KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Perhaps no athlete from the Kansas City area qualified for the Olympics in more dramatic fashion than Christian Smith, whose dive at the finish line during the 800-meter final earned him a spot in the 2008 Beijing Games.
But the year before arguably the most intense finish to an Olympic-qualifying race in U.S. history makes Smith’s story even more remarkable.
Smith grew up on a farm near Rozel in south-central Kansas.
He led Pawnee Heights to the Class 1A state championship in 2002, winning four gold medals. Smith set a state-meet record for Class 1A in winning the 800 (1:53.29) and also won the 3,200, running a leg on the first-place 1,600 and 3,200 relays to power Pawnee Heights’ title.
Continuing his career at Kansas State University, Smith was the NCAA runner-up in the 800 in 2004 and won the mile as a senior in 2006 during the NCAA Indoor Track and Field National Championships.
He also finished eighth in the 1,500 during the 2006 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships as a senior.
Smith remains the Wildcats’ all-time leader in the outdoor 800 and 1,500 as well as the indoor 1,000 (2:19.57), which was a collegiate record at the time.
Smith exhausted his eligibility in 2006, but he returned to Manhattan in mid-January 2007 to finish a degree in accounting.
Upon returning to K-State’s campus to train, he suffered a burst appendix, which went undiagnosed for more than a week as an abscess developed and his lungs filled with fluid, according to a profile on MileSplit Kansas.
He wound up hospitalized for close to a month and endured three surgeries, four months off solid food and lost 20 pounds by April 2007.
His comeback was further hampered by a series of injuries during the 2008 indoor season.
"Nobody knows how low I got except for my coach and my girlfriend, walking around the hospital, hunched over for three months,” Smith said during an interview at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
Smith barely qualified for the Olympic Trials, earning a spot only after Alan Webb dropped out of the 800 to focus on the 1,500.
Despite being the 30th-ranked entrant, he finished second in his preliminary heat and fifth overall, but still had yet to meet the Olympic qualifying standard.
Smith shaved more than a second off his time in the semifinals, finishing in 1:46.02 — but he was still 0.02 seconds off the mark needed to earn an Olympic berth.
To make it to Beijing, he’d not only have to finish in the top three during the final, but he’d have to do it in less than 1:46, or the Olympic dream would evaporate.
During the race’s final 100 meters, Smith found himself in fourth place along the inside rail behind Khadevis Robinson for the final (potential) Olympic spot.
“The last 100 I knew I was going to be in it,” Smith said at the time. “I knew it was going to be close. Khadevis and I were right there. It was just like excitement and fear and everything. It was so close.”
Nearing the finish line, Smith’s desperation lunge turned into a headlong dive across the final line.
Not only had Smith nipped Robinson for third place, he’d crossed the line in 1:45.47 — 0.13 second below the Olympic standard and ensuring he’d get the chance to run in China that summer.
“It was just all I had left, and I knew it would be that close,” Smith said. “... I saw Khadevis and I knew he was the guy I had to get. I just took the lean and dove. I don't think a lean would be enough."
Smith finished fourth in his heat at the Beijing Olympics in his preliminary heat, but only the top two runners advanced to the semifinals.
The Kansas City region has a deep, rich history with respect to the Olympic Games. As the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games approach with the Opening Ceremony scheduled for July 23, we will profile an athlete with ties to Kansas City, Missouri or Kansas each day.
41 Action News and KSHB.com is your home of the Tokyo Olympics. Follow our coverage at kshb.com/sports/olympics and check out our complete list of 100 Kansas City-area Olympians as it is revealed.