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Sweep of 400m hurdles rallies US track team

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EDDIE PELLS | August 18, 2008 11:26 PM EST | AP

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BEIJING — The American track team was in bad need of a comeback, and Angelo Taylor was the perfect person to provide it. Taylor, a once-troubled 29-year-old who was laying electrical wire 14 months ago, became the first 400-meter hurdler since Edwin Moses to win gold medals eight years apart.

He led the first sweep of the event since the U.S. did it in 1960 and lifted sagging American fortunes Monday after a disappointing start to their Beijing Olympics.

"We wanted to uplift the track team," Taylor said, "and bring home the sweep."

Mission accomplished. Taylor won in a personal-best of 47.25 seconds, followed by teammates Kerron Clement and Bershawn Jackson.

Taylor won gold at Sydney in 2000 but failed to make the team in Athens four years later _ he later said he had stress fractures in both shins _ and was shoved to the guiltys of the sport after pleading guilty in 2005 to charges of contributing to the delinquency of two underage girls.

"To go through what I went through and be back on top again, I'm just so blessed right now," Taylor said.

The American team might have had similar thoughts. Starting the day, they trailed leader Belarus in the overall medal standings 5-4. At the end of it, they led everybody with nine medals, including two golds.

The turnaround started with a most unlikely winner, Stephanie Brown Trafton in the women's discus.

Considered a field filler more than a medal contender, Brown Trafton threw the discus 212 feet, 5 inches (64.74 meters) on her very first attempt, and the throw held up through the six rounds.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" finally played at the Bird's Nest, and Brown Trafton stood higher than anyone on the medals stand. Yes, a tear or two came to her eye, but mostly she just stood there smiling.

"I came to the Bird's Nest to lay a golden egg, and that's what I did," Brown Trafton said. "I am surprised we haven't won more gold. But you know what? I hope this sets a trend."

It did.

The hurdlers were considered sweep candidates, but the U.S. had learned the hard way over the first three days of the meet that there's a big difference between being picked to do something and doing it.

Tyson Gay didn't reach the 100-meter finals. Reese Hoffa finished seventh in the shot put. Bernard Lagat didn't make it out of semifinals in the 1,500, and neither did his two teammates.

Brown Trafton got them on the board, and Jenn Stuczynski delivered silver in the women's pole vault, where Russia's Yelena Isinbayeva set a new world record of 16 feet, 6 3/4 inches (5.05 meters).

Then it was up to the hurdles, the last event of the night.

A sweep had been considered a possibility; the surprise was Taylor.

Starting in Lane 6, he made up the lag quickly and was racing in front from about the 150-meter mark on. Clement, the 2007 world champion, and Jackson closed the gap down the stretch, but this was a pretty easy victory for Taylor.

And what a guy to lead a comeback.

His gold at the Sydney Olympics was the high point in a career that got derailed, first with injuries, then when he was put on probation in a case that started when he was arrested after a police officer said he found him naked in a car with a 15-year-old girl.

"Any mistakes I made, I put the blame on me," Taylor said earlier this month, when asked about his legal troubles. "It was up to me to do something, to change things."

His sponsorship pulled, he took a job laying electrical cable in Atlanta _ one that got him off work early enough so he could train in the afternoons.

The injuries started to heal and suddenly Taylor found himself in Olympic form. He finished third at the Olympic trials and peaked at exactly the right time.

There was no such fortune for one of the games' biggest stars, China's Liu Xiang, the defending Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles. He was lost to a foot injury without clearing a single hurdle.

He lined up for his first qualifying heat Monday morning, took a few strides out of the blocks, heard a gun that signaled a false start by another runner and then tore his numbers off and limped dejectedly to the tunnel, grimacing and clutching his leg. His hamstring had been a problem, but the tendon in his right foot flared up a couple of days ago, leaving him unable to go.

The Liu news sent everything else at this meet to the back page _ maybe a good thing for an American team off to an unexpectedly poor start.

Gay, Hoffa and Lagat were the biggest names, and just before Liu scratched, two-time Olympic silver medalist Terrence Trammell strained his left hamstring and cleared only one hurdle before pulling up in the opening heat.

Deena Kastor, the American record-holder, pulled out of the marathon with a broken foot, and U.S. women finished 4-5-8 in the 100 and lost a protest that there was a false start _ by one of them, no less.

In fact, this was turning into a very Jamaican celebration. Usain Bolt set the world record in the 100, their women swept the dash medals, and Bolt kept cruising Monday, coasting through the quarterfinals of the 200, looking for the first sprint double since Carl Lewis in 1984.

While a Bolt victory in the 200 finals Wednesday would be no surprise, Brown Trafton came from nowhere.

She didn't make it out of Olympic qualifying four years ago, had only two throws over 200 feet before this year, and finished only third at the U.S. Olympic trials.

Not great credentials, but none of that matters now.

She won the first gold for a U.S. woman in the discus since Lillian Copeland in 1932 and only the second medal of any color since then.

The 28-year-old from Galt, Calif., said she recognized that the win was a big deal _ and not just for herself.

"I'm surprised we haven't won more gold," she said. "We need as many gold as we can."