Monday, August 8, 2011

State of the World Championships Squad


Wow, it’s almost here – The World Championships. The biggest track and field event of the year – much anticipated after a year off from global championship competition. With 19 days left until the start of the meet, and only a handful of smaller meets left this week, it’s time to try and make sense of what’s gone on so far this season and guess/speculate/prognosticate on what may transpire in Korea.

Before jumping into event predictions – sure to take up most of the next two weeks – I thought I would take a look at the state of the U.S. squad. Sort of general overview of how the U.S. team is shaping up. Then over the next couple of weeks get into the various individual event previews.

So here is my assessment of the U.S. team with 19 days to go.

A key component to every U.S. team is the sprints – as much of our medal counts have relied heavily on the strength of our speed corps. Heading into Daegu our sprinters appear ready to be competitive once again – especially the women. Carmelita Jeter has been dominating on the summer circuit – both in the 100 and with an improved presence in the 200. Marshevet Myers has also looked impressive this summer, running just a step off the pace set by Jeter. “Jet” and “Vet” should give us a strong one two punch in Korea and lead a strong relay squad. Three time 200 meter champion Allyson Felix – who decided to take on the 200/400 double – has looked stronger in the 400 than she has in the 200, but as we’ve seen with many sprinters recently, she still has time to get her speed sharp for her pet event. She recently got help in the 400 with the return to form of Sanya Richards Ross who won a blazing 400 in London. So it looks like we have a strong pair in each of the sprints, as well as both relays. So things look very good on the women’s side of the ledger.

The men’s side is more a question mark for me. Up until Monaco/London we hadn’t seen much of our male sprinters. With the return of Lashawn Merritt in Monaco and a nice looking 200 win from Walter Dix in London, I can say that both looked in good form with three weeks to the big dance. But I’m not expecting much help for Dix in the deuce (usually one of our stronger events) as Patton and Dodson just haven’t performed well over the summer. I have similar sentiments for Mike Rodgers, who has competed a lot, but just not been “medal” competitive. And I would have liked to have seen Justin Gatlin over the summer, as well as the rest of our 400 crew. The one huge positive that I can say for both our men and women short sprinters, however, is that in a pair of 4x1’s for each they’ve kept the baton off the ground! I’m not sure what the final versions of these teams will look like, but moving the stick around the track is job one and it seems we’ve got that under control – knock on wood!

Keeping in the theme of short events our hurdlers have looked very good so far this summer. One the men’s side, David Oliver has remained a rock of consistency, though he has lost his share of races this year. Two of those losses have come to up and coming Jason Richardson, who seems to be coming into his own. Richardson has dropped his PR down to 13.08, defeated Oliver twice, and run stride for stride with Dayron Robles – all within the last couple of weeks. He is now a part of the high hurdle conversation and we once again have a strong one, two punch with he and Oliver. In the longer hurdle event, veterans Bershawn Jackson and Angelo Taylor have both looked solid. Taylor running one of the seasons rare sub 48’s in Monaco, while running sub 45 in the open event in Stockholm. So as with the short hurdles we have a strong one, two punch heading into Korea.

In the women’s short hurdles, both Kellie Wells and Danielle Carruthers have continued to have fine seasons. Both are running fast and placing high and continue the trend with another strong pairing heading into Worlds. I’m not as optimistic with the long hurdlers. Lashinda Demus looked good in her only appearance since the Trials with a win in Luzerne in a decent time. But teammate Queen Harrison hasn’t been up to par in an event that has gotten very fast at the top end over the summer. I’m afraid that Demus may be going it alone against the rest of the world.

Which brings me to the middle distances, where it looked for most of the summer like Morgan Uceny would be our only hope heading into Daegu. Uceny has run fast, setting PR’s in both the 800 (1:58.37) & 1500 (4:01.51), More importantly, however, she has been very competitive, winning the 1500 in Lausanne and Birmingham with a strong third in Monaco. She has been our brightest spot in the middle distances this summer. It was not until London that anyone else stepped up to show any signs of competitive life as Leo Manzano (3:51.24 mile, 1st) and Shannon Rowbury (4:05.73 1500, 3rd) began to show a pulse. Manzano’s win was very impressive as he outkicked a pair of quality milers in the process. I still have faith in the training programs of the Oregon TC – especially after watching Centrowitz’ PR run in Monaco – so I am hoping to see Andrew Wheating ready to step up in Korea.

In the 800 I’m not quite as optimistic. Yes, Nick Symmonds has run sub 1:44. Unfortunately he continues to lag early in the race and is just not in the position to be competitive. And 1:43 high to 1:44 low is only enough to perhaps get out of the semis. He’s got to get closer to use his kick if he wants to see the leaders on the final homestretch. Female Trials winner Montano has yet to crack 2:00 in Europe and Maggie Vessey has been her usual up & down self. Alice Schmidt has actually performed best with a couple races under 2:00 and a PR 1:58.61, but I sure miss the competitive nature’s of Phoebe Wright, Morgan Uceny and Anna Pierce in this event.

Above 1500 meters there are two names – Bernard Lagat and Shalane Flanagan. The evergreen Lagat continues to look like he’s sipping from the  Fountain of Youth, setting another AR in the 5000 (12:53.60), running 3:51.32 in the mile and 3:33.11 in the 1500 in limited appearances. He’s #2 in the world right now in the 5000 and looks podium ready! Flanagan is similarly positioned in the 10,000 – currently #2 in the world on the clock, and running well over 5000 in her lead up to the 10,000 in Daegu. She, like Lagat, looks to be podium ready. I feel quite comfortable going to battle in Korea with both of these athletes, unfortunately the rest of the troops just aren't at this level. Though again counting on the training regimen of the Oregon TC, I have hopes that we see improved performances in Daegu from Galen Rupp, Matt Tegenkamp, and Chris Solinsky.

The summer has made me feel a bit better about our chances in the jumps. We’re still a ways off from where we were a decade or so ago, but things appear to be looking up. On the women’s side of things, Brittney Reese (long jump) and Jenn Suhr (pole vault) are both leading the world in their respective events. More importantly they have competed well recently. Reese winning in Lausanne and Monaco, with a second in Birmingham. Suhr winning in New York and London with a third in Stockholm. The kind of competitiveness you like to see heading into a major.

Similarly on the men’s side we’ve seen a streak of competitiveness from Jesse Williams (high jump) and Christian Taylor (triple jump). In Williams’ last three competitions he’s taken a first and two seconds against some of the world’s best jumpers. Taylor PR’d in his final tune up in London with a huge 58’ 0.25” leap against defending World champion Phillips Idowu. Both young men are strong competitors and appear ready for Daegu. These four men and women appear to be our best bets in the jumping arena as no one else has really stepped up to the plate thus far.

The story in the throws is similar. Our male shot put crew is as strong as always. Nelson, Cantwell and Hoffa have won everything that can be won between them multiple times. And Daegu will simply come down to who is on on the day. This could end up being the deepest event for U.S. forces in Korea. Their female counterparts have really stepped it up this year. And while not gold medal favorites, it’s possible that on a good day Jill Camarena Williams or Michelle Carter could sneak onto the podium.

Once outside of the shot ring however, our opportunities for medals diminish rapidly. Since his Trials win, Hammer Thrower Kibwe Johnson has run into a couple of 9th place finishes. Given his record over the past couple of seasons I’m guessing that this is due more to hard training in his lead up than to a fall off in performance. Likewise I know that javelin thrower Kara Patterson said last year that she was going to change her season to peak in Daegu as opposed to the July peak she hit last year in Eugene. Her recent performances seem to indicate an upswing and are in line with that statement. So I’m still holding out for big things from both of these athletes at Worlds. But outside of the shot putters I don’t see them getting much back up against the rest of the worlds best.

I think that pretty much covers everything except the multi events. Of course you don’t see a lot of them heading into a major – it’s tough enough to compete in the major itself. Suffice it to say, however that I feel really good about Tre Hardee and Ashton Eaton. Hardee is experienced and has been here before – he is the defending World champion. Eaton is in a word – talented. He still has some events that need a bit of work, but he is so strong on the track – 100, 110 hurdles, 400 – and long jump, that he can almost place by default. That said, he will have to step it up a notch to ensure he makes the podium – because one bad event at this level can cost you! On the women’s side we just don’t have anyone in the conversation – a rarity.

So there you have it – my assessment of the state of the U.S. crew that is headed for the World Championships. Those are the players as I see them. Now I just have to try and fit them into the global matrix to see how much hardware we may be able to bring home. I will start that process with event breakdowns and predictions beginning in the next couple of days and continuing through the start of the World Championships!

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