MOSCOW – For a lap, teenager Mary Cain was right there, near the front of the pack and on the heels of teammate Jenny Simpson.
The 17-year-old — youngest ever in a 1,500-meter final at the world championships — was thinking big Thursday night.
A top-five finish? Even bigger than that.
A medal? Bigger.
Cain really, really wanted that stuffed animal organizers hand out to the medalists. That’s the prize she had her eye on.
Only she faded and faded as the race went on, until she was running last at one point. Cain rebounded to finish 10th out of 12 runners in a race won by Abeba Aregawi of Sweden, with Simpson taking second. Disappointment for Cain, though, soon turned to anger before transforming into giddiness.
“Hey, I got a uniform out of this,” said Cain, who finished in 4 minutes, 7.19 seconds — nearly 5 seconds behind the winner. “So I’m happy.”
The performances of Cain and others put the focus back on the track following comments from pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva. The two-time Olympic champion condemned homosexuality after criticizing competitors who painted their fingernails in rainbow colors to support gays and lesbians in the face of a new anti-gay law in Russia.
The backlash was almost instant.
“To say anyone is not deserving of equality is just ludicrous to me,” said U.S. runner Nick Symmonds, who second in the 800 and dedicated his medal to his gay and lesbian friends. “That’s why we have to continue to demonstrate and to speak out against the ignorance that she’s showing.”
It was quite a bountiful medal night for the Americans, with Dalilah Muhammad and defending champion Lashinda Demus finishing 2-3 in a 400 hurdles race won by Zuzana Hejnova in 52.83. Michael Tinsley lost by a fraction of a second in the men’s 400 hurdles as Jehue Gordon outleaned him at the finish in a world-leading time of 47.69.
That brings the U.S. medal haul to 14 for the championships, with Kenya and Russia tied for second at eight.
The effervescent Cain may not have medaled, but it hardly dampened her enthusiasm. Using words like “jeez” and expressions such as “no way!” she sounded like, well, a teenager.
She even pretended the women taking the line against her were teens, too.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m letting 16-year-olds beat me,’ ” said Cain, who’s from Bronxville, N.Y. “Of course most of them are like, 20-something. I think this was a good experience. Obviously I’m not complaining.”
She certainly made an impression on Simpson, who didn’t know Cain at all before the competition but spent time with her this week analyzing races.
“I have been told on occasion that I can be intimidating, which I don’t think is true at all,” said Simpson, who relinquished her 1,500 crown after winning two years ago in South Korea. “I hope I’m an approachable person, but I haven’t really seen her much or gotten a chance to speak positively into her life.”
It’s been quite a whirlwind last few years for Cain, whose rapid rise and record-setting races have drawn frequent comparisons to Mary Slaney. Cain even trains with Alberto Salazar’s group, which also includes Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.
“Alberto was talking to me one day, and he said, ‘No offense, but it’s time for your records to be broken,’” Slaney said in a recent phone interview. “Mary sounds like a pretty neat kid. I think it is time we have someone come along that’s ready to make the next leap for Americans.”
The most entertaining race of the night may have been the 400 hurdles, where a lean at the finish was necessary.
Neck and neck over the last hurdle, Gordon stumbled across the finish line and tumbled to the track. Three lanes over, Tinsley, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, toppled over, too. They each stared at the scoreboard, waiting for a winner to be announced.
After a few moments, it was Gordon’s name that flashed on the board.
“I thought I may have had it,” said Tinsley, who had to briefly go to the medical staff because of exhaustion. “It was a good race.”
In other finals, Kenya’s Ezekiel Kemboi took his third straight steeplechase world title (8:06.01), Caterine Ibarguen of Colombia won the triple jump (48 feet, 8¾ inches) and Bohdan Bondarenko of Ukraine captured the high jump (7-10¾) .
Allyson Felix and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce kept on pace for a showdown in the 200, both winning their heats. Blessing Okagbare of Nigeria also advanced in what’s been an exhausting competition for her. She has already finished second in the long jump and sixth in the 100.
Is she feeling the least bit tired? In her mind, yes; her legs, no.
“I’ve been working a lot so it’s expected,” she said.
Away from the track, Isinbayeva made waves when she defended a new anti-gay law in Russia. The law has led activists to call for a boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.
“We are just against the publicity in our country and I support our government,” Isinbayeva said.
The day’s political developments began after Emma Green Tregaro of Sweden qualified for the high jump final with distinctly painted fingernails.
Green Tregaro posted a picture of her fingers on Instagram, saying “Nails painted in the colors of the rainbow.” She followed that with several hashtags, including “(hash)moscow2013.”
“If we allow to promote and do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people,” Isinbayeva said, speaking in English.
Later, Symmonds weighed in.
“I can’t believe she said that. It’s bad,” he said. “Among my generation, this is a nonissue, for the most part.”