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TOKYO — As meet officials led defending Olympic gold medalist Dalilah Muhammad and the other women in her 400-meter hurdles semifinal from the holding area under Tokyo Olympic Stadium onto the track, Muhammad was taken by surprise.
It had started to rain.
It was heavy enough to pause the women's discus throw final and women's pole vault preliminaries — a couple of discus throwers, who wear smooth-bottomed shoes to facilitate their powerful spins — fell on attempts, and vaulting is dangerous enough without the possibility of using a wet pole.
But the running didn't stop, so Muhammad and the other semifinalists got into their starting blocks. The conditions were what they were, and the metal spikes runners wear help keep grip in wet conditions.
The 31-year-old advanced to Wednesday morning's final in 53.30 seconds, securing the opportunity to become the first woman with two golds in the event.
She will be joined by both of her American teammates: Sydney McLaughlin, who became the first woman to break 52 seconds in 400m hurdles when she ran 51.90 at the U.S. trials last month, and Anna Cockrell, who is coming off NCAA titles in both the 100m and 400m hurdles.
McLaughlin's 53.03 was the fastest time in the semis, and Cockrell crossed the line in 54.17.
"I wish I had windshield wipers for my eyes, but other than that, clean race and qualifying is all you need," McLaughlin said of the rain. "I’m just glad I have waterproof mascara. That’s all I’m thankful for."
The semifinals began just after 8:30 p.m., and Muhammad had expressed some concern about that after her first-round race: She's usually in bed by 9 every night.
"Definitely was feeling tired before my race, definitely was sipping a little caffeine to try to keep me up," she said. "I’m happy our final is at 11:30 on Wednesday."
The way finals between Muhammad and McLaughlin have gone over the last couple of years, and with 21-year-old Dutch runner Femke Bol making some noise on the European circuit this year, the women's 400m hurdles is one of the most-anticipated and most-hyped races at this meet. An 11:30 a.m. start in Japan means a 10:30 p.m. ET prime-time spot for NBC, something the network no doubt had a hand in making happen.
Cockrell, who admitted to a bad case of nerves before her first-round race, said she had them under control for the semis.
"I think I was trying so hard for the first round to be, ‘it’s just another meet, it’s just another meet’ that when I got out here and the gravity of it all set in, it was shocking," she said. "This is the semifinals of the Olympics. This is a big deal. This is the biggest meet of my life. And that’s OK. I should feel different. I talked to a sports psych about it last night and she said a lot of people say they don’t want to be nervous and that’s unrealistic."
Closing her eyes, she continued, "So I let myself feel that, I knew what that was and I was like, OK, I know that that’s there, and I can let it drift off and refocus back on the race and do what I need to do today."
Cockrell is a radiant spirit who wears her heart on her sleeve. When she was told that Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians made sure the entire team watched her race and every TV in the team facility would be turned to it — her brother, Ross, is a defensive back on the team — she immediately began to tear up.
"You’re going to make me cry. I’m really close to my brother and my sister [Ciera] and my parents and I have pictures of all of them up in my room in the [athletes] village and it’s definitely hard that they’re not here," she said.
"I had a long conversation with my brother last night about how I was nervous during the prelim and it’s really great to have a brother that’s a Super Bowl champion because we can talk about the pressure of being at the biggest stage — and the fact that they paused practice ... oh man, I told myself I was going to stop crying in these interviews and now you gotta bring up my brother and his whole team stopping to watch me. That’s so special."
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