LONDON — It is, Doc Patton testifies, the worst sound imaginable. “Ping! Ping! Ping!” the relay baton mocks as it hits the ground.
Not even 80,000 screaming fans can mask the excruciating sound for a runner who has missed the relay exchange.
“Put it like this: It hardly ever happens at practice, but if it does, we throw it away. Never to be used again,” Patton said. “It’s like screeching nails on the chalkboard. At that moment, it is probably the worst sound on earth.”
No one knows that better than the former TCU star, who now trains in Arlington.
Pictures from the 2008 Olympics show the horror on Patton’s face as he and Tyson Gay failed to complete the exchange in the semifinals of the 4×100. It denied the U.S. a chance even to challenge the Jamaicans in the final.
“It was all slow motion,” Patton said. “I tried to catch it. Like, ‘We can’t let this thing fall. Is this really happening?’ When it hit and bounced, I still wanted to try to pick it up, put it in his hand and make it go. I couldn’t believe it was happening like that.”
Patton wants “redemption.” He is 34. It is now or forever remembered for a dropped baton exchange.
The 4×100 relay team begins its workouts today at the Mile End practice track. Patton, who finished fifth in the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, was one of two discretionary selections for the relay pool by Olympic coach Andrew Valmon.
It got him a trip to London and a chance to meet Michelle Obama and David Beckham, but it offers no guarantees he’ll run.
U.S. relays coach Jon Drummond, another former TCU star who now trains athletes in Arlington, is among those making the decision on who runs in the qualifying round Friday and the final Saturday.
If Patton doesn’t get the call, it will mark a first.
“There’s a reason I’ve been on every relay since 2003, except ’05 when I was hurt,” Patton said. “That’s not by luck. That’s not by chance. I’ve been blessed with a gift, and I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity. I train hard; I work hard. They don’t just give me the spot. People like me, but they don’t like me that much.”
Patton has four medals in the 400 relay from the world championships, Pan Am Games and Olympics, including a silver medal from the Athens Games in 2004.
Some die-hard track and field fans, though, believe Patton is bad luck. They have called him a “relay jinx” and worse on Twitter. He is the Bill Buckner, Scott Norwood and Chris Webber of his sport.
The Beijing Olympics was the first of three consecutive mishaps in the 400 relay for Patton. At the world championships in 2009, Team USA was disqualified for an improper pass between Patton and Shawn Crawford. Then, two years later at the world championships, Patton was bumped by Great Britain’s Harry Aikines-Aryeetey from the next lane. Patton fell, separating his shoulder and again ending the U.S. team’s relay hopes.
“The 4×1 [exchanges] are almost like car wrecks,” said Monte Stratton, Patton’s coach. “You know they’re going to happen, but it’s a surprise if it happens to you. It’s supposed to happen to someone else.
“We have never talked about it, because there’s nothing to be said that would make it any different. He knows I believe in him, and he believes in himself.”
Say what you want about Patton, but you can’t deny this: He is a stand-up guy. He doesn’t make excuses or refuse to talk about his misfortunes, hoping they will go away. After the 2011 incident, Patton titled his blog: “That just happened. Again.”
“It was cumulative,” Patton said. “It’s like 2008 wasn’t that bad until ’09 happened; 2009 wasn’t that bad until ’11 happened. It made ’08 even worse.
“I hate the word redemption, but for lack of a better word, that’s what I want. I want to run.”
Patton, who is the definition of Mr. Nice Guy, has faced worse. His wife, Crystal, miscarried what would have been their second child in 2011. The sound of silence instead of what should have been a heartbeat was far more earth-shattering than a dropped baton.
Crystal now is pregnant again, due Jan. 10 with a boy Patton hopes to convince his wife to name Darvis Patton Jr.
A medal in his last Olympics would complete Patton.
It also would prove that nice guys can finish.