(USA TODAY) – Minus the stakes at play, it could’ve been practice: Four American women running on an otherwise empty track, honing their relay skills in advance of the actual competition.But there was far more up for grabs. Competing against themselves, their shadows and the clock, the U.S. women’s 4×100 relay team were in fact racing to defend their gold medal from the 2012 London Games, albeit under circumstances never before seen on the Olympics stage.As the anchor for the race, Morolake Akinosun, crossed the finish line with a team time of 41.77 seconds, tops among all qualifiers and significantly better than the time they needed to hit to advance, 42.70, and the U.S. team accomplished a first in the history of track and field: It took an entire day to complete a semi-final relay and yet still advanced to the final.“Honestly, I feel like it was just a glorified practice,” English Gardner said. “We just had fun out there. We were laughing and joking going in, staying light, and that was the whole point.”For Akinosun, Gardner, Tianna Bartoletta and Allyson Felix, the day started eight hours before under a brilliant Rio sky. It was a day of angst, missteps, fear and apprehension.In the morning, the team entered the second heat of the semi-finals as an overwhelming favourite to make today’s final and a serious contender for gold,.And the script stayed true to form until the second exchange – or, to be more precise, until the seconds before the second exchange, when a bump from a Brazilian runner in the adjacent lane propelled Felix into a tap-dance routine that sent the baton flying, for a moment taking with it the team’s hopes of defending their gold.Knocked off balance, Felix caught her toe on the polyurethane turf and, in yet another surreal moment, attempted to throw the baton to Gardner, waiting with her right arm stretched behind her back. Needless to say, relay batons are meant for handoffs, not forward passes.The baton fell; Gardner yelled. It was an utter disaster, the sort of worst-case-scenario nightmare that makes every relay event track’s equivalent of an egg toss – and then the USA were saved.First it was Felix, who had the peace of mind to tell Gardner to keep running, aware that any attempts at an appeal would demand that a strong effort be made to complete the race.Then it was the protest itself, filed by USA Track and Field and accepted by the Rio Games’ Jury of Appeals, which agreed with the assertion that Felix’s progress was impeded prior to the exchange.China, who held the eighth spot in the final before being bounced out by the USA, filed their own protest in response, which was denied.