U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials: Will Sha’Carri Richardson claim the throne?

It has left potential gold medalists sobbing and heartbroken. It has reminded aging champions of their mortality. It has rocketed young unknowns to superstardom.

Welcome to the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, a nerve-fraying, pressure-packed test of mettle.

From June 21 to June 30, America’s best runners, hurdlers, jumpers and throwers will descend upon Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, to attempt to secure their spot at the Paris Olympics later this summer. The top three finishers in every event will make it as long as they’ve achieved the Olympic “A” standard. The rest will grapple with waiting another four years.

Other countries have grown a heart and inserted safety nets into the selection process. They’ll consider season-long performance or previous Olympic or World Championship results. In the U.S., there is no politics involved, no big names resting on past achievements. The system is brutal yet honest, cutthroat yet fair.

Among the gold-medal contenders trying to survive that pressure cooker this year are sprinters Sha’Carri Richardson and Noah Lyles, hurdlers Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Grant Holloway and throwers Valarie Allman and Ryan Crouser. Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as Trials get underway:

EUGENE, OREGON - MAY 25: Sha'Carri Richardson of Team USA wins the women's 100 meter dash during the Wanda Diamond League Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field on May 25, 2024 in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
Sha'Carri Richardson of Team USA wins the women's 100 meter dash during the Wanda Diamond League Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field on May 25, 2024 in Eugene, Oregon. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Three years ago, Sha’Carri Richardson was one of the faces of the Tokyo Olympics without even being there. The 21-year-old sprinting sensation blew away the competition in the women’s 100 meters at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials, only to have that result invalidated weeks later when she tested positive for marijuana.

The debate over the fairness of Richardson’s Olympic ban brought her more attention than a gold medal ever would have. Richardson’s following on Instagram soared past two million. Nike and Apple-owned Beats by Dre featured her in ad campaigns. The list of celebrities who expressed support for Richardson included everyone from Seth Rogen and Cardi B, to Patrick Mahomes and Megan Rapinoe.

Richardson’s bid for redemption will make her one of the featured athletes at the Paris Games … but she has to qualify first. She’ll be the heavy favorite to win Saturday’s women’s 100 final and she is a contender to qualify for Paris in the women’s 200 as well.

There’s a lot of pressure on Richardson to live up to expectations this summer, but recently she has run with trademark confidence and swagger. Appearing in her first world championships last summer, Richardson took gold in the 100 and bronze in the 200. She opened her 2024 season at the Prefontaine Classic in late May by outclassing a strong field in the 100.

As Richardson herself famously put it last summer, “I’m not back. I’m better.”

Noah Lyles wants to achieve something in Paris that not even the legendary Usain Bolt ever did. The American told "The Tonight Show" earlier this month that he hopes to capture Olympic gold in four different running events.

At last year’s World Championships, Lyles claimed the sprint treble, winning the men’s 100 and 200 before leading the U.S. men’s 4x100-meter relay team to gold with a dazzling anchor leg. Lyles is hoping USA Track & Field will give him the chance to add the 4x400-meter relay to his repertoire this summer.

“[Bolt] has won three already and he has the world records when he did it,” Lyles told Jimmy Fallon. “What do you got to do to be better than that? You got to get four. Nobody’s done four. Now you’re going on the Mount Rushmore. Now you’re the greatest of the great. That’s what I’m trying to attain.”

Lyles enters Trials as the favorite to win the men’s 100 and 200, but the U.S. is loaded with sprinters capable of taking advantage if he has an off day. Christian Coleman, Kenny Bednarek, Fred Kerley and high school phenom Christian Miller are all threats in the 100. Bednarek, Kerley, Erriyon Knighton and Courtney Lindsey loom in the 200.

Even if Lyles survives that gauntlet, his greatest feat might have to be securing permission to run a leg of the 4x400-meter relay final in Paris. The U.S. has a deep stable of 400-meter specialists who will not be pleased to be bypassed by someone with little meaningful history at that distance.

Athing Mu has faced criticism before for competing so infrequently, but this season she is taking that to a new level. Her season opener in 2024 will be the first of three rounds of the women’s 800 at Trials on Friday night.

Mu, now 22, has been one of the brightest stars in U.S. track and field since before she was old enough to legally order a glass of wine at a restaurant. She broke NCAA records at Texas A&M, captured Olympic gold in the 800 and the 4x400-meter relay in 2021 and validated that with a win on U.S. soil at World Championships the following year.

It looked so easy. Until it didn’t.

Weeks before the 2023 World Championships in Budapest, Mu’s coach told the Los Angeles Times that Mu was mulling whether to compete. Mu ultimately elected to run but suffered a rare loss, settling for bronze after Kenya’s Mary Moraa and Great Britain’s Keely Hodgkinson passed her before the finish line.

The last time she competed, Mu avenged that loss and broke her own American record at the Prefontaine Classic last September. This year, she has pushed back her debut three times, reportedly because of a lingering hamstring injury.

At her best, Mu would be untouchable in the women’s 800 at Trials, but it’s unclear what kind of form she’ll bring to Eugene. Other contenders in the 800 include reigning U.S. champ, Nia Akins, 2021 Olympic bronze medalist Raevyn Rogers and 2024 NCAA champion Michaela Rose.

Los Angeles, CA - May 18:  Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone of the USA wins the women's 200m race with a time of 22.07 as Gabby Thomas finished sixth with a time of 22.68 during the USATF Los Angeles Grand Prix track and field meet at Drake Stadium on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday, May 18, 2024. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone wins the women's 200m race with a time of 22.07 during the USATF Los Angeles Grand Prix in May. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

The most intriguing race at the Paris Olympics might be the women’s 400 hurdles. American world record holder Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone and Dutch star Femke Bol tend to produce something special every time they face off.

At the Tokyo Olympics, McLaughlin-Levrone ran 51.46 to lower her world record and fend off Bol and American Dalilah Muhammad. A year later, at the 2022 World Championships, McLaughlin-Levrone dropped an eye-opening 50.68 to shatter her world record and force Bol to settle for silver.

With McLaughlin-Levrone taking a break from the hurdles to focus on the open 400 last season, Bol dominated the 2023 World Championships in Budapest. McLaughlin-Levrone has chosen to focus exclusively on the 400 hurdles at Trials this year despite casually dropping the fastest time in the world in the open 400 in May and the second-fastest in the 200 in early June.

Earlier this month, Bol cruised to a 400 hurdles win at the European Championships in a world-leading 52.49 seconds. How McLaughlin-Levrone responds in Eugene could portend whether she’ll arrive in Paris as a slight favorite over Bol or an overwhelming one.

Collegiate stars are always at a disadvantage in the U.S. Olympics Trials. They’ve beaten up their bodies running in an array of championship meets in May and early June while the pros are able to train to peak for Trials and for the Games themselves.

Among the college athletes with the best chance to overcome those unfavorable circumstances is an Ole Miss sprinter who won the 100-200 double at the NCAA Outdoor Championships earlier this month. McKenzie Long is capable of making the U.S. Olympic team in either sprint event but her specialty is the 200, where she has produced multiple wind-legal sub-22-second performances in her career.

Another college standout to watch is Texas Tech’s Caleb Dean, the only male in NCAA Division I history to win the 60-meter hurdles and the 400-meter hurdles in the same year. Dean’s NCAA championship-winning time of 47.23 seconds in the 400 hurdles was the second-fastest ever by a college athlete. He’ll push Rai Benjamin if he can duplicate or improve on that time in Eugene.

Florida’s Parker Valby might be the future of U.S. distance running after winning a pair of NCAA doubles, the 3,000 and the 5,000 indoors and the 5,000 and the 10,000 outdoors. She has entered both the 5,000 and 10,000 at Trials and is a threat in either race with her fearless step-on-the-gas racing style.