Paul Chelimo is headed back to the Olympic Games.
The former UNCG All-America, who earned a silver medal at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, won the 5,000 meters Sunday at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Ore.
He’ll lead the U.S. contingent at the distance in Tokyo, where competition will begin July 21 and continue through Aug. 8.
Chelimo, in 88-degree heat at Hayward Field, finished in 13 minutes, 26.32 seconds, running a last 400 meters of 52.83 seconds while drifting out into the fourth lane ahead of Bowerman Track Club teammates Grant Fisher (13:27.01) and Woody Kincaid (13:27.13), claimed the other two spots for the U.S. team in the 5,000 after having made the team for the 10,000 meters.
Greensboro’s Ian Shanklin, a Page High School graduate who runs for N.C. State, was 13th among 15 finishers in 13:50.71.
If needed, Nike’s Chelimo suggested, he’d have put competitors in the seats to win the race, particularly after enduring as much contact as he said he faced.
“It’s not like those Bowerman guys showed up to get second and third,” Chelimo said. “At the end of the day, you have to take it to them mentally, too. Make sure they put in the work and run the longest distance. That was my goal, to drift them all the way to the stands. ...
“I didn’t touch anyone, I didn’t impede anyone. I got clipped 10 times, is that fair? It’s race tactics, it’s part of the race. Everyone has fitness, but it’s also tactics, and that’s what you have to do sometimes to win. It’s tactics, and it’s part of the game.”
On Twitter, Chelimo offered a less-serious explanation of his strategy.
“I was just following the covid regulations by keeping a 6 feet distance but they kept following me,” he wrote.
While Chelimo typically drew both praise and criticism on social media and faced and answered the questions Sunday, his strategy didn’t seem to bother Fisher.
“I don’t think it is illegal to drift out,” Fisher said. “That is just what happens on the home stretch. You come off the corner, and you have momentum. You naturally kind of drift out.
“It is also a good strategy to drift out. That is just how racing is done in my opinion. That is not how I would want to win on a DQ like that. I would also drift out. That’s just how you race.”
And Kincaid agreed.
“You gotta do what you can to win the race, and I think he made the right choice,” Kincaid said.
Chelimo will join A&T sprinters Randolph Ross (400 meters) and Trevor Stewart (relay pool) on the U.S. team. Winston-Salem’s Craig Engels was scheduled to race in the 1,500 meters final at 12:40 a.m. EDT Monday after excessive heat caused a delay in the afternoon events until the evening in Eugene.
The first round of the 5,000 meters in Tokyo is on Aug. 3, with the final on Aug. 6.
For Chelimo, the plan will be to move up that one spot on the podium and claim the gold medal.
“My big goal is to do less racing and show up in big championships when I’m hot and ready,” he said. “From now until Tokyo, my fitness is exactly where I want it to be. At the end of the day, it was a difference of 10 meters. Big goal is to try and go to races all year long and try to do my best. Sometimes it’s about being smarter and being really, really tactical.”
When Paul Chelimo is in the race, it’s going to be interesting!— Steve Magness (@stevemagness) June 27, 2021
Finger waging, talking mid race, and pushing everyone out to lane 4 in the homestretch.
Eddie Wooten is sports editor of the Winston-Salem Journal and the News & Record in Greensboro.