Team USA Distance Running, 1983-2010
With Chris Solinsky’s American Record in the 10,000 meters just a little over one week old, it is a good time to review the current state of USA distance running. In my opinion there is good reason to be excited about things.
There have been 19 international championship meets since 1983, seven Olympic Games (’84, ’88, ’92, ’96, ’00, ’04, ’08) and twelve International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) World Championships (’83, ’87, ’91, ’93, ’95, ’97, ’99, ’01, ’03, ’05, ’07, ’09). This story will be about the success level of the USA distance runners during this era. The events to be examined are the 800, 1500, 3000/5000, 10,000 and 3000 Steeplechase. Success will be defined as placing in the top 8 of an event and earning a championship medal (top 3 finish), not consistently representing the USA at international meets or dominating the competition at the national level.
For the purpose of this discussion I leave out the marathon because it is not a track event and unlike the track events, the marathon at these championships is not the ultimate race of a runner’s season. If you run the 800, 1500, or one of the other track events, the Olympics or World Championships is certainly the goal or target race of the year. Athletes have to compete at the USA Championships/Olympic Trials to qualify to be on the USA team. The whole year is build around being at your peak for the international championship meet. For marathon runners, while there is much glory (and some prize money) for winning the Olympic marathon, the World Championships is just another race. Elite marathon runners can make a lot more money through appearance and prize money at a race like the Chicago, New York, or Berlin Marathons (all run between September and November) than at the World Championships Marathon in August. That’s why even though there is a team aspect to the World Championship Marathon (called the World Cup and involves scoring the top three runners from each country), this race does not bring out all the best runners and thus is not a true championship like the counterpart track races.
See the chart (US Distance Major Champs Results) for a summary of top 8 finishes and medal winners from the USA for each of the 19 championship meets.
The Good Years – 1983-1997
For the ten meets from 1983-1997, the USA had pretty good success. From 1983-1992, the USA averaged eight top 8 finishes and nearly two medals at every championship. Those totals began to slip from 1993-1997 but still, the USA was averaging four in the top 8 per meet even though the medal count dropped to just two for these four meets.
It may be going a little overboard to call this the golden days of USA distance running, but the USA certainly had a strong core of runners who were consistently placing in the top 8 at international championships:
Johnny Gray (M 800) – 5 times
Lynn Jennings (W 10,000) – 5 times
Jim Spivey (M 1500) – 4 times
Mike Marsh (M Steeplechase) – 4 times
Brian Diemer (M Steeplechase) – 4 times
Mark Croghan (M Steeplechase) – 3 times
Bob Kenney (M 5000) – 3 times
Mary Decker Slaney (W 1500 & 3000) – 3 times
Ruth Wysocki (W 800 & 1500) – 3 times *separated by 11 years, 1984 & 1995!
Kim Gallagher (W 800) – 2-time medalist
Regina Jacobs (W 1500) – 2-time medalist
These eleven athletes certainly were the face of USA distance running at the international championships. And the USA had much to be proud of. In just about every event, the USA had at least one prominent runner in this era.
Men’s 800 – The USA had at least one person in the top 8 in 8/10 meets during this era, including three in the top 8 in 1995.
Men’s 1500 – The USA had at least one person in the top 8 in 6/10 meets during this era, including every year but one from 1983-1993.
Men’s 5000 – Despite this being one of the USA’s poorer events, the USA still had top 8 finishes in 6/10 meets during this era. But overall the USA has had top 8 finishers in just 8/19 meets overall.
Men’s 10,000 – This is in fact the USA’s worst event, with top 8 finishes in just 4/19 meets overall. Still, two of these four did occur during this “golden age” (thus 2/10 meets during the era with a top 8 finish).
Men’s 3000 Steeplechase – Interestingly this was a very strong event for the USA in this era, with top 8 finishes in 9/10 meets during this era. Brian Diemer (4), Mike Marsh (4), and Mark Croghan (3) combined to earn eleven top 8 finishes for the USA during this era, making the USA a contender in this event every year. However, that all ended with Croghan’s 6th in 1997.
Women’s 800 – Overall this has been one of the stronger events for the USA. 10/19 meets overall and 6/10 meets during this era.
Women’s 1500 – Another strong event for the USA, with top 8 finishes in 10/19 meets overall and 6/10 years during this era
Women’s 3000/5000 – From 1983-1993 (7 years) the women contested the 3000 meters. Starting in 1995, the 5000 meters replaced the 3000 meters as the championship event distance. The USA probably wishes we could go back to the 3000. During the seven meets when the 3000 was run, the USA claimed eight top 8 finishes (with eight different women), including at least one top 8 finish in 5/7 meets. Since the switch to the 5000 meters, the USA only has three medals, with one from this golden era. So combined the USA had top 8 finishes in these events in 6/10 meets during this era.
Women’s 10,000 – The women did not start running the 10,000 until 1987, so they only contested this event eight times in this era. The USA was very successful (thanks to Lynn Jennings) at the onset of this event. The USA had seven top 8 finishes (five by Jennings) in the first five years of the event. However, Jennings’ 5th in 1993 was the last USA top 8 until 2007. Overall for the 8 meets that this event was contested in this golden era, the USA had 5/8 meets with a top 8 finish.
Women’s 3000 Steeplchase – Event not contested.
The Bad Years – 1999-2005
While 1983-1995 may have constituted a golden era for the USA in the distance races, 1999-2005, certainly can be considered the dark ages!
During this period of six championships, the USA earned just six top 8 finishes and one medal. All of these came in just two events – the women’s 800 (4) and women’s 1500 (2). The four top 8 finishes in the 800 were by two people (sister in-laws, Jearl Miles-Clark and Hazel Clark). In fact the saving grace for the USA in this era is really one man – J.J. Clark, who coached his wife Jearl (’99 & ’04), and little sister Hazel (’01 & ’05) to their top 8 finishes. Not counting runners with this Clark connection, the USA would have had two top 8 finishes from 1999-2005. Two interesting side notes on the Clark family:
- In the year 2000, a trio of Clark’s swept the USA Olympic Trials in the 800. Jearl Miles-Clark, Hazel Clark, and Joetta Clark went 1-2-3 so that all three Clark’s went to the Olympics in Sydney.
- The movie “Lean On Me” is based on J.J., Hazel, and Joetta Clark’s father, Joe Clark.
Even with the top 8 finishes by Clark coached women 800 runners, in the other eight events, the USA was shutout for these six meets. In fact the men were shutout of the top 8 in all six championship meets during this era.
Mens’800 – 8 meet drought ran from 1999-2008.
Men’s 1500 – 9 meet drought ran from 1995-2005.
Men’s 5000 – 6 meet drought ran from 1999-2005.
Men’s 10,000 – 9 meet drought ran from 1995-2005.
Men’s 3000 Steeplechase – Current 9 meet drought without a top 8 finish.
Women’s 800 – Although the USA had at least one person in the top 8 in 4/6 meets, as mentioned above, the four top 8 finishes were by two people from the same family, coached by another family member. J.J. Clark has coached the last six top 8 finishes in the women’s 800 – older sister Joetta (’92 & ’97), wife Jearl (’99 & ’04), and little sister Hazel (’01 & ’05). Not counting runners with this Clark connection, the USA has one top 8 finish since 1988.
Women’s 1500 – One of the few decent events for the USA during these dark days, with two top 8 finishes (the only non-J.J. Clark coached 800 top 8 finishers of the era).
Women’s 5000 – 6 meet drought ran from 1999-2005.
Women’s 10,000 – 9 meet drought ran from 1995-2005.
Women’s 3000 Steeplechase – Event started in 2005. So it was contested just once in this era and the USA did not have a top 8 finish.
Is there an explanation for this sudden drop off from decent success to almost no success? You can theorize the American obesity problem, video games, generational differences, and professional sports like football, basketball, and soccer drawing all the top talent as being contributing factors.
All those have good merit but the one I want to point out is the rise of a distance powerhouse making the championship meets much more competitive. That distance powerhouse would be Ethiopia. Prior to 1995, Ethiopia had fifteen top 8 finishes and medals. Compare that to the USA’s 68 top 8 and thirteen medals. But from 1995-2005, while the USA had six top 8 finishes and one medal, Ethiopia had 67 top 8 finishes and 42 medals. Ethiopia has admittedly done most of their damage in the 5000 and 10,000 meter races so this does not completely explain the sudden fall off by USA distance runners in the other distance races but it is a partial explanation.
Related to this is also the fact that around 1995, more and more nations (especially East African countries) began to participate in track & field. This made the distance races more competitive and again are part of the explanation for the USA’s lack of success.
The Turnaround – 2007-2010
Fortunately, the USA has bounced back with some good success at the international meets from 2007-09. At the 2007 World Championships in Osaka (nine top 8, three medals) the USA distance runners had arguably their best championship since the early 1980’s. The 2008 Olympics was not stellar but with two top 8 finishes and one medal, at least the USA did not get shutout like they often did from 1995-2005. And the 2009 World Championships in Berlin (twelve top 8, three medals) cemented the fact that USA distance running is back. Using a point system with eight points for 1st, seven points for 2nd, down to one point for 8th, the USA distance runners scored 42 points at the 2009 World Championships, tying the 1984 Olympic performance for the top scoring championship meet. 1983 Helsinki is 3rd with 37 points and 2007 Osaka is 4th with 36 points. So two of the top four highest scoring meets have occurred since 2007.
The end of some long dry spells:
Men’s 800 – Symmond’s 6th in 2009 ended an 8 meet drought without a top 8 finish.
Men’s 1500 – Lagat’s 1st and Webb’s 8th in 2007 ended a 9 meet drought without a top 8 finish.
Men’s 5000 – Lagat’s 1st and Tegenkamp’s 4th in 2007 ended a 6 meet drought without a top 8 finish.
Men’s 10,000 – Abdirahman’s 7th in 2007 ended a 9 meet drought without a top 8 finish.
Men’s 3000 Steeplechase – Current 9 meet drought without a top 8 finish.
Women’s 800 – Is there another Clark girl coming along? Maggie Vessey, are you the answer?
Women’s 1500 – Rowbury’s 7th in 2008 ended a 5 meet drought.
Women’s 5000 – Rhines’ 7th and Flanagan’s 8th in 2007 ended a 6 meet drought without a top 8 finish.
Women’s 3000 Steeplechase – Barringer’s 5th in 2009 was the USA first top 8 finish in this event that is only four years old.
Who Are These Distance Runners Leading the Turnaround?
It takes a special person to be an elite distance runner and to have success on the world stage. First and foremost are the physical gifts to run fast and to train hard to run fast and also, the mental attitude to not back down from the challenge. I feel that similar to the eleven athletes who represented the USA so well at championship meets from 1983-1997, the USA has a strong core of runners who have led this charge. See chart (Distance Runners Leading The Turnaround).
All between 31-37 years old. This group graduated from high school between 1991-1996 (when the USA was still doing pretty well at the international level) and graduated from college between 1996-2001 (meaning they were in college during the “dark days” of USA distance running).
Deena (Drossin) Kastor
In their Prime Now:
These athletes are 25-29 years old. They were in high school and college in an era that the USA realized we were not doing well at the distance races and needed to do something to change that. This generation was beginning their running careers when the internet and websites like www.DyeStat and www.LetsRun were beginning to take off. Thanks to the internet people all around the country could see what others were doing. This spurred on a sense of competition to not just be satisfied being the best in your area but striving to be the best in the country. There began to be more intra-area competitions as the best in each area would take on the best from other areas. As a result the country developed some runners who have turned out to be among the best this country has ever had.
Anna Willlard Pierce
The Next Generation:
This group is 18-24 years old. They are all in college or just finished their college eligibility. Some of these runners are already representing the USA very well at international championships. Others are being touted as the future faces of USA distance running. It is the strength of this group that suggests that 2007 and 2009 will not be an anomaly when the USA had some success but rather a suggestion that the USA can compete at the international level and soon it won’t just be top 8 finishes that make us proud but possibly more medals.
What Have They Accomplished?
The success of this group of athletes is staggering.
They hold seven American Records among them.
|American Record Holders|
|3000 SC||Jennifer Barringer|
If you look at a list of the top 10 performers in each of the distance events (800, 1500, 5000, 10,000, and 3000 SC), this group represents 1/3 of the list (34/100).
|All-Time Top 10 Distance Performers|
|800||8. Symmonds, 9. Webb|
|1500||1. Lagat, 3. Webb, 8. Lomong|
|5000||1. Ritz, 3. Teg, 4. Lagat, 7. Webb, 8. Meb|
|10,000||1. Solinsky, 2. Rupp, 3. Meb, 4. Abdi, 6. Ritz, 10. Nelson|
|3000 SC||6. Huling|
|1500||3. Willard, 4. Barringer, 5. Wurth-Thomas, 7. Rowbury|
|5000||1. Flanagan, 3. Kastor, 4. Rhines, 5. Goucher|
|10,000||1. Flanagan, 2. Kastor, 3. Goucher, 4. Yoder-Begley, 5. Rhines, 6. Koll|
|3000 SC||1. Barringer, 2. Willard|
Of particular note, the top 6 USA performers of all-time in the women’s 10,000 are all from this group. Four of the top five in the women’s 5000. Four of the top seven in the women’s 1500, including three of the five USA women in history to break 4 minutes (prior to 2009, two USA women had broken 4 minutes; in 2009, three women achieved this feat and a fourth one ran 4:00.81 and medaled at the World Championships. Three of the top four performers in the men’s 5000, including two landmark sub-13’s in the men’s 5000 at the end of the 2009 season. And the top four performances of all-time in the men’s 10,000, including #1, #2, and #10 from the same race on May 1, 2010.
They have earned twenty three top 8 finishes and seven medals at the last three international championships.
The current crop of USA distance runners deserves a lot of credit. They are holding their own at the international level and running times that are quite remarkable. Hopefully they are not satisfied with this and are going to keep striving to achieve even more. It’s okay to step back and appreciate the success of the last three years. 2010 is a quiet year in track & field since there is no international championship. But that doesn’t mean these athletes aren’t going to be hard at work training, setting their sights on more fast times and top 8 finishes and medals in Daegu (2011 World Championships), London (2012 Olympics), and Moscow (2013 World Championships). I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait.