Niyo: Michigan's Linden earns measure of redemption

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Rio de Janeiro — Late Sunday morning, Desi Linden made the final turn into the Sambódromo Rio’s famous Carnival parade venue, and as she saw the crowd and heard the roar, she decided it was finally time to join the party.

For most of the last four years, she’d been all-business when it came to this redemptive Olympic journey, determined to erase the memories of her 2012 debut in London. She’d made it to the starting line there, but she hadn’t finished, battling a still-undiagnosed stress fracture in her hip, and ever since she’d struggled to even call herself an Olympian.

Sunday, though, there was no doubt. And while her seventh-place finish left her wanting more – never mind that she became the eighth American woman in history to post a top-10 finish at the Olympics – Linden allowed herself to revel in the moment.

“That was really cool,” said Linden, 33, of Washington Township. “We’ve been focused, business-like about this whole thing, and not thinking about 2012. But I think when I made that turn into the Sambodromo, it was like, ‘OK, this is the Olympics. Celebrate. Wave to these people. Take this all in.’ Because the race is done at that point. And it was really fun. It was a great moment crossing that line, feeling like I put it all out there.”

She had, in fact, and as she crossed the finish line in 2 hours 26 minutes 8 seconds -- just behind U.S. teammate Shalane Flanagan in 2:25:26 -- Linden, who has trained with the Hansons-Brooks team in Rochester Hills since 2006, grabbed the front of her race tank top and gave it a celebratory kiss.

“USA, you know?” she said, smiling.

Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong won the gold Sunday in 2:24:04 – Kenya’s first in the Olympic women’s marathon -- by outdueling fellow East Africans Eunice Kirwa (Bahrain), who crossed the line in 2:24:13, and Mare Dibaba (Ethiopia) in 2:24:30.

Moving on up

But Sunday’s result was a best-ever performance for the U.S. women, with all three runners – Flanagan (sixth), Linden (seventh) and Amy Cragg (ninth) – posting top-10 finishes. That’s a first for the U.S. women, and in a race that ranks as the second-fastest ever at the Olympics, they’d have won the team title if there was one. The only better U.S. showing came from the men’s team led by Frank Shorter at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

“That’s by far and away the best result we’ve ever had,” said Flanagan, who also was 10th in London in 2012. “We came here to run the races of our lives, and we pretty much did. You can’t ask for better than that. That’s super impressive.”

Particularly given the race-day conditions, as a hot, humid day with temperatures pushing 80 degrees withered a field of 157 of the world’s top distance runners.

“We were prepared for it,” said Linden, who’d run the Olympic trials in Los Angeles in similar weather in February, and trained in these conditions much of the summer. “After L.A. I was like, ‘Oh, that was the worst thing ever.’ I never felt that way today. I felt fine coming in. I didn’t feel completely thrashed. So it wasn’t a factor for me. I think it was for a lot of people, and I hoped it would be more for the frontrunners.”

But after running with a lead pack of about a dozen runners for most of the first half of the race, ignoring intermittent surges throughout, Linden stuck to her race plan – she came in targeting a 5:30 mile pace – when a smaller group led by the East Africans surged ahead, taking Flanagan with them. And while some gradually fell off, Flanagan included, Linden started to make up ground on the leaders just before the 30K mark.

“I got excited about it,” she said. “I think I might’ve been too aggressive, too soon. But I think I had to. That gap was just getting bigger. And if I wanted to have bodies to chase down late, you had to be in position to do it. Just didn’t have the legs to do it.”

Only the final few did, and it wasn’t until the final few kilometers that the race was truly decided, as Sumgong, 31, who won the London Marathon in April, outkicked Kirwa, a native Kenyan, to the finish. Protesters jumping onto the course nearly disrupted the end of the race, and questions about doping also hounded the winner at the post-race news conference.

More than 40 Kenyan athletes have failed drugs tests since 2012, including Sumgong, who had a two-year suspension lifted by the IAAF, track’s governing body. Her Italian agent, Federico Rosa, was arrested last month on charges of administering banned substances. And a top Kenyan track official already has been sent home from Rio for soliciting bribes to tip off athletes about doping tests.

“We are clean athletes in Kenya,” Sumgong insisted Sunday. “We assure you, we are clean. … As an athlete, myself, I’m sure, I’m clean.”

'Did fantastic'

Time will tell, perhaps. And as Flanagan noted Sunday, her sixth-place finish – and Linden’s seventh -- could always become something more based on recent history, with race-day drug testing and the possibility of future re-tests.

But on this day, the Americans certainly were encouraged, if not satisfied.

“The three of us did fantastic today,” said Linden, who credits some of the success to a renewed emphasis on group training, something her coaches -- brothers Kevin and Keith Hanson -- have been touting for nearly two decades now. “We all worked the course really well, and you could tell we had been out here. … I felt like everyone raced really smart. And that’s all you can ask for. You get your positions, and if you gave it everything, you’ve just got to be happy with it and try to get better.”

This was a better trip for Linden, no doubt, from start to finish.

“I hoped that kind of performance would have been a medalist, and many years it would have been,” Kevin Hanson said. “But we couldn’t be prouder of her.”

And as Linden headed off in search of her traditional post-race meal – “a burger and a beer” – with her husband, Ryan, her sister Natalie, and her coaches and agents, she was smiling. This was far from her last race – she still plans to run for another four or five years. But if this was her last Olympics, “I think I can be proud of it now,” she said.

“Before, it was something I didn’t want to talk about, so I just never really brought it up,” she said. “But I’ll wear the (Team USA) t-shirt now. And if people ask, I can have a story. And not like, ‘Yeah, I was there … but not really.’ I’ll tell ‘em about running in Rio, and it’ll be great.”

Rochester Hills native Desiree Linden, right, takes the lead ahead of Tirfi Tsegaye of Ethiopia during the women's marathon on Day 9 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.