Tuesday, August 16, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> Weeks just short at Rio

By RAY BENTON Leader sports editor

This year has been a dream year for Lexi Weeks, and it finally ended Tuesday morning in Rio de Janeiro. That’s when Weeks failed to qualify for Friday’s finals in the women’s Olympic pole vault competition.

Weeks advanced past the first three heights in the qualifying round. A height of 4.6 meters meant an automatic qualification, and it turned out that 4.55 meters was good enough to advance. The top 12 out of 38 competitors go on to compete for Olympic medals Friday evening.

But that’s the height that Weeks failed to clear in three tries. She went out at 4.45 meters, which was still better than 15 other competitors, but not as high as she has gone in the past.

Weeks cleared 4.7 meters to finish third at the U.S. Trials behind legendary vaulter Jenn Suhr and former Razorback Sandi Morris. That height beat her previous personal best by five inches, and shocked the nation when it made her the youngest American pole-vaulter to ever qualify for the Olympics.

But Tuesday wasn’t her day. She skipped the opening height of 4.15 meters, and entered at 4.3. She cleared that height easily on her first try, but missed on her first attempt at 4.45. Her second attempt was another easy jump, clearing the bar by a large margin.

Weeks’ first attempt at 4.55 saw her get plenty of height, but fail to get the depth necessary to propel over the bar.

Something went wrong on her second attempt and she bailed on the jump before even rising to the bar. Her third attempt was similar to the first, and the dreams of an Olympic medal were over.

It was still a remarkable year for the 2015 Cabot High School graduate. She went to compete for the University of Arkansas track team where she set several SEC and national records.

She won the SEC Indoor and Outdoor conference championships, and went on to win the NCAA Indoor and Outdoor national championships as well, becoming the first freshman in NCAA history to do any of that.

Then came the U.S. Trials in Eugene, Ore. Weeks wasn’t a favorite to make the Olympic squad. Her personal best was barely over 15 feet, and there were three competitors that had cleared 16 feet. One of them, however, failed to duplicate that height, while Weeks cleared the personal best 4.7 meters (15-feet, 5-inches).

She had the opportunity to keep going and try to improve on that height, but elected to shut it down since she had already made the Olympic team.

Seven competitors in Rio on Tuesday met the automatic qualifying height. Nine more cleared 4.55, but only five move on to the finals for clearing the height on their first attempt. Seven more, including Weeks, cleared 4.45. Officially, her final position was 19th out of 38.

The other two Americans both qualified. Ekaterini Stefanidi of Greece qualified first for clearing the automatic height on her first attempt. Suhr was second while Germany’s Lisa Ryzih, Great Britain’s Holly Bradshaw, Cuba’s Yarisley Silva, New Zealand’s Eliza McCartney and Germany’s Martina Strutz all cleared 4.6 meters.

Canada’s Kelsie Ahbe, Morris, Alana Boyd of Australia, Slovenia’s Tina Sutej and Switzerland’s Nicole Buchler are the other finalists.

The biggest shock of the event was European silver medalist Femke Pluim of The Netherlands failed to qualify.