By JULIE JAG
LONDON — Alysia Montano saw she had a chance at an Olympic medal in the 800 meters. A blink later, she saw it disappear behind a red-and-green lycra fence.
Montano, a Berkeley runner, got boxed in during the final 200 and couldn’t get out in time to catch winner Mariya Savinova of Russia. Caster Semenya of South Africa and Ekaterina Poistogova of Russia also passed her on their way to Olympic hardware, while Montano finished fifth, just four-tenths of a second off the podium in 1 minute, 57.93 seconds.
“It’s been such a long road to get here. It feels like it took forever and now it’s here and it’s gone. I wanted a medal,” a teary-eyed Montano said after the race. “You don’t just train for four years or for a year, you train your whole life. I went out there and fell short.
“I see myself making little errors and I saw that in the last 200. I kind of got stuck and that was the difference between a medal for me.”
Montano stuck to her typical style of leading early in the race, and she held on until midway through the second of two laps, when 2008 Olympic champion Pamelo Jelimo of Kenya passed her. The rest of the pack was gaining on her with 200 meters to go, and she knew it was time to sprint. But she was on the far inside of the turn and Semenya was on her shoulder and Elena Arzhakova of Russia ahead of her. She had no place to go.
“By the time everything opened up – those girls aren’t scrubs, you know — they were gone and I was just chasing after that,” said Montano, 26.
Montano qualified fourth for the race out of the semifinals and had the fifth fastest personal best time in the field. Semenya entered with the fastest time. She was competing in her first Olympics after being sidelined for nearly a year after being forced to undergo gender tests after shattering the year’s best mark in 2009. That mark previously had been held by Soquel’s Maggie Vessey.
“We all know each other. We all met in 2009. I knew how they would run,” said Semenya, 21. “The main thing was for me to run my own race. I just listened to my own coach and tried to do my best.”
Semenya got off to a rocky start as Montano set a wicked pace early. She recovered, however, to blaze down the straightaway, passing two runners on her way to second in 1:57.23. The winning time for Savinova, the 2011 world champion, was 1:56.19.
“Eight-hundred metres is such a tactical event. You have to be very smart to run the event. It’s compared with chess playing,” she said.“You have to think fast about which step has to be done, where you have to finish or delay the finish.”
Montano missed the Olympics four years ago, when she broke her foot during the semifinals. This year, she won the trials, beating out Soquel’s Maggie Vessey, who had a disappointing race and finished eighth after entering as a favorite to finish among the top three and qualify for the Olympic team.
“It’s been different for me,” said Montano, who had to use her elbow to keep from getting pushed off the track during the final turn. “In the United States, our women aren’t as aggressive.”
Though Montano was clearly upset at her result, it did nothing to deter her from shooting for Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
“There’s no giving up, that’s not part of my DNA,” she said. “I went out there and I fought.”