Watching the World Jr Championships this weekend I had very mixed feelings. On the one hand, the next generation of World and Olympic champions seems to be developing quite nicely. So nice in fact, that it will not be easy for us (the US) to hit that magical 30 medal mark in major championship competition as the rest of the world continues to progress.
With the exception of the US and Kenya with 15 medals each, the distribution of medals was pretty even globally. Kenya’s juniors mirroring the efforts of their senior counterparts by dominating the distance events by scoring in every event 800 meters and up. Similarly, most other nations seemed to mirror their senior counterparts as well. Cuban’s scoring well in the jumps, Ethiopians in the distances, Russian’s the race walk and pole vault, etc. The big anomaly being the performance of the European juniors in the sprint and hurdle events where they had large numbers of athletes making the semi finals and finals.
This may be in part because the entry limits are different – only two per country on the junior level as opposed to 3 per country on the senior level – but that doesn’t account for the medals that were being won. A young Brit won the women’s 100. A Hungarian was the silver medalist in the men’s 400. And though Asian, not European, a Japanese sprinter won the men’s 200 followed by a Belarusian. Great news for the sport in general as competition makes for a better sport. But with so many nations performing well in their “traditional” events, if they are making inroads into what have been our “traditional” medal events, where does that leave US hopes for the future?
Well, taking a look at US results there is good news and bad news. The good news – we scored in the field events. We scored a gold medal in the Hammer, as Connor McCullough had the second longest throw in the world by a junior this year at 265’ 0”. We picked up a silver in the women’s discus with Erin Pendleton (180’ 4”0 and a bronze in the triple jump with Omar Craddock (53’ 3”). Huge for us to score in these events on a global stage. We also did what our seniors have failed to do in the last couple of majors – won all four relay events. As our junior squads easily handled their global counterparts in the baton events. Perhaps they should be brought in to give our senior relays some pointers, as their passing was crisp and their athlete placement was dead on. We also scored silver and bronze in the men’s 800 (Casimir Loxsome and Robby Andrews). An event that we have had a serious drought in at the senior level.
In spite of these positive’s however, there were some negatives. In the events that we are traditionally strong in, we were quite weak. We only picked up one gold medal in the sprint and hurdle events – Stormy Kendrick’s victory in the 200 at 22.99. We had no finalists in the men’s 200 or the men’s 400 hurdles. And we only placed 5th in the men’s 110 hurdles and 6th in the women’s 100 hurdles.
More as I looked through the results, we had very few athletes that seemed to be performing at their best levels. There were few personal or seasons best being set by our young people. And many were well below their performances of earlier in the year. This eerily mirrors what we saw from their senior counterparts in Beijing and Berlin! In fairness to our junior athletes, however, I believe the reasons to be quite different. Historically we see this type of performance routinely from our junior teams. We our not always represented by our best athletes, as many are involved in other activities during the summer – specifically preparing for college and college related activities. And I’m not sure that we have a real comprehensive junior program here in the US.
Yes, we have club teams that take part in track and field activities during the summer. But I’m talking about a comprehensive development program where we are bringing together our best young people into some sort of system to help them prepare for international competition. To my knowledge there is little contact with these young people once they earn their spots on the World team. It may not be a bad idea to bring them together for a “Summer Camp” if you will. Two to three weeks of work with a staff of perhaps collegiate coaches, to help enhance the talent that they are already exhibiting. Yes, I know that a handful are already in college and have had a season under the guidance of a college coach. But many of these young people are high schoolers getting their feet wet on the big stage for the first time. And I think that USATF should look upon this as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for our teams for the future.
We also have to look at the fact that as high school athletes, many of these kids have been attempting to compete at a high level since May. Most have State Meets that fall somewhere between the May and June – including qualifying meets that lead up to them. There are also the various post season invitationals that most of these kids get invited to – Golden South, Golden West, Nike Nationals to name but a few. Then there is the USATF Championships meet where the team is selected at the end of June. All of which can explain why a youngster like Josh Mance could run 45.90 over 400 at the beginning of June yet is only able to muster a 46.84 at the finals of Worlds. Or even a college freshman like Robby Andrews who had to go through the NCAA championships system, then our USATF championships system, then Worlds. Andrews looked good running 1:45.54 at the NCAA Championships in the beginning of June but was having a hard time holding on in Moncton finishing in 1:47.00.
Looking at it from this perspective, we ask a lot of these young people, many of whom are getting their very first taste of international competition. We’ve seen how hard it is on the elite athletes to ask their bodies to perform at a high level over and over. It’s got to be harder for young people who are still developing – not just physically but also emotionally. Because we don’t just ask them to compete, but to leave home, go to a foreign place, and to pull it all together and give us their best performance. Still, at the end of the day, these kids were atop the medal count with Kenya and that says a lot about the youngsters that we sent to Canada. I applaud their efforts and look forward to seeing many of them repeat their performances in the future. And as much as we count medals at these events, here in the US our “developmental program” continues to be the collegiate system. We see glimpses of our future stars at these events, but it is still the college system and college coaches that really prepare our athletes to move on to the next level. And events like World Juniors serve as a great springboard to their collegiate destinations and their future growth.