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U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials Preview: Distance Events

EUGENE, Ore. – The pandemic kept the brand new gate at Hayward Field shut for an extra year, but from Friday, June 18 to Sunday, June 27, track and field returns to Eugene, Ore., for the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials.

The trials serve as the selection meet for the U.S. team for the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo. The top three finishers with their respective qualifying marks in each event will be named to the national team.

The trials will be broadcast on NBC and NBC Sports Network, including six primetime slots. I will be on-site providing live coverage from Hayward Field. You can follow along: @ChrisChavez on Twitter.

Below are the key storylines to watch in each respective distance event. To view the preview for the sprint and field events, click here.

Donavan Brazier (USA) celebrates after winning the 800m in an American record 1:44.21 during the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix at Ocean Breeze Athletic Complex.

Donavan Brazier

Men’s 800 Meters: Donavan Brazier To Erase The Ghost of 2016

Final: Monday, June 21 at 5:28 PDT

Four years ago, Donavan Brazier was the sport’s rising star in the 800 meters after winning the NCAA title in record-setting fashion (1:43.55) as a freshman at Texas A&M. However, when he showed up at the Olympic Trials, he failed to make it out of the first of three rounds and watched the Rio Olympics from home. Since then, he’s progressed from not just being a star in the United States but a legitimate threat to break David Rudisha’s 1:40.91 world record. At the 2019 world championships in Doha, Brazier took down Johnny Gray’s American record, which had stood since 1985, to win his first global championship gold medal in 1:42.34. He has not lost an 800-meter race since May 3, 2019 but can still be challenged by former Kansas star Bryce Hoppel, who was fourth in that same world championship final and ran a personal best of 1:43.23 last summer at the Monaco Diamond League.

Women’s 800 Meters: A Crowded Picture of Stars

Final: Sunday, June 27 at 4:52 PDT

The women’s 800 meter final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials was one of the most dramatic finishes with a fall in the final 200 meters that took out some favorites and led to some surprises additions to the team for Rio. Four years later, the race is wide open with 14 women having broken two minutes for the event. The fastest time is 1:57.73 by Texas A&M freshman Athing Mu, who now owns the NCAA record in the 800 and 400 outdoors. The Trenton, N.J., native won her first U.S. title as a 16-year-old in the 600 meters at the 2019 U.S. Indoor Track and Field Championships. In 2021, she’s also run 49.57 to win the NCAA title in the 400 meters. She plans to run the 800 and the biggest question is how well she can handle the three rounds against professionals to avoid a situation like Brazier’s in 2016.

Can a collegiate athlete steal the show from professionals Raevyn Rogers and Ajeé Wilson, who won silver and bronze medals in this event at the world championships less than two years ago? Wilson is the American record holder but the third-fastest American of the year and Rogers sits in seventh on the list. But neither has run eyebrow-raising fast since early May so they could be timing their peak for the Trials. Kate Grace, the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials champion, is also rounding into form at the right time with a 1:59.04 performance on May 29, which was her fastest time in the last five years. Grace is going all-in on attempting to make the 800-meter team despite having a qualifying mark in the 1,500 meters.

A sleeper pick in this event could be Heather MacLean, a former star at UMass who has run 1:59.72 and put together a strong indoor campaign. Her first shot at making the Olympic team will be in the women’s 1,500 meters.

Men’s 1,500 Meters: An Olympic Champion Faces The Kids

Final: Sunday, June 27 at 5:10 p.m.

One of the best tactical performances of the 2016 Olympics was Matthew Centrowitz becoming the first American to win gold in the 1,500 meters in 108 years in a race where his kick held off some of the best in the world. Centrowitz may deserve a spot on the United States middle distance running Mt. Rushmore and he’s made every national team for a world championship or Olympics since 2011. Can he make one more at 31 years old? He’s run 3:35.35 on the year to quell worries about his speed, but there are two collegiate stars and a high schooler that could be on his heels.

On May 13, Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse soloed a 3:34.68 to set a new collegiate record. A month later, he was beaten by Oregon’s Cole Hocker, who has run 3:50.55 for the mile indoors, for the NCAA title. And then there’s the 18-year-old Ann Arbor High School senior Hobbs Kessler, who ran faster than every college kid ever with a 3:34.36 on May 29 to not only shatter the high school record, but notch an Olympic qualifying mark to give himself a shot at Tokyo.

Centrowitz, Craig Engels (the fastest American of 2021 with a 3:33.64) and Joshua Thompson (the 2020 U.S. indoor champion) will have their hands full trying to delay the next generation’s Olympic hopes for another three years.

Women’s 1,500 Meters: A Doping Case Rocks This Race Wide Open

Final: Monday, June 21 at 5:05 PDT

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American record holder Shelby Houlihan was considered a near-lock to make this team until Monday afternoon, when it was revealed that she has been banned four years after testing positive for the banned substance Nandrolone. Houlihan has pleaded her innocence and claims a burrito from a food truck near her home in Beaverton, Oregon may have been the reason. Yet the Court of Arbitration for Sport did not accept her evidence and upheld the ban. Without Houlihan, a coveted spot has opened up.

The next near-lock in this event is Elle Purrier St. Pierre, who owns the fastest time by an American with a 3:58.36 from May 9, where she stuck to the pacer from the start of the race and never let up on the hot pace. Four years ago, she contested the steeplechase at the Olympic Trials but has since focused on flat races and become a star with range. She is one of three American women who has broken two minutes in the 800, four minutes in the 1,500 meters and 15 minutes in the 5,000 meters. In the last two years, she set the American record in the mile (4:16.85) and two-mile (9:10.28). She hasn’t been defeated by an American woman in the 1,500 meters outdoors since July 13, 2019 and her clash with Houlihan would have been a must-watch.

2016 Olympic 1,500 meters bronze medalist Jenny Simpson has competed in this event at the last two Summer Games and every world championships since 2011. At the 2019 U.S. championships in Des Moines, Simpson dueled Houlihan in the final lap of the 1,500 and although she finished second, the 11-time national champion showed she wasn’t going anywhere. A year ago she may have been in the same “lock” talk, but the pandemic and Olympic postponement pushed things and she has not looked as sharp with a season's best of 4:06, which is down on 18th on the list of fastest U.S. performances of 2021. However, much like Centrowitz, she’s a master tactician who can’t be counted out in three rounds.

Shannon Osika (4:00.73 SB), Dani Jones (4:04.26 SB), Helen Schlachtenhaufen (4:04.36 SB), Cory McGee (4:05.00 SB), Nikki Hiltz (4:05.84 SB) and Dani Aragon (4:05.46 SB) are all dark horse contenders to disrupt things and make their first Olympic team.

Men’s 3,000 Meters Steeplechase: America’s Best Is Out, So Who Wants Next?

Final: Friday, June 25 at 4:42 p.m. PDT

On Monday afternoon, 2016 Olympic silver medalist and American record holder Evan Jager announced he will not compete at the trials due to a calf injury that included 16 inches of tearing in his leg and a torn soleus. Jager has been plagued by injuries since the end of the 2018 season so the United States had to look for a new national champion for the first time since 2011.

Fellow Rio Games participant Hillary Bor took the reins and went on to finish eighth in the world championship final. He’s the third-fastest American of all time with his 8:08.41 personal best but has only run 8:22.55 on the season.

Isaac Updike (8:17.74), 2016 NCAA steeplechase champion Mason Ferlic (8:18.49), Bernard Keter (8:20.40), Sean McGorty (8:20.77) and Dan Michalski (8:21.25) have all locked up the Olympic standard and three of the bunch could assemble a squad of all first-time Olympians for Tokyo. Ferlic’s 3:35.45 for 1,500 meters in May and McGorty’s 13:06.45 for 5,000 meters in March are impressive flat-race performances that could lead to a wild final lap.

Emma Coburn

Emma Coburn

Women’s 3,000 Meters Steeplechase: Will USA’s Big Three Be Broken Up?

Final: Thursday, June 24 at 8:47 p.m. PDT

The United States has been represented by Emma Coburn, Courtney Frerichs and Colleen Quigley at every world championship and Olympics, but some changes after the Olympic postponement could have one spot possibly open up.

Coburn and Frerichs have continually traded places atop the U.S. list in the past four years. Coburn followed up her Olympic bronze medal in 2016 by winning the 2017 world championships with Frerichs taking silver behind her for a 1–2 that shocked the East African contingent that has dominated this event at global championships since it was added to the Olympic and World Championships. Coburn also took silver at the 2019 world championships and with a season’s best of 9:08.22—13 seconds faster than anyone else on the year—she can command the race at the trials.

Frerichs, who owns the American record of 9:00.85, has a seasons best of 9:21.13 and two wins in both her steeple races of the year so there’s not much concern regarding her potential to go with Coburn.

The biggest question mark is Quigley. She decided to turn down a contract offer from Nike and leave her training group at the beginning of 2021 to sign a lucrative deal with Lululemon. She has not contested a steeplechase race since July 2019, when she took third at the U.S. Championships but then pulled out of the world championships due to injury. She hasn’t raced in general since February due to some foot issues that left her no option but to not race until the Trials. She owns a personal best of 9:10.27 and confidently already asserted she will make this Olympic team in a recent Instagram post. She will be the target for women trying to crack the top three.

Leah Falland, the 2014 NCAA steeplechase champion, was fourth in this event in 2015 and then tore her plantar in the Olympic Trials final in 2016. Years of injury and personal changes followed but she’s found her groove under the guidance of two-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein. She has run 9:28.72 in her first season back in the event since 2017 and could put an exclamation on her comeback story by making the team.

Val Constien (9:25.53), Mel Lawrence (9:27.34) and Marisa Howard (9:29.65), Courtney Wayment (9:31.79) and NCAA champion Malala Norris (9:31.79) also have the opportunity to play party crasher.

Lopez Lomong and Paul Chelimo compete at the 2019 USATF Championships.

Lopez Lomong and Paul Chelimo compete at the 2019 U.S. Championships.

Men’s 5,000 Meters: A Long Awaited Rematch Between Champions

Final: Sunday, June 27 at 4:30 p.m. PDT

At the 2019 U.S. Championships, Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo and two-time Olympian Lopez Lomong battled on and off the track. Lomong took the U.S. title but Chelimo openly started criticizing him. They have not raced each other since.

Lomong’s 2019 campaign served as a resurrection for his career. He made his first national team since 2013 and pulled off the first 5,000 meters-10,000 meters double victory at a U.S. Championships since Galen Rupp accomplished the feat in 2012. Lomong notched personal bests of 12:58.78 (No. 8 U.S. all-time) and 27:04.72 (No. 3 U.S. all-time). He elected to focus on the 10,000 meters at the world championships and finished seventh in the final. Despite sparingly racing in 2021 at 36 years old, Lomong has proven to show up in a championship setting since making his first team back in 2008.

Lomong could look to bring along his training partners Woody Kincaid (12:58.10 PB) and Grant Fisher (13:02.53 PB) along for a Bowerman Track Club sweep. Chelimo won’t go quietly and Eric Jenkins (13:07.33 PB) and Ben True (13:02.74 PB) who finished fourth and fifth in 2016 will get a shot at redemption. Joe Klecker, who has run 13:06.67, would be a dark horse contender as well.

Women’s 5,000 Meters: Rising Stars Get Their Chance

Final: Monday, June 21 – 5:40 p.m. PDT

This race will also be without American record holder Shelby Houlihan as she’s barred from competing due to the anti-doping violation. Her Bowerman Track Club teammates Karissa Schweizer, Elise Cranny and Vanessa Fraser enter with the top three fastest qualifying times of the field. All three will be going for their first Olympic teams.

Schweizer became the second-fastest American woman of all-time at the distance with a 14:26.34 last July, where she finished just three seconds behind Houlihan. Schweizer was ninth in the 5,000 meters at the 2019 world championships.

The last 12 months have yielded personal bests in the 1,500 meters (4:02.62), 5,000 meters (14:48.02) and 10,000 meters (30:47.42) for Cranny so if it comes down to a final kick, she may have some of the best closing speed of the bunch.

Josette Norris is having the season of her life with a personal best of 14:51.42 in June that gives her a good chance of preventing a Bowerman sweep.

Jenny Simpson and Elle Purrier St. Pierre have been entered as backup plans, if they don’t make the 1,500 meters squad.

Men’s 10,000 Meters: The First One Up

Final: Friday, June 18 – 7:25 p.m. PDT

This race will be the first final contested at the trials and features Lomong, Fisher, Kincaid, True, Jenkins and Klecker who also headline the aforementioned 5,000 meters field. Those six could end up splitting both teams and whoever doesn’t make the 10,000 meters team gets a second chance nine days later.

There is one intriguing name further down the entry list. Galen Rupp, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist in this event who won the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials and won a bronze medal in Rio at the 26.2-mile distance, won this race five years ago. Last month, he ran 28:00.37 for his first outdoor track race since 2017. He already has a spot locked up for Tokyo after winning the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Feb. 2020.

Women’s 10,000 Meters: A Second Shot for Some

Final: Saturday, June 26 – 6:44 p.m. PDT

Unlike the men’s race, the women’s 10,000 meters can serve as the backup option for those who don’t make the 5,000 meters squad. Cranny and Schweizer enter as the third and fastest Americans of all-time. Emily Sisson, a 2016 Olympian at 5,000 meters, is the fifth-fastest of all-time and has just one shot at this Olympic team. She dropped out of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Feb. 2020 and the extra year from the Olympic postponement has allowed her to try and regain some of her track speed.

Sara Hall, who ran the second-fastest marathon of all-time with a 2:20:32 last December, returns to the track having run 31:32.90 on the season. She’s thrived on the roads but can the track provide her first Olympic team berth at 38? She was 11th in the 5,000 meters in 2004; 9th in the 1,500 meters in 2008; 8th in the steeplechase in 2012 and 14th in the 5,000 meters in 2016. Maybe the fifth time's the charm?

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