It was theirs to lose, and they did.
Sanya Richards led in the stretch but was outrun to the finish in the 400 meters and Lolo Jones clipped the second-to-last barrier in the 100-meter hurdles Tuesday night, as two of America's top runners let Olympic gold medals slip away.
Richards still won bronze, but a woman who has dominated the distance looked crushed during the medals ceremony. Afterward, she was sitting in a hallway beneath the Bird's Nest stands, crying into her cell phone.
Jones had taken the lead and seemed to be pulling away when she hooked her right foot on the ninth hurdle and broke her stride, falling from first to seventh. The late blunder opened the door for teammate Dawn Harper to win the U.S. track team's third gold medal of the games.
"It was like racing a car at max velocity. When you hit a curve, you either maintain control or you crash and burn," Jones said. "Today, I crashed and burned. I'm shocked and sad. But I'm happy for the girls."
While Harper did a victory lap carrying the American flag, Jones kneeled on the track, her face to the ground in stunned disbelief &
a marked contrast from the starting blocks, where she could be seen mouthing "I can win this race" when she was introduced.
Instead, she'll be remembered along with Gail Devers, who was winning at the Barcelona Games in 1992 but crashed on the final hurdle and finished fifth.
Minutes before the hurdles final, Richards was ahead in the 400, looking to write a successful closing chapter to a year of illness and setbacks, but settled for third after being beaten badly over the last 80 meters by Britain's Christine Ohuruogu and Jamaica's Shericka Williams. She told reporters her hamstring tightened up on the last turn of the one-lap race.
Ohuruogu, the 2007 world champion, was recently cleared to compete in Beijing after winning an appeal against a lifetime Olympic ban for missing three doping tests in 2005 and 2006.
She won in 49.62 seconds and fashioned a comeback story of sorts.
Harper grew up in East St. Louis, was a member of the UCLA track team and is coached by Bob Kersee, who added another Olympic champion to his long list. She grabbed the last spot on the American team at the Olympic trials but, though the American hurdles team is strong, wasn't considered among the medal favorites.
"This is a kid nobody knew," Kersee said. "Now she's an Olympic gold medalist. It's breathtaking."
Still, it wasn't one of the big stories being told back home in the States.
Those belonged to Richards and Jones.
Jones was the kid who lived in a church basement, worked at a hardware store and as a waitress to pay bills as an adult and was looking to cap her classic American comeback story with a gold in Beijing.
The story was going to form until she struck the ninth hurdle, then stumbled toward the finish. Her eyes opened wide when she hit that hurdle &
yes, that really happened &
and then, after she crossed the finish line, she thrust her fists to her sides, fell to the track, removed her sunglasses and glared up at the scoreboard in disbelief.
Richards lost most of her 2007 season to Behcet's syndrome, a rare and painful disorder that causes chronic inflammation of blood vessels throughout the body.
Earlier this month, at U.S. training camp in Dalian, China, she and coach Clyde Hart were talking about how the splotches on her legs &
a final remnant of the disease &
were finally fading and how she was feeling as close to 100 percent as she could, knowing the disease had not gone away.
Other gold medals awarded Tuesday went to high jumper Andrey Silnov of Russia, 1,500-meter runner of Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain and discus thrower Gerd Kanter of Estonia, who celebrated by running the 85-meter dash on the 100-meter course in about 15-flat, his country's flag held aloft.
Americans Richards, Jones blow leads