Thoughts and Comments on the 2009 USA Track & Field Championships, Part 1
Seeing a meet like the USA Championships (USAs) unfold in person provides a different perspective than watching or following online from home. While we all know the meet results by now and have watched online videos of the events on flotrack, I thought I would share some of the stories I was following and noticing in Eugene that might not be reflected in the results or covered in the meet re-cap.
The Changing of the Guard
There are 40 events in track & field (20 men’s and 20 women’s). Out of those 40, in only 15 events did the athletes (4 men and 11 women) who won the 2008 Olympic Trials defend their USA Championship in 2009. They were:
400 – Merritt
800 – Symonds
400H – Jackson
Hammer – Kruger
200 – Felix
400 – Richards
800 – Clark
1500 – Rowbury
5000 – Goucher
Pole Vault – Stuczynski
High Jump – Howard
Long Jump – Reese
Shot Put – Carter
Hammer – Crosby
Javelin – Patterson
Defending World Champions Get a Free Pass
Part of the reason for this is that defending World Champions are automatically qualified for this year’s World Championships to be held in Berlin (World Champs), as long as they competed in something at USAs. It didn’t have to be the same event, and it only had to be one round of competition. That led to a fair number of people passing on their “signature” event and/or possibly not performing super well because there was no pressure to qualify for Berlin. The athletes this affected and what they did are:
Tyson Gay (100 & 200) – ran 1st round of the 100 (in a wind aided 9.75!), then he scratched
Jeremy Wariner (400) – ran the 200, was eliminated in the semi-finals
Bernard Lagat (1500 & 5000) – ran 1st round of the 800, then he scratched
Kerron Clement (400H) – placed 3rd in the open 400
Brad Walker (pole vault) – placed 1st in the pole vault
Reese Hoffa (shot put) – placed 3rd in the shot put
Allyson Felix (200) – placed 1st in the 200, also competed in the 100, was eliminated in the 100 semi-finals
Michelle Perry (100H) – ran 2 rounds of the 100H, she qualified for the final but did not show up to run
Injuries are part of the sport – even to the marquee athletes
Another reason that we saw some different names and faces, both in winning events and in placing in the top three was because of injuries.
These marquee athletes did not compete at all:
Bryan Clay (decathlon) – gold in Beijing Olympics
David Oliver (110H) – silver in Beijing Olympics
Andrew Wheating (800) – 2008 Olympian
Other marquee athletes, unfortunately, performed below par, most likely due to injuries:
Hyleas Fountain – was leading the heptathlon but got injured and did not finish
Lolo Jones – fell and did not finish in the 100H semi-final
Walter Dix – grabbed at his hamstring after not placing in the 100
But alas, that is the sport. The governing body of track & field in the United States (USATF) sets the qualifying rules for the sport and they have decided that qualifying for meets, like the World Championships, is based on athlete performance at a single qualifying meet. I’ll talk about this topic more at another time.
The College Athletes
The USA Championships bring together the best athletes in the country. Often some are collegians, who have been representing their schools and competing in an indoor season and at invitationals, conference meets, regionals, and (just two weeks ago) at the NCAA Championships (NCAAs). On the other hand, leading up to USAs, the non-collegians have often competed just a handful of times. And yet, this is where they meet head-on: the peaked but potentially worn out college athlete versus the more experiences but possibly competition-rusty post-collegian. I always like to see which college athletes can hang in with the “big boys and girls.”
I am going to limit my discussion here to the distance events because I feel I am most knowledgeable on training and meet peaking for distance runners. I think that the college athletes have a bit of an advantage at this point on the calendar. If they have been peaked for the NCAA Championships, they have done a lot of speed-work and are likely more race sharp than the post-collegiate athletes. This actually means (in my opinion) that they are less likely to still be ready to compete at a high level come August at the World Champs. But, for the last weekend in June they may actually have an advantage. In races that are often decided by tenths of seconds, being race sharp and having practiced at kicking it into that extra gear in the last 50 meters may make the difference between a 3rd place finish and going to Berlin for summer vacation, and a 4th place finish and staying home working at Home Depot.
I have compared results from NCAAs with the results from USAs. The NCAA Champions are usually already a contender to make the World Championship team and that was certainly true this year (Galen Rupp and Jennifer Barringer for sure). But the athletes who placed 2nd-8th at NCAAs are the ones who may be a surprise high finisher at USAs. These athletes are especially hungry because they just missed an NCAA Championship and also may be peaking perfectly for the USA Championships (perhaps they weren’t quite at their peak for NCAAs, which is why they didn’t win).
The biggest cluster of college athletes making the finals at USAs were in the “middle distance events” – the 800, 1500, and 3000 steeplechase. Check out this list:
Mulder, Northern Iowa
See, Ohio State
Harmanson, North Dakota St
Martinez, UC Riverside
Dahl, E. Tennessee St.
Franek, Penn St.
Bush, Michigan St.
Out of the 10 distance events (800, 1500, 3000 Steeplechase, 5000, and 10,000):
There were three college seniors who placed in the top 2:
– Jennifer Barringer (Colorago senior, 3000 steeplechase, 1st at NCAAs in the 3000 steeplechase) – Won the 3000 steeplechase and has said she will go back to school for her final season of cross country eligibility.
– Galen Rupp (Oregon senior, 10,000, 1st at NCAAs in the 10,000 & 5000) – Won the 10,000 in his last race in an Oregon Ducks uniform at Hayward Field.
– Geena Gall (Michigan senior, 800, 2nd at NCAAs) – Was solidly in 2nd place wearing her new uniform, having already signed a pro contract to join the Oregon Track Club.
There were four college juniors who placed 3rd and earned what was probably a surprise summer vacation to Berlin.
– Phoebe Wright (Tennessee junior, 800, 5th at NCAAs) – Holds off a hard charging Maggie Vessey, 2:01.12 to 2:01.19.
– Dorian Ulrey (Arkansas junior, 1500, 4th at NCAAs) – Breaks away from a pack of five on the last lap to secure 3rd.
– Bridget Frank (Penn State junior, 3000 steeplechase, 4th at NCAAs) – While all eyes are on Barringer and Willard, she runs a :05 PR and now has to cancel her plans to go on a church mission to Napal in July.
– Angela Bizzarri (Illinois junior, 5000, 1st at NCAAs) – Moved up two places in the last 600 meters which included catching and passing Julie Culley for 3rd place at the line. With Kara Goucher scratching from this event and Bizzarri and Culley not having the “A” or “B” standard, it is uncertain who (if anyone) will join Jen Rhines in Berlin in the Women’s 5000.
Finally, there is Nicole Bush (Michigan State senior), who would have been a contender in the 3000 steeplechase. Only, she broke her foot while running the preliminary round when she landed badly on the water jump. Sadly, it was later discovered that the water jump barrier was set at the wrong height (it’s unclear if it was set at 36 or 33 inches but it was supposed to be at 30 inches). Officials had a tough decision to make after the first heat. They were apparently informed (conflicting stories about this) of the incorrect barrier height but chose to not correct the error so that the athletes attempting to qualify in the second heat would have the same disadvantage as those in the 1st heat. I could debate if that was the right thing to do, or if they should have lowered the barrier to the correct height for safety reasons. But instead, I’d like to focus on the amazing performance by Bush. She broke her foot on the water jump on the 3rd lap, and somehow still finished the race. She ran the last five laps with an avulsion fracture in the cuboid bone of her right foot, AND still qualified for the final by placing 6th. Unfortunately Bush, who placed 2nd at NCAAs and had run the fourth fastest time by an American so far in 2009, had to watch the USA steeplechase final from the sidelines.