Track is my field: Mark Cullen's international track and field website featuring storytelling, commentary, and predictions and event analyses for the Olympics and World Championships. I'll be writing from the 2018 European Championships in Berlin in August. I'm active on Facebook and Twitter: @trackerati.

Friday, January 1, 2016

2015 Athletes of the Year: Infeld and Simon

Trackerati’s 2015 Female and Male Track and Field Athletes of the Year are Emily Infeld and Meron Simon.

Infeld gained unexpected World Championships glory when she won the 10,000m bronze medal in Beijing. Simon gained unlikely fame when he won Eugene’s Pepsi Invitational 3,000m steeplechase in 8:57.86 on April 12 in Eugene.

Each had unwitting co-conspirators who, by failing to follow the most elemental rules of track and field, highlighted the achievements of Infeld and Simon and gave their accomplishments amplified attention on a global stage.

Infeld ran a magnificent race at Worlds. After two stress fractures in a doubt-ridden year and a half before Beijing, Infeld had been ready to call it a career. But she recovered steadily and ran 31:38.71 at the Peyton Jordan Invitational at the beginning of May and 31:42.60 for 3rd at the US Championships in June.

In Beijing, Infeld hung with the lead pack the entire race, was 7th with 300m to go, and blew by Kenya’s Sally Kipyego – on the inside – into 4th with 230m left.

As Infeld gained on teammate Molly Huddle, Huddle made not one but two mistakes. Much attention has rightly gone to her colossal brain freeze that had her raising her hands in triumph for a bronze that was not yet hers – but Huddle also failed to protect her lane and thereby left enough room for Infeld to pass her on the inside.

Infeld ran a perfect last lap in 62.4 and finished in 31:43.49, very close to her pre-Championship race times. She passed the prematurely celebrating Huddle to win the coveted bronze.

For Meron Simon, then of the University of Washington, his Pepsi Invitational performance was not only a win but a personal record and his first time under the 9:00 minute steeplechase barrier.

After passing James Brown of Kentucky at the last water jump, he looked up and saw his surprising chance. Oregon’s Tanguy Pepiot seemed to have the race won, but he started waving to the crowd before sealing the deal.

“I thought he had me,” Simon said of Pepiot’s lead. “I thought he was so far ahead and then he started throwing his hands up and I was like ‘I don’t think he knows I’m coming!’”

“I just went through the line and (here Simon shrugs his shoulders) just raced.” (emphasis mine)

As Pepiot waved to the crowd, Simon charged by on the outside to win by a tenth of a second.

Little did Simon know he would become a viral sensation, with millions of views of his finish on YouTube and discussion of his race on worldwide media, including Eurosport and ESPN.

There is no claim here that, intrinsically, the performances of Infeld and Simon exceed those of world champions, world record setters, or even list leaders.

But those are not always the most memorable performances.

Infeld and Simon embody best the spirit of our sport: the dogged determination to get to the finish line first, the relentless focus on one goal to the exclusion of anything or anyone else, and the capturing of the moment by finishing what they came to do first – and then celebrating the joy of their unlikely achievements.

In a year tangled by scandal and controversy, Infeld and Simon represent the best of athletics. These two runners sustained our faith in track and field while many tried to shatter it. In a year in which we lost Yogi Berra, it was indeed not over until it was over.

While the rest of the world focused on his improbable win, Simon said, “I’m just stoked for the next race.”

Infeld and Simon keep us stoked for our sport, and for that they are Trackerati’s 2015 Athletes of the Year.