The first couple of days was eerily quiet with this year’s National Championships suffering from the “off season” blues. With no Olympic or World Championship berths on the line, many of our top stars have deserted this meet like the plague for various reasons. No Tyson Gay, Darvis Patton, Carmelita Jeter, Muna Lee, or Lauryn Williams in the sprints. The distance events lacked Dathan Ritzenhein, Chris Solinsky, Ryan Hall, and Matt Tegenkamp. So the early competition was lacking – oomph. More like a development meet than a US Championships.
Now, let me start off by saying that even though there are no spots for the Olympics or World Championships on the line this year, there is MUCH work to be done by American athletes – and the National Championships should be used for that purpose. With other countries emerging in the sprints, bringing our best together to slug it out is the next best forum to competing in a major. There’s no better practice for maneuvering through sprint and hurdle rounds than the US Championships – IF we have all of athletes at the table.
And our distance runners could stand to hone their skills racing at high speed against one another in a championship type setting. Somehow I think that Steve Prefontaine would have relished the thought of coming to nationals to take on Solinsky, Ritzenhein and Tegenkamp for a National title – even without the lure of the Olympics or World Championships. And I know that the 5K & 10K events would have gone far below the winning times of 13:54.08 and 28:59.29 posted in theses finals had Pre been around to compete! Because Pre was always out to improve and get better – and if he left any legacy for future distance runners I would hope that his fire would be it!
Having said that, there are always those that show up feeling that they have something to prove – to themselves and the rest of the world. And it’s those athletes that truly embody the spirit of the National Championships. And it’s that spirit that began to show late Friday as some young stars began to shine and some vets began to reemerge.
It started with Kara Patterson in the javelin as she obliterated the America record. Patterson threw the spear 218’ 9”, a full eight feet further than Kim Kreiner’s old mark of 210’ 7” – with four of her throws over 200 ft! More importantly, only four women in the world threw further than Patterson’s mark last year – making Patterson truly world class in this event, and my new hero. We desperately need field event athletes to step up and compete and Patterson did just that! She improved significantly on her PR of 209’ 9” set last year after throwing 201’ 11” in ‘08. She’s been improving steadily and appears to be on her way to being one of the world’s best. It’s nice to see her make her mark in this meet and confirm herself as someone to watch.
Chaunte Howard-Lowe is another in the field that has been staking her claim to elite status this year. She came into this meet having already taking over the AR in the high jump earlier this season, and with some very close competitions against Croatia’s Blanka Vlasic under her belt. Chaunte upped the ante one more time with another AR as she soared over 6’ 8.75” in Des Moines! She’s become nothing if not consistent this year, and has become a solid medal threat for Daegu and London.
Another field eventer moving into elite status was Heptathlete Hyleaas Fountain who won the multi event with a score of 6735 points. Her score moved her into #3 all time American status. What’s really exciting, however, is that it’s 4 points better than Jessica Ennis’ (GBR) winning score from last year’s World Championships and 2 points better than Natalia Dobrynska’s (RUS) winning score from the Beijing Games! Once again it appears that we may have someone that can medal in the Heptathlon – potentially even win it. So it’s very exciting to see our women stepping up in the field!
Despite the hot temperatures in Des Moines the track had been ice cold the first few days of qualifying and distance finals. The distance times had been pedestrian as everything became “tactical”. and the sprinters and hurdlers faced headwinds throughout the meet (might I suggest that you simply run the sprints the other way when the wind is negative). The past couple of days, however, there were some athletes that were looking to prove themselves, and they did that in dramatic fashion. One was Walter Dix, who seems determined to break into the top three of Bolt/Gay/Powell in the 100 meters. Dix, a notoriously slow starter, was with the pack early in the 100 final, and ran away in mid race to win the event in 10.04. Now in this time crazy world that doesn’t seem all that exciting when we see 9.8’s being run with regularity but when you consider that it was into a headwind of –1.5 mps AND he obliterated the field by .23 sec, the race becomes very impressive. Dix looked very sharp and I’m looking forward to see what he puts down in the 200 meters.
Both the men and women’s 400 meters had big ups and big downs. On the down side, Sanya Richards-Ross withdrew from the women’s event after feeling her quad tighten up during her warm ups. Richard’s did not appear very sharp during the rounds and doesn’t seem to be back from her injury earlier in the season. Jeremy Wariner did not finish the men’s race as he pulled up on the backstretch. He said during the interview after the race that he felt something in his hip but thought he would be ok in a couple of weeks, but Jeremy hasn’t been himself all season so we will see how that progresses. Somewhat of a downer for both, as they have been our best for several years now.
In their absence others stepped up and moved into contention on the world stage. Debbie Dunn lead the women with a world leading 49.64 – dropping her best from last year’s 49.96. Dunn won this year’s World indoor title and this race confirms that she can indeed bring it when the pressure is on. She ran a very strong race, looked good in all phases, and buried the field with second place a far back 50.52 (NCAA champ Francena McCorory). If we can get Richards-Ross back to good health we should have a very solid 1-2 punch in the 400.
On the men’s side, I’ve been looking for someone to emerge all season long. With defending World and Olympic champion Lashawn Merritt out of the sport and previous World and Olympic champion Wariner not up to standard, the question has been: who will step up and lead this event! Wariner looked like he might be ready to retake the throne until the backstretch of yesterday’s race. But as he went down the race continued with the first FIVE finishers all improving on their personal bests. None more so than winner Greg Nixon who won in a world leading 44.61! Nixon has been a journeyman sprinter for several seasons now running around 20.4x and mid 45 (45.20 best) in the 200 and 400 meters. Yesterday’s race was huge for Nixon, as it may have been his breakthrough race. If not the finish behind him may contain the future of the event here in the US as Lajerald Betters (44.71), Jamal Torrence (44.80) and Tavaris Tate (44.84) all set PR’s and looked good in the process. And the man I think many need to keep an eye on is St Augustine’s Josh Scott. Yes he finished 5th in 45.01, but he seems to be improving steadily and seems to have a lot of potential.
Speaking of potential, the men’s 400 hurdles was about potential, old and new. Veteran Bershawn Jackson has had some down seasons for him over the past two or three years. After running extremely well in ‘05 & ‘06 he had been struggling to find that same form. Getting healthy this year and going back to his old step pattern Bershawn came into the meet looking to prove he could get better. On the youth front, young Johnny Dutch was fresh off of his NCAA upset victory and looking to prove it was no fluke, and that he was as good as the 48.12 he had run earlier in the season. Both made their point in the 400 hurdle final as they waged a serious battle over one lap and ten hurdles with Jackson holing off the challenge of the youngster with a 47.32 world leading win. The time was just .02 off of his all time best 47.30 set back in 2005 and signaled that Bershawn may be able to go faster still. Dutch had much to be excited about in second place. His time of 47.63 was the second fastest time in the world – and over the past five seasons only Jackson and Kerron Clement have run faster! Dutch showed himself to be the future of the event here in the US!
One final bit of excitement for me was the women’s 1500 meters. The time wasn’t the best as once again the race became tactical. But it was nice to see our top women show up to compete as Anna Pierce, Shannon Rowbury, and Kristin Wurth Thomas were all in the field. And though the time was slow watching Anna Pierce come from WAY back on the final lap to run the field down and get the win, reminds me why she is one of my favorite middle distance runners. She’s got great endurance, has honed her speed, and is just one gritty, competitive athlete. If Patterson is my hero on the field Pierce is my new hero on the track.
So what started off as a rather ho hum meet, really stepped it up for me! It’s nice to see athletes taking pride in their performances and looking to make a move against the rest of the world. I hope we see more of that during today’s action.