The U.S. men lost their stranglehold on the Olympics’ 1,600-meter relay four years ago in London.
Gil Roberts helped them get it back, his place in history complete with a dramatic moment that had Americans holding their breath.
The former Texas Tech all-American kept the lead with a strong third leg Saturday night in Rio de Janeiro and LaShawn Merritt finished off the victory, pulling away from Jamaica to secure another gold medal for the Americans in an event they were accustomed to dominating before 2012.
“I was pleased with my race,” Roberts said, according to USA Track & Field. “I maintained what Tony (McQuay) gave me, extended a little bit and got it to LaShawn.
“Coach (Dennis Mitchell) said, ‘Do your job. Everybody do your job, and give all you’ve got,’ and that’s what I did and we should be fine. And we were.”
The winning time was 2 minutes, 57.30 seconds. Jamaica ran 2:58.16 and the Bahamas 2:58.49, the latter giving former Texas Tech star Michael Mathieu medals at three Olympics in a row. It was the first-ever 1,600 relay in which six teams broke the three-minute mark.
Former Florida stars Arman Hall and McQuay put the U.S. into good position, and Roberts stayed just ahead of Botswana’s Onkabetse Nkobolo all the way around the Olympic Stadium track — even when he nearly stepped off it.
Bending the final turn, Roberts briefly lost his balance and lurched perilously close to the inside rail — which would’ve meant disqualification. He quickly recovered, never wavered and wound up with a 44.79 split.
Once Roberts passed the baton to Merritt, regaining the gold was a mission accomplished as the former 400-meter gold medalist pulled away on the homestretch.
“It was pretty scary,” Roberts said. “I just tried to maintain the lead, extend the lead some. I started to kick and get into my kick, and then in the process of kicking, I got close to the rail. I was just like, “Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Get to the line.”
The Bahamas got up for third, giving Mathieu another Olympic medal at age 32. It was the Bahamas that took the title from the U.S. four years ago with Mathieu running the third leg in that race.
That was the first time the U.S. men had been beaten on the track in an Olympics 1,600 relay final since 1972.
The U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games in 1980 and the relay team that finished first in 2000 at Sydney gave up its gold medals years later after one member of the team was ruled ineligible in 2004 and another admitted in 2008 to have used banned performance-enhancing substances.
The Bahamas put Mathieu on the second leg this time. He let his team slip from third to fourth off his final curve. But Chris Brown, running in his fifth Olympics and two months short of turning 38, rallied the Bahamas for a bronze with a strong stretch run as the anchor leg. Brown, who ran collegiately in the U.S. at Norfolk State, became the first man to medal in four Olympics in the 1,600 relay.
Mathieu was an all-American on Tech relay teams in 2005 and 2006 and started his Olympics medal streak by running on the Bahamas’ 1,600 relay that took silver in 2008 at Beijing.
Mathieu told Tribune242.com he ran most of his lap in discomfort.
“I sprained by hip muscle on the very first curve, but I just had to keep on pushing through it,” Mathieu said. “We had a rough year and I knew that it was going to be hard, but we came out with something. We just want to thank God for that.”
All in all, three former area runners secured medals on the final night of Olympics track and field. Jamaica’s second-place finish in the women’s 1,600-meter relay made South Plains College graduate Chrisann Gordon a silver medalist. Gordon ran for Jamaica in Friday’s first round, making her eligible for a medal, and wasn’t in the final foursome Saturday when the U.S. women beat Jamaica.
Roberts’ gold medal was his second in world competition. He anchored the U.S. men’s 1,600 relay that won four years ago at the IAAF World Championships in Istanbul. The 27-year-old has also won two U.S. championships in the 400: indoors at Albuquerque in 2012 and outdoors at Sacramento in 2014.
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