The Prefontaine Classic was indeed everything it was built up to be as it easily surpassed the national championships as the best meet on American soil this year. Yes, it had the advantage of being a part of the Diamond League and therefore was able to boast a nice contingent of foreign athletes in attendance. But it was the performance of the “host” Americans that clearly set this meet apart from nationals, as in event after event the level of performances from out athletes outshined those in Des Moines. Which begs the question: why did we have nationals this year? A question that I will address on another day, because today it’s about looking at what appears to be an improving core of US athletes that I think is going to lead us forward into the next round of majors.
The man that seems to be leading that charge this year is hurdler David Oliver. Oliver is the reincarnation of Renaldo Nehemiah, and this year’s version of Usain Bolt in the 110 hurdles, as he is head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, running exceedingly fast every time out, and having perhaps the best season ever by a high hurdler! Last week’s win in Iowa brought him even with Nehemiah on the clock and made him the =7th hurdler ever, yesterday in Eugene he became the fastest American ever and #3 all time with his 12.90 flight of hurdles. Oliver had a decent start and simply ran away from his competition, looking every bit the best hurdler in the world finishing only .03 off of the current WR. It was his third race under 13 seconds this year and second consecutive. Only WR runs by Liu Xiang and Dayron Robles are faster – and we’re only at the half way point of the season.
As Oliver confirmed his dominance in his event yesterday, javelin thrower Kara Patterson proved that she is indeed among the best in her event. Fresh off of her AR at nationals, Kara took on WR holder and Olympic champion Barboa Spotakova (CZE) and won, throwing the spear a meet record 216’ 2”. A great result for Patterson as it gave her a win over Spotakova but also showed consistency over 215 feet as her last two meets have been well over the old American Record! Patterson is looking very good and has clearly become one of the world’s best and a podium threat.
Another demonstrating a high level of consistency was 400 hurdler Lashinda Demus as her winning time of 53.03 was just off of her world leading 52.82. Four of the top ten times in the world this year have been run by Demus and she handled this year’s #2 Kaliese Spencer (JAM) with ease, beating her by a huge .75 sec. Demus is another hurdler that is having what looks to be her best season ever, and after coming back last year from maternity leave seems to be hitting her stride and emerging as the top hrudler in the world.
Perhaps the most anticipated event of the meet was the men’s 200 meters as it marked the return to competition of top American sprinter Tyson Gay. As it turned out this race was both one of the best of the meet, and set a trend where Americans showed improvement in defeat as well as victory. In the case of the 200 we got a double shot in the arm as I believe we finally found the men’s sprint duo that has eluded us for the past few seasons. Gay hasn’t competed since his 19.41 race in Manchester in mid May, and was clearly a bit rusty as his turn lacked his usual blaze and he seemed to tire a bit in the straight. Still he turned in an outstanding performance as he ran a superb 19.76 – equal to his World Championship winning time in Osaka. That was great news for Tyson. Better news for the US was that he was edged at the finish by Walter Dix as Dix matched Gay around the turn and down the straight and held form a bit better to the line finishing in 19.72 – his second best time ever behind his PR 19.69. Coming off his dominating win over 100 at nationals, it looks like Dix is ready to do exactly what he said he wants to do – challenge the top sprinters. And in so doing is giving the US what we have lacked recently – a strong one, two punch. Dix is sharp and getting better, Tyson was rusty and we know will get better. Together they should give us a fine duo as we take on an improving world in the sprints.
As I said there was much to look forward to even in defeat. In the women’s 800 Mariya Savinova ran her second consecutive world leader as she measured the field and won up the final straight in 1:57.56. Behind her in 4th was a hard charging Phoebe Wright, the collegiate champion, who blew her old PR out of the water with a 1:58.22. Wright has been showing a serious competitive nature this year and is emerging as another middle distance athlete to keep an eye on. Behind her Alysia Johnson also ran under 1:59 with her 1:58.84 PR and Anna Pierce (who got a late start this spring) ran 1:59.42, as our female half milers continue to show that they may yet be a factor.
Another middle distance runner showing tremendous improvement is Andrew Wheating. Better known for his 800 meter running, Wheating saw his 1500 meters improve this year as he did all he could to help the University of Oregon in their pursuit of a national championship. He ran the mile at Pre and was the top American finisher, running 3:51.74 in 5th place for a huge personal best – previous best of 3:58.16. His improved endurance over the mile, combined with his natural kick in the 800 could mean improvement in the 800 where he already holds a best of 1:45.03. He could possibly be the next American to get in that 1:43 range where we need to be to truly be competitive. And speaking of competitive, I would be remiss if I didn’t give Shalane Flanagan her due, as she held her own in a fast 5000 running 14:49.08 for 2nd behind Tirunesh Dibaba’s meet record 14:34.07 – with Amy Yoder Begley in 5th at 14:56.72.
The meet was full of outstanding marks. We got the first sub13 minute 5000 meters on US soil as Ethiopia’s Tariku Bekele (brother of Keninisa) ran 12:58,93 for the win. 800 meter star Abubaker Kaki ran the 1000 in Eugene and turned in a 2:13.62 – the 7th best performance ever. And Christian Cantwell confirmed that he is indeed THE MAN in the shot put as he heaved the ball a world leading 73’ 6.25”! But my favorite event of the meet was the women’s 100 meters – because it embodied everything that is good about this sport.
The women’s 100 was stacked. World and Olympic champion Shelly Ann Fraser (JAM). The second fastest woman ever in Carmelita Jeter (US). Collegiate champion Blessing Okagbare (NIG). Super vet Veronica Campbell Brown, holder of several World and Olympic medals. And recently improving Lashauntea Moore (US). All coming together to COMPETE head to head and the race lived up to its billing. With everyone running their typical race – Fraser starting fast, Jeter and Campbell Brown surging mid race – it was veteran Campbell Brown that got a better than average start surging to the win in a world leading PR of 10.78. Behind her Fraser (10.83), and Jeter (10.84) got season’s bests in 2nd and 3rd. Moore ran 10.99 to confirm her new status as a sub11 sprinter. And Okagbare got a new PR in 11.03.
THAT is what track and field is all about – getting the best together to compete. That’s what made this race so great. And it’s what made the Prefontaine Classic so great – outstanding competition. If there had been more events, but with the same level of competitors and competition the fans would have been doubly excited! WE don’t need fewer events or worry about how long the meet is running. We just need to bring this level of competition to the track. Pre was indeed the best meet on US soil this year. We need more meets like this in the US.