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Heading into the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, no athlete brought more exciting buzz into the running events than Athing Mu.
After her sensational freshman season at Texas A&M, she’s ranked No. 2 in the world in the 800m and No. 4 in the world in the 400m. She had one of most memorable seasons in NCAA history as she set collegiate records in the 400 (49.57) and 800 (1:57.73) and won a national title in the 400 and was part of the Aggies’ victorious, record-setting 4×400 relay team.
At just 19, she appears to have enormous upside and potential as a rare athlete that straddles the line between a long sprinter and middle-distance runner, and she’s poised to take that talent to the world stage now. And she’s not the only one.
While a few collegiate sprinters and field event specialists earn podium spots just about every Olympic cycle, it’s very rare for those in running events from 800m to 10,000m. The last one to do it was Emma Coburn, who won the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 2012 while she was a senior at the University of Colorado.
Yet this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials has a lot of top young stars in middle-distance and distance events with fast qualifying times, and in the first couple of days of competition, collegiate athletes have been competitive in the men’s 10,000m final on June 18 and the first two rounds of the men’s 800m and women’s 1,500m on June 18-19.
“The collegians are really sharp. They’re really race-ready,” three-time U.S. Olympian Jenny Simpson said after her preliminary heat of the 1,500m on June 18. (Simpson made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team in the 3,000m steeplechase while she was a junior at Colorado.)
Flipping to a New Focus
Making the team is not just about being able to run fast, says Andrew Wheating, who placed second in the 800m at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and competed in the Beijing Olympics while he was a sophomore at the University of Oregon. College coaches pump the NCAA Championships as the pinnacle of the track and field season, and to a college kid, it is, he says, but only a rare few who have the interest to flip the switch and focus on the Trials just a week after the NCAA Championships.
“Making the team as a collegiate athlete isn’t a matter of fitness, it’s a mental commitment,” says Wheating, who retired in 2017 and is now a sports marketing specialist for On Running in Portland, Ore. “All these kids are fit enough and talented enough, but for the last six months all they have heard is, ‘NCAA national champion…’ After six months of visualization, training, and emotional commitment, to finally achieve it is an enormous sigh of relief. It’s hard to muster that amount of motivation in less than a week (for the Olympic Trials).”
Contenders in the Finals
While only one collegiate athlete — Stanford’s Julia Heymach — will be competing alongside Simpson and fellow pros Elle Purrier, Nikki Hiltz and Shannon Osika in the women’s 1,500m final this evening, three current college athletes — USC’s Isaiah Jewett, Iowa State’s Daniel Nixon and Notre Dame’s Samuel Voelz — are in the men’s 800m that follows. And North Carolina State’s Elly Henes made it to the women’s 5,000m final that concludes the racing action tonight.
Henes is expected to sign a pro contract soon, but her best shot at making an Olympic team might be in 2024. She has a 15:18 PR, which is eight seconds off the Olympic-qualifying mark. So if she wants to make the team, she’ll have to hope for a fast pace and then run the race of her life against the likes of much faster pros Karissa Schweizer (14:26.34), Elise Cranny (14:48.02), Vanessa Fraser (14:48.51), Josette Norris (14:51.42) and Rachel Schneider (14:52.04).
But Jewett, who won the 800m NCAA title last week in Eugene with an impressive 1:44.68 PR, and seems the most likely to have a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team. He owns the best outdoor 800m time of any American runner in 2021 and is ranked No. 13 in the world. However, the top three contenders for the U.S. team — Donavan Brazier (1:42.34), Grayson Murphy (1:42.93) Bryce Hoppel (1:43.23) — all have faster PRs and more experience.
Among the top other collegiate runners in this year’s Olympic Trials are Cole Hocker of Oregon (3:35.35 PR) and Yared Nuguse of Notre Dame (3:34.68), who finished 1-2 in the NCAA Championships on June 12 at Hayward Field and will be racing in the 1,500m Olympic Trials prelims on June 24. It goes without saying that recently graduated high school star Hobbs Kessler, though not yet a collegiate athlete, is also one to keep an eye on in the 1500m, coming in with the fastest time in the field, 3:34.36 — even though he hasn’t yet announced whether he’s going to run in college or turn pro. Meanwhile, another NCAA champion — Oregon’s Cooper Teare — is ranked 10th in 5,000m (13:12.27), an event that includes nine other collegiate runners.
On the women’s side, three collegiate steeplechasers made it through the prelims and will compete in Thursday’s late final: Mahala Norris (9:31.79) of the Air Force Academy, Washington’s Katie Rainsberger (9:32.12) and BYU’s Courtney Wayment, with Wayment nabbing the Olympic standard and setting a 9:27.17 PR. Of the 48 women entered in the two finals heats of the 10,000m on June 26, four are collegiate runners, led by Air Force Academy’s Maria Mettler and her 29th-ranked PR of 32:09.37. And Mu is the dominant favorite in the 800m on June 27th, although she announced on June 18 that she’s turning pro and is unlikely to be competing in her Texas A&M racing kit when she lines up.
While numerous collegiate athletes have made it to the Olympic Trials in events from the 800m to the 10,000m in the past 25 years, only nine have made an Olympic team. In 2000, Stanford teammates Gabe Jennings and Michael Stember finished first and third in the men’s 1,500m to earn a trip to the Sydney Games, while Texas Tech’s Jonathan Johnson won the 800m four years later to make the U.S. team bound for the Athens Olympics.
In 2004, Colorado’s Dathan Ritzenhein was battling an injury when he finished dead last in the men’s 10,000 in 31:13 — nearly 4 minutes behind winner Meb Keflezighi. But he completed the race knowing he was the only other runner in the field (aside from Keflezighi) who had run the 27:49 Olympic qualifying time prior to the race, so he was able to earn a spot on the U.S. team bound for Athens so long as he finished the race.
Four years later in 2008, four college athletes earned trips to the Beijing Olympics: Simpson (then Barringer) and fellow Colorado teammate Billy Nelson (2nd in the 3,000m steeplechase), along with Wheating (2nd in the 800m) and Oregon teammate Galen Rupp (2nd in the 10,000m). Since then, the only mid-distance or distance runner to make it to the Olympic team was Coburn in 2012, when she went on to place ninth in the London Olympics.
At the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Texas A&M’s Natosha Rogers ran a great race to place second in the women’s 10,000m in 31:59, but she didn’t make the Olympic team. She hadn’t already run the 31:45 Olympic-qualifying time and she had no chance to get it afterwards.
Perhaps the most notable college runner of the 2016 Trials was Mississippi’s Craig Engels, who mixed it up the America’s best professional athletes in the 800m and 1,500m. In making it to the finals of each event, he ran six races over nine days in his Ole Miss kit, setting new PRs while placing fourth in the 800 (1:46.03) and fifth in the 1,500 (3:37.66). Michigan’s Mason Ferlic (5th in the 3,000m steeplechase) and Woody Kincaid (8th in the men’s 10,000m) also ran well, even if they didn’t come close to making the team.
Five years later, Engels and Ferlic are legitimate contenders in their events, while Kincaid has already became an Olympian by winning the 10,000m on June 18. Several college runners mixed it up in that 10,000m final, including BYU’s Conner Mantz, Georgetown’s Robert Brandt, Gonzaga’s James Mwaura and Oklahoma State’s Isai Rodgriguez. Mantz led the pack through a fast first mile in 4:22 but he didn’t fade. He was still in the mix to the end and wound up sixth.
Experience and Expectations
“It was good to get in there and mix it up with the best guys in the country,” Mantz said. “After the first mile, I was kind of waiting for someone to help out in the lead and Brandt was game to jump in. It was cool to see the young guys up there giving it a go even if we didn’t make the team.”
The early experience for some top collegiate runners at the U.S. Olympic Trials pays off eventually. Simpson, Coburn, Rupp, Ritzenhein and Wheating all made multiple trips to the Olympics in their careers. Engels, now a fifth-year Nike-sponsored pro, is hoping to make his first team this year in the 1,500m, while Rogers is still seeking her first Olympic berth in the 10,000m.
Whereas college athletes have low expectations are are often just happy to be competing, pros are expected to make the finals and earn a spot on the Olympic team, Wheating says.
“Expectation changes everything when entering this meet,” he adds. “What does each athlete expect of themselves? Sadly, you’re going to have to wait until after the race to get a true answer because right now it’s, ‘I’m going to do my best… there’s some strong competition out there… going to take it one step at a time… It’s just a different thing for most college runners.’”