Sprinters, fresh faces help restore track and field's credibility

EUGENE — If the U.S. Olympic track team for the Beijing Games is composed of athletes as flat-out fast as Marshevet Hooker, as natural and unspoiled as 16-year-old Laura Roesler and as upstandingly honest as Allyson Felix and Lauryn Williams, maybe there's hope for a sport that has seemed intent on destroying itself through a never-ending series of drug scandals.

Hooker, Felix and Williams are sprinters, all with NCAA or world or Olympic medals in their trophy cases. They won the crowd's admiration Friday because they're so powerful and accomplished — and because they're rebuilding the credibility the sport lost the past decade while drug cheats and chemistry dominated the conversation.

Felix and Williams deserve special plaudits for voluntarily participating in a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency program that subjects them to an extraordinary number of drug tests so they can prove they're clean.

"I was worried at first they were taking too much blood," Williams said, "but I've gotten used to it. It doesn't affect my training."

Roesler, barely 16 and running in a pink tank top she bought at Target because "that's all I really have," won the crowd's heart with a last-gasp push that got her to the next round of the women's 800.

Her hair in French braids and her nails painted hot pink, she gutted out her preliminary heat with the confidence of a veteran, finishing in 2 minutes, 4.03 seconds and winning a place in today's semifinals.

A junior-to-be at Fargo South High in Fargo, N.D., she idolized "pretty much all of" her competitors.

"It's awesome to be here and get to see them live," she said.

She gets to race with them again, and even if she does not win, if her journey ends Saturday, she has already won so much — and given optimism to those who follow the sport.

So did Hooker, who ran a world-leading but wind-aided time of 10.76 seconds Friday to win her second-round heat in the women's 100-meter dash.

She did it despite a stutter-step out of the unfamiliar starting blocks and despite having had barely two hours' rest since winning her preliminary-round heat, in which she excited a track-savvy crowd at jammed Hayward Field by running a 10.94.

After each round, the 23-year-old's smile was as big as the margin by which she led a formidable field — as big as her home state of Texas, where both of her parents played college basketball and she played basketball before she began focusing on track.

Asked what she could do with a legal wind, she laughed.

"There's no telling. Only God knows," said Hooker, who had a tailwind of 3.4 meters per second to speed her along.

"I'm happy with it, but that wasn't the final. There are two rounds to go."

Although Hooker had the tailwind, her strength and stamina appeared purely natural.

"She's fast. Real fast," said Torri Edwards of Los Angeles, who won her first two heats in 11.16 and 10.85.

"Hopefully, she's tired by the time the final comes."

Eight of the 16 women who advanced to Saturday's semifinals ran faster than 11 seconds. Among them was Edwards, who finished second in the 100 at the 2004 Olympic trials but was disqualified from the Athens team after she tested positive for a banned stimulant.

Her ban was later shortened from two years to 15 months, but too late to restore her Athens dream. At 31, she's among the oldest sprinters in the field.

If she feels any special appreciation of this second chance, she's not acknowledging it.

"I'm treating this like every other national championship," Edwards said. "I'm going out to win, like I did last year."

Felix, also of Los Angeles, advanced easily too, winning her preliminary heat in 11.01 and finishing second to Gardena, Calif.'s Carmelita Jeter in the second round, 10.97 to 10.98. The heat, though unusually high for Eugene, was no obstacle to Felix.

"Coming from California, we've had a bit of a heat wave, so it wasn't that bad," said Felix, who had hoped to try for a 200-400 double in Beijing until schedule conflicts pushed her to the 100-200 sprint double.

Jeter said she wasn't worried about anyone else's time or placement.

"I'm just worried about my race," said Jeter, bronze medalist in the 100 at last year's World Championships.

"I've got to do what I've got to do. The only lane that matters is mine."

Williams, the Athens silver medalist in the 100, predicted that all eight lanes would be fast in each semifinal today.

"I'm not counting anybody out," she said.

"That's when you have to dig deep. You might have been the last one to get in, but if you want to get into the Olympic team you'll find a way."

And, if the sport is lucky, they'll all find a way to push doping toward extinction.

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott(at)latimes.com.

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