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Top American Hopes for Gold in Middle Distance

Noah JampolFeatured ColumnistApril 1, 2012

Top American Hopes for Gold in Middle Distance

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    In Part 1 of my survey of America's best gold medal hopes, I examined the sprints—traditionally strong events for the U.S., which is facing a tremendous challenge from a once-in-a-lifetime crop of Caribbean sprinters.

    Now for Part 2; the American sprinters' teammates face a completely different, but no less daunting, task. That is, taking on the best that talent-rich Kenya, and nearly every other spot on the map, has to offer.

    Part of the beauty of the Olympics is the countries and competitors it can bring together in a fair and unpredictable competition. Middle distance events are some of the most diverse events out there.

    In one event (1500m), the defending champion and favorite is a rail-thin, well over six-foot Kenyan named Asbel Kiprop, who has been known to run a 48-second 400 on a dirt track on a lark. 

    The runner-up in 2008, of course, was a Kiwi, Nick Willis, who went to the University of Michigan. Third place? A French runner of Algerian descent, Mehdi Baala.

    This sort of geographical range only makes it that much harder for an American native to emerge as the best in the world in middle distance (and it really is of the world).

    After a somewhat hopeless lull in the mid 1990s to early 2000s, U.S. middle distance running has improved steadily, with greater grassroots support in high school, better coaching and more determination than ever to catch up with world. 

    With that in mind, here are the U.S.'s best hopes in the 800m, 1500m and 3000m steeplechase (make that pipe dream). 

800: Nick Symmonds

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    Personal Best: 1:43.76

    Best Major Championship Result: Fifth (2011 World Championships)

    My Betting Odds: 50:1

    Nick Symmonds has seamlessly made the transition from exchanging elbows with athletes from D-III powers such as Wisconsin-Oshkosh to somewhat more accomplished fellows from Kenya-Rift Valley.

    It really has been a remarkable journey, but you could tell Symmonds wasn't thinking much about that in the wake of an unsatisfying, albeit career-best, fifth-place finish at last year's World Championships.

    Dejected, he put his hands over his head in anguish moments after crossing the line just tenths of a second away from his goal. 

    He arrived in very good form last year, running 1:43 and competing with confidence and versatility. His disappointment in being so close to a medal and falling short was unavoidable in his post-race interview last year

    Symmonds has been very willing to adapt to address his old weaknesses. He once was a one-trick pony with a strategy of hanging back from the field and then kicking like crazy in the last 300

    That strategy paid huge dividends in rabbited, time-trials affairs, when overambitious athletes would run 49 seconds for the first 400 and work perfectly into his hands.

    However, in major championships rounds, when the pace was often slower and athletes were often less reckless, Symmonds could find himself out of the mix or in a helpless position.

    While he'll never be a front-runner—and nobody will ever out-front-run World Record Holder David Rudisha anyway, Symmonds now firmly puts himself in the mix while often outwitting his competitors with a more evenly-run first 400 meters.

    His pack-running and physical, aggressive strategy can have its benefits—a self-proclaimed 'hockey move' catapulted him to a U.S. title in 2008—and its drawbacks—contact from a bump and getting boxed-in doomed his medal bid in 2011.

    Certainly it would be very hard to envision anyone beating Rudisha, who will control the race, or consistent 1:42 man Abubaker Kaki

    But back in 2000, did anyone think Nils Schumann could take down the great Wilson Kipketer

    No, probably not. 

    Accelerating his rise up the results (sixth in 2009 World Champs, fifth in 2011 World Champs) by one to achieve a bronze medal would probably be enough to satisfy American fans everywhere.

    And after that, he could instead raise his hands in triumph. 

    Other American Hopes: Khadevis Robinson, Charles Jock, Robby Andrews

    World Challengers: David Rudisha, Abubaker Kaki, Yuriy Borzakovskiy, Mbulaeni Mulaudzi

1500: Matthew Centrowitz

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    Personal Best: 3:34.46

    Best Major Championship Result: Bronze (2011 World Championships)

    My Betting Odds: 30:1

    To most, Matthew Centrowitz's bronze medal at last year's World Championships qualified as a real shock.

    Centrowitz arrived with a personal best barely under the 'A' Standard and a résumé in Europe that mainly consisted of toiling in the middle of packs and being an afterthought for the top six, let alone top three, places.

    To me, though, what was even more shocking about it was that there was nothing fluky about it.

    Ever since a stunning stretch run at the U.S. Championships when he out-mastered the tactical master Bernard Lagat with authority, Centrowitz looked absolutely at home and within himself in every unpaced race. 

    When it made sense to lead, he calmly led and took down some of the best in the world.

    If the pace was a little quicker and he felt over his head, he'd take a back seat and still find himself in top position with a lap to go.

    Centrowitz's racing instincts are top-class, and it doesn't hurt that his closing speed, about 52 seconds for the last 400, positions him competitively with the best of the world.

    He also has the intangible ability to gauge how much he has left and make his last 50 meters his best.

    That is something that perhaps faster Americans could never master in competitive, tactical races. Alan Webb, for all his brilliance, had his major championships characterized by a half-dozen comparable athletes blowing by him in the closing stages. 

    Centrowitz certainly faces a tough field led by Kenyans Asbel Kiprop and Silas Kiplagat. They and probably a half-dozen others will beat him 100 times out of 100 in a drag-race, time-trial 1500.

    Fortunately for American fans and Centrowitz, that's not how the medals are decided.

    In the end, the race will feature erratic pacing, test all of the athletes' decision-making and come down to who best combines a strong finish with savvy positioning.

    These are all areas in which Centrowitz excels, and with a couple of breaks (perhaps an Asbel Kiprop brain fart) who knows, maybe he could even upgrade his podium position.

    Just know that there's one thing it won't be, even if he is the 'slowest' athlete coming in by personal best: a fluke.

    Other American Hopes: Leonel Manzano, Andrew Wheating

    World Challengers: Asbel Kiprop, Silas Kiplagat, Deresse Mekonnen, Nick Willis

3000 Steeple: Daniel Huling

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    Personal Best: 8:13.29

    Best Major Championship Result: Ninth heats (2011 World Championships)

    My Betting Odds: 1,000,000:1

    Now this would be the event to take the somewhat bizarre step of picking a second country to root for. Because for the Americans, this one ain't happening.

    Dan Huling is a good guy to root for, and he plugs it away and sticks his nose in some of the more competitive steeples in Europe when it might be easier just to try and win Mt. Sac and smaller-scale U.S. meets.

    Making the final would be a big-time accomplishment for him. So there's that. 

    Now, for the Olympics, I'll admit Kenya is my second country. And the way the Kenyans attack the steeple and embrace the country's legacy of domination is truly compelling.

    There have been races where an athlete has stopped running all-out to wave in his compatriot to complete the sweep.

    And then you have more of the most entertaining man in track and field not named Usain Bolt, Ezekiel Kemboi. For proof of this, I give you the last 200 meters of last year's world title.

    In summation: Kemboi makes a show-stopping move at 200 with an absurd sprint, then starts celebrating and pumping his fists in a variety of ways some 60 meters from the finish.

    After the finish, he starts doing a repeated Tiger Woods fist-pump dance. Then he rips his shirt off, starts dramatically kissing the track before a Kenya-meets-Jamaica dance that went viral (go to 2:50 in).

    The Kenyans' main competition will be the French. Coincidentally, while the country has a growing strength in the event that should foster some sort of national pride and camaraderie, it instead led to the opposite in the other main track video that went viral last year. 

    That is a fist-fight between Mehdi Baala and Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad that exploded as a result of some of the tensions between rival French steeplers Benabbad and Baala's training partner, Bouabdellah Tahri.

    Anyhow, as you can probably tell by my brief discussion of American steeplers, this is an event where the U.S. has not gained a foothold despite huge improvement from 800-10,000 meters.

    Still, whether it's Kemboi's antics, the French rivalry or just the absurd varieties of water-pit fails that can happen, it's an event completely worth checking out. 

    Other American Hopes: Billy Nelson, Ben Bruce

    World Challengers: Ezekiel Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto, Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad, Bouabdellah Tahri

Conclusion

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    While the gold-medal prospects of the US in middle-distance are certainly not high, the chances for multiple medals look better than they have in many years. 

    Nick Symmonds and Matthew Centrowitz are both legitimate contenders to end an Olympics middle-distance drought that stretches back 20 years. 

    There is also exciting young talent in the pipeline that was highlighted by Robby Andrews' spectacular patented kick, upstaging the fearless Charles Jock in a blistering NCAA final. 

    I'd also be remiss not to mention the prodigious Andrew Wheating, who has broken 3:31 in the 1500 and possesses all of the tools to be a medal contender if he could just stay healthy.

    He also has to learn how to run in the front despite his huge stride and frame, a problem that bothers even multi-time gold medalists like Asbel Kiprop.

    Leo Manzano also has shown flashes of ability to finish in the top three of World Championship-type fields.

    The diminutive Manzano must prove that he has the guile to hang in crowded packs and maintain his finish. His shiftiness and personal best (3:32.37) will never be doubted.

    There are also many more athletes who are on the cusp of Olympic-caliber times like 3:34 and 1:44.

    Matt Centrowitz showed last year that with the right racing makeup and instincts, that could be enough to make the move from an afterthought to the podium.

    ______________________________________________________________________________

    Thanks for reading Part 2! For Part 3, I plan to tackle the 110- and 400-meter hurdles as well as the decathlon. Truly some of the U.S.'s best Olympic gold hopes, with a great cast of character from which it will hard to pick just one athlete in each event.

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