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Hurdlers were confident of U.S. sweep

Team USA’s sweep in the 400-meter hurdles on Monday was easy as 1-2-3. But for silver medalist Kerron Clement, it really was more a matter of preordained fact.  He predicted over the weekend that his team would take home the gold, silver and bronze medals.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It’s almost reactionary to say Team USA’s sweep in the 400-meter hurdles on Monday was easy as 1-2-3. But for silver medalist Kerron Clement, it really was more a matter of preordained fact.

He boldly, and correctly, predicted over the weekend that his team would take home the gold, silver and bronze medals.

“Well, we are the best in the world,” Clement told TODAY co-hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira on Tuesday. “We were very confident coming in and facing China. So we knew we were going to come 1-2-3 and it happened last night, and we are very happy to be a part of this tradition.”

Leading the new legacy was winner Angelo Taylor, who breezed to victory in a convincing time of 47.25. Bronze winner Bershawn “Batman” Jackson closed out the top three, giving Team USA their first Olympic sweep in the 400 hurdles since 1960.

Just after their interview with TODAY, the three speedsters were to walk over to Beijing’s Bird’s Nest to accept their medals. And Taylor was able to quantify his feelings as easily as he was able to cross the finish line.

“I’m just so happy, I feel like I’m on top of the world right now,” Taylor said.

Overcoming obstacles
Taylor, 29, last struck gold at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney — in the same 400-meter hurdles event. But there had been frustration for the Georgia native ever since.

In the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, he only took fourth in a semifinal in the event, thanks to stress fractures in his shins.

He took a year off to work as an electrician in Atlanta. And in 2006, he was given three years’ probation after pleading guilty to contributing to the delinquency of two underage girls.

Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee stripped Taylor of a gold medal he won in the 4x400-meter relay team in 2000 after several teammates admitted using a banned substance. Taylor and teammate Michael Johnson were not implicated in the IOC’s investigation.

But after reclaiming gold in the 400 hurdles, Taylor said, “This replaces all that.”

He told Lauer that the thoughts going through his mind after crossing the finish line included: “Just thinking about all the hard work and effort I put into it. It finally pays off. It’s a big relief.”

The victory was also something of a relief for the U.S. Track and Field Team. Going into Monday night, they had only won four medals over their first three days of competition. Speedster Tyson Gay failed to reach the finals in the 100-meter dash and the U.S. women were shut out in their 100-meter race by a trio of Jamaicans. Distance runner Bernard Lagat failed to make it out of the semifinals of the 1,500. And in the field, U.S. favorite Reese Hoffa finished a disappointing seventh in the shot put.

But things began to turn around when Stephanie Brown Trafton shockingly won the gold medal in the discus.

The big push
As for the race itself, the U.S. teammates basically had each other to thank. Clement was a world champion in 2007 and Jackson achieved the same status in 2005. Taylor said he was motivated knowing who was behind him, as a result.

“Me, Kerron and Bershawn have been battling it out all year long,” Taylor said. “I feel we’re the strongest guys in the field. We just wanted to go out there and uplift the rest of the team.”

Taylor, wearing dark sunglasses, saw the light of the finish line early, taking the lead at the 150-meter mark and never looking back. His time was the 11th fastest ever in the event.

“The race went exactly how I planned it,” he added. “I knew it was going to be a very fast race. These guys are the top hurdlers. Once I took the lead at 150, I just told myself to keep going for the gold.”

Which meant Clement, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, but became a U.S. citizen in 2004, knew fairly early he was going to be sprinting for silver. He crossed the line in 47.98.

“When I was going over the 10th hurdle and I saw Angelo in front of me, I was like, ‘I have to catch the silver medal. I have to get to the line,’ ” he told Lauer and Vieira. “I just digged down and digged down and got the silver medal.”

Jackson, a Florida native, was not far behind in third, finishing in 48.06 — although he had to pace himself after seeing Taylor take off.

“Yeah, I misjudged my fitness,” Jackson said. “You know, when Angelo went past me so fast, I didn’t want to panic and just take off. I just wanted to gradually pick up. That put me a little bit behind, but I fought strong for the last 50 and took the bronze.”

The last time a U.S. team swept the 400 hurdles was in Rome in the 1960 Olympics. While the 2008 winning trio didn’t know much about the 1960s threesome of Glenn Davis, Clifton Cushman and Dick Howard, they were proud to be part of the leg-up lineage.

“It’s just an honor to be part of this legacy that we’ve got going right now,” Jackson said.