. At the rate Norman is going, he won’t be forgotten by anyone anytime soon.
Norman, competing in his Vista Murrieta singlet, and Florida-bound high schooler Noah Lyles (20.26) were astonishingly fast on a wet track at Hayward Field in reaching Saturday’s final. “They come out to be giant-killers,” said Gatlin, who is one of those giants but generously counseled Norman when they met last year. “When I was in high school, I wasn’t doing what they’re doing. I was sitting at home like every other high school kid, watching on TV.”
Norman, 18, was determined to succeed in the 200 after being eliminated in the first round of the 400. “I still get nervous, but I am going to try and stay relaxed and just learn to focus and just think about myself,” he said.
He shouldn’t feel bad about not beating the time of another giant, LaShawn Merritt, because no one this year has run the 200 faster than the 19.74 Merritt posted in his semifinal Friday. Ameer Webb (19.97) and Tyson Gay (20.16) were close. Merritt’s previous fastest time was 19.78 in April.
Merritt, the 400-meter trials champion, hasn’t decided whether he will attempt a double in Rio. “I’m just trying to take it a race at a time,” he said. “I’ve got another race coming up to make the team. Just have to stay humble, stay grounded and come out [Saturday] and do it all over again.”
Trials 400-meter champion Allyson Felix of Los Angeles, running her first 200 since last September, eased into the semifinals by winning her heat in 22.93 seconds, fifth-fastest. Jenna Prandini had the top time, 22.72, followed by 100-meter Olympian Tori Bowie (22.74). “It felt good to get a 200 in. It felt comfortable,” said Felix, who battled a sore right ankle in the 400. “I have more confidence in the ankle and that it can withstand it.”
Former USC standout Dalilah Muhammad had the top time in the women’s 400-meter hurdles semifinals, 54.14, and reached Sunday’s final. Recent USC graduate Jaide Stepter (55.55) also qualified. “I’m going to make this Olympic team,” said Stepter, who overcame a bad first hurdle and went all-out to make her dream a reality. Muhammad, who trains in Northridge, approached the semifinal as if it were the final. In the actual final, “I’m just going to go out and execute like I did [Friday]. Stay in my race pattern. Hope I run a little faster,” she said.
Ben Blankenship had the fastest time in the men’s 1,500-meter semifinal, 3:44.24, followed by Matt Centrowitz (3:44.29). Jenny Simpson led the women’s semifinalists at 4:10.09, followed by Shannon Rowbury (4:10.24).
Brenda Martinez of Rancho Cucamonga qualified for the final by staging a late burst to win the slower semifinal in 4:11.05. A crowd favorite following the mishap that sent her stumbling out of the 800, she survived some congestion during Friday’s rain-slowed race.
Steeplechase favorite Evan Jager of Algonquin, Ill., led from the fourth lap in winning in 8:22.48, but he said it wasn’t easy. “I had guys on me the whole time so it put a lot of pressure on me. I just tried to keep squeezing it down and run hard,” said Jager, who finished sixth at the London Olympics.
In a surprise, NCAA champion high jumper Randall Cunningham of USC couldn’t clear 2.14 meters (7 feet, ¼ inch). The same was true of USC alum Jesse Williams, the 2011 world champion.