EUGENE, Ore. - Asked if he thought about racing longer distances at his age, 33-year-old Bernard Lagat said, "I think I can still do this." The room broke out in laughter at the understatement. For Lagat, "this" means competing at 1,500 and 5,000 meters. He is the reigning world champion in both events and a favorite for a golden track double at the Beijing Olympics. So, he can certainly still do this.
A focus on longer distances will have to wait until Lagat loses some speed, though these days it's hard to imagine that happening. After winning the 5,000 at the US Olympic track and field trials Monday night in 13 minutes 27.47 seconds, Lagat returns to Hayward Field tonight for the 1,500 quarterfinals. Running for his native Kenya, Lagat captured bronze in the event at the 2000 Olympics and silver in 2004.
"I'm feeling so good," said Lagat. "There's not much pressure now. I've made Team USA already. I won [Monday] night and I don't feel a thing. When I go to the quarterfinals for the 1,500, I'm just going to be trying to make it to the semis. In the semis, the same thing. The finals are just all adrenaline."
Making the US team in the 5,000 and, he hopes, the 1,500 would hold special meaning for Lagat, who received citizenship in 2004. He has lived in the US since his NCAA championship-winning days at Washington State. Lagat continued to train in the US after graduating in 1999 and always envisioned raising a family here.
"It means a lot to me [to wear the Team USA uniform]," said Lagat. "I've lived in this country a long time and received a lot of support from this country. I got my education here in the United States. To be the first one in my family to get the education was the biggest achievement. I wanted to get the opportunities that Americans get here. Now that I'm a runner, I feel enormous pride running for the United States. I feel like this is where I'm comfortable."
Lagat also feels more confident. With the 2004 retirement of reigning Olympic 1,500 and 5,000 champion Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco, Lagat has raced differently and learned he can win with a number of strategies. In Athens, Lagat lost to El Guerrouj in the 1,500 by .12 seconds. Lagat did not completely believe he could beat El Guerrouj, a notion raised by Lagat's coach, James Li.
"My coach actually told me, 'I think you'd be a better athlete if you believed. You're going into races halfway believing you can beat this guy. You are not really convinced you can beat him,' " said Lagat. "That's hard to overcome because I thought I was 100 percent every time I step on the track that I'll beat this guy. After Hicham El Guerrouj retired, it was a change in my running career. It seems like with the 1,500, you just have to go from the gun. He was way up there running 1:49 for the first 800. I'm just right behind him. When he stopped running, I had to learn a lot again."
Lagat is so confident about his conditioning that he has declared he will race both the 1,500 and 5,000 at the Olympics if he makes the team in the 1,500. It is a difficult double to complete with two gold medals, as El Guerrouj did in 2004.
"This year, I'm very healthy," said Lagat, who suffered stomach problems throughout the 2007 season. "I feel stronger this year. So, if I make the team in the 1,500, I'm going to pursue the 1,500 very hard because that's my goal. This is the time that I'm going to make the decision early. I'm going to run the 1,500, and why not pursue the 5,000? I did it last year. I'm going with that plan."
At the Olympic trials, Lagat will be challenged by Alan Webb and Lopez Lomong. Others with a good change of securing a spot on the team include 2007 US outdoor silver medalist Leonel Manzano and two-time indoor champion Rob Myers. Despite a career sidetracked by injuries and illness, Webb is the American record-holder in the mile and a three-time US outdoor 1,500 champion (2004, '05, '07). But Webb has struggled in recent months, including a seventh-place finish in his 2008 debut in the
He scratched from the 800 at the trials, leaving some to wonder what was going on.
"The reason why I pulled out of the 800 is to give myself a little more time to prepare, to get ready," said Webb. "It gave me another week to get more training in. The 1,500 was my main goal. It was my No. 1 priority. I felt having a little more preparation time would help me. It gives me confidence to know that I have the training under my belt. It's just a matter of getting out there and executing."
Lagat knows the same is also true when he steps on the Hayward track tonight. If top entrants such as Lagat, Webb, and Lomong perform to expectations, the 1,500 final should bring the US Olympic trials to a fittingly fast and dramatic close Sunday night.
Shira Springer can be reached at email@example.com.