ATHENS, Greece – The athletes that have been so familiar in U.S. track and field have fallen by the wayside in Athens — some of them literally so. In their place are fresh faces sorely needed in a drug-stained sport.
The newcomers collected more than experience in their first Olympics. They will take home some impressive hardware, as well.
"We're just trying to bring a new wave here and get people thinking positive things about track and field," said 18-year-old Allyson Felix (search), youngest of them all and silver medalist at 200 meters. "We're just so eager. We have the passion. All this is so new to us. We're just taking it all in."
Of the 21 track medals won by Americans in Athens, 13 went to athletes age 26 or younger.
Maurice Greene (search), 30, managed only a bronze in the 100 meters, an event he once dominated with chest-thumping bravado. The gold went to 22-year-old Justin Gatlin — the friendly, handsome sprinter who also won the 200 bronze.
Gatlin defused some of the anti-American sentiment of the boisterous crowd after the 200 by waving a Greek flag.
"We just wanted to show the world that we're not hating anybody," he said. "Every Greek athlete I've seen has shown me love. Every Greek volunteer I've seen, they've shown me love. And I can give love right back."
Gatlin was not the only fresh personality who threw a coming-out party in Athens.
Lauryn Williams (search), just 20 years old and generously listed at 5 feet, 3 inches tall, burst onto the international scene with a silver medal in the 100 meters.
"Size has never been an issue for me," the NCAA champion from the University of Miami said, "because I've got a big personality."
A week later, in the 400-meter relay, Williams found out how quickly Olympic emotions can turn. She started running too early on her third leg, failing to get the handoff from Jones in the exchange zone, and the heavily favored U.S. team did not finish.
The forlorn little sprinter walking slowly out of the stadium with Jones' arm around her is one of the enduring images of the games.
Jones, of course, had an awful Friday night, finishing fifth in the long jump an hour before the relay debacle. At 28, she left the Olympics with an uncertain future clouded by an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (search).
Like the women's 400-meter relay team, Devers and Johnson never finished their races.
The 37-year-old Devers, in her fifth Olympics, couldn't clear the first barrier in the opening round of the 100-meter hurdles because of a hamstring injury. She left what almost certainly will be her last Olympics never winning a medal in her signature event.
At least Johnson, 33, has the Olympic gold from 1996. After a fourth-place finish in Sydney four years ago, he came to Athens as one of the favorites, but crashed into the next-to-last hurdle and belly flopped to the track. Johnson, elected captain of the U.S. squad by his teammates, said it was only the second fall of his career.
Dragila, 33, also was bothered by an injury and didn't qualify for the finals in the women's pole vault — an event she had pioneered.
So it was largely left to the young to provide uplifting moments.
A rising star was born in the most demanding of all the events, the decathlon, when 24-year-old Bryan Clay won the silver medal.
While America's better-known decathlete, 2003 world champion Tom Pappas (search), withdrew after six events with a foot injury, Clay compiled 8,820 points — the third-best score ever by a U.S. athlete. Only Dan O'Brien scored more.
Yet no American was more impressive than 20-year-old Jeremy Wariner (search), a Baylor junior-to-be who led a 1-2-3 U.S. sweep in the 400 meters. Wearing sunglasses and sparkling earrings, he was calm and cool in his first major international competition. Few would guess that he was a kid out of Grand Prairie, Texas, who had never before crossed the Atlantic.
Wariner's coach, Clyde Hart of Baylor, also mentored Michael Johnson (search). Hart believes Wariner is just beginning. By the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Hart expects Wariner to be a world-class 200-meter runner, as well as the defending 400 champion.
The departing generation of track stars leave a mixed legacy. Some who never made it to Athens face drug suspensions. Others simply find themselves losing the inevitable battle against age.
"The young guys, the young women, we're all taking over," Gatlin said. "Watch out."