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American medal hopeful stumbles in 1,500

By Scott M. Reid, The Orange County Register –

LONDON — As the lead group runners in the Olympic Games women’s 1,500-meter final crossed the finish line Friday night, they didn’t seem to notice Morgan Uceny of the U.S. already in front of them. She was on her knees on the track, hunched over, her head and hands pressed against the track’s surface.

When she first fell, Uceny slapped the track in frustration, flailing at the walls of the same nightmare she found herself stuck in a second time. Now her body did not move except for the sobs that shook her.

Yet no one approached her. No one tried to console her. No one offered to help her up. Not Turkey’s Asli Cakir Alptekin and Gamze Bulut, the race’s gold and silver medalist. Not Russia’s Ekaterina Kostetskaya, whose back-kick appeared to touch Uceny’s shin, precipitating the fall. Not U.S. teammate Shannon Rowbury.

Finally, a medical official walked onto the track and spoke to Uceny. After a few more moments she rose to her feet, her hands still covering her face as if she could not bear look at the night’s reality. Blood ran down her left shin from a gash on her knee.

Her real pain was much deeper.

Uceny, America’s best prospect for an Olympic middle distance medal since Mary Slaney, was sent crashing to the Olympic Stadium track with a lap remaining just as she appeared ready to pounce on a slow, tactical race that seemed tailor-made for the Cornell graduate. The fall was eerily similar to a spill Uceny took with 550 meters to go in last year’s World Championships final.

“Twice in a final, to have that happen, the same girl,” Rowbury said. “That sucks.”

Uceny’s haunting crash wasn’t the race’s only controversy.

Cakir Alptekin, 26, held off her 20-year-old teammate Bulut for a 4-minute, 10.23-second victory. Bulut finished in 4:10.40 for the silver with Bahrain’s Maryam Yusuf Jamal getting the bronze in 4:10.90. Rowbury, the bronze medalist at the 2009 World Championships, was sixth in 4:11.26.

Afterward, Cakir Alptekin credited her victory, the first ever by a Turkish woman in an Olympic track and field event, and the 1-2 finish to “Turkish power.” Others, however, couldn’t help wondering if the Turkish triumph was fueled by something else.

Cakir Alptekin was given a two-year doping ban in 2004 for using banned substances. After she returned she failed to make it out of the 3,000-meter steeplechase heats at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing or reach the final in the 1,500 at the 2011 World Championships. A year ago, Bulut’s personal best in the 1,500 was 4:18.23. Earlier this week she ran 4:01.18 in the Olympic semis.

“I’ll probably get into trouble for saying this, but I don’t believe I’m competing on a level playing field,” said Great Britain’s Lisa Dobriskey, who finished 10th in 4:13.02.

A pedestrian early pace ensured that most, if not all, the field would still be in contention heading into the final lap. Bulut led through the first 400 in 75.12 seconds, 4:30 pace, and remained in front through 800 (2:23.97) and as the race headed toward the bell in bunched pack.

“That’s such a crucial moment,” Rowbury said. It was a race that was playing into the hands of Uceny, the field’s biggest finisher. Uceny’s 2011 resume was so loaded that she was ranked No. 1 in the world last season despite her Worlds crash. But the slow pace and its inherit pushing and jockeying for position was also the recipe for disaster.

“Too many bodies,” Dobriskey said. “Too slow of pace.”

And at the bell Uceny’s personal history repeated itself. Television replays appeared to show that Ethiopia’s Abeba Aregawi moving suddenly left to right in the center of the pack, creating contact with other runners. Kostetskaya, running in front of Uceny a shade to her left, seemed to slightly touch Uceny’s shin with her heel as her right leg pulled back. It was enough to drop Uceny to the track.

“I didn’t see what happened,” Kostetskaya said. “It was behind me.”

“I heard I a like splat and the crowd (reaction),” Rowbury said. “And then I was just trying to get right back into the race…That’s the 1,500. That’s the kind of the thing any of us fear”

Uceny rolled and then stopped hunched over her knees, pounding on the track as the race and her Olympic dream ran away, leaving her to rail against her reoccurring nightmare.

“It’s not how it’s supposed to happen,” Rowbury said. “If you lose a race it’s supposed be because you didn’t have it. Not because you fell.”

Eventually with Cakir Alptekin and Bulut well into their victory celebration, other runners scanning the scoreboard for their times and places, an official helped Uceny off the track. She later left the stadium without speaking to reporters.

Rowbury recalled seeing Uceny as she finished.

“She was still on the track,” Rowbury said.

She was asked why she didn’t try to console or assist Uceny.

“Honestly, I was just trying to process the whole experience,” Rowbury said. “I saw her and my heart goes out for her.”

But Rowbury, like the others, would leave Uceny to pick up the pieces by herself.

“If I were her,” Rowbury said, “I would be frustrated and try and go back and see if there’s anything I could do to fix it.”

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