Track & Field World Championships Preview: 25 Team USA Athletes to Watch

Amaar Abdul-Nasir@amaarabdulnasirAnalyst IIAugust 26, 2011

Track & Field World Championships Preview: 25 Team USA Athletes to Watch

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    Track and field is inherently unpredictable. That is the norm in a sport where the difference between a gold medal and eighth place can be half a second or half a foot.

    Two months ago, I wrote a column listing 12 Team USA athletes to watch before the World Championships. Those were essentially a dozen of my picks to make the WC roster and have a good chance to medal in Daegu, South Korea, from Aug. 27 to Sept. 4.

    Today, three of those original 12 aren't even going to the World Championships. And of the 25 athletes listed in this column, 11 weren't on Team USA during the last WC meet two years ago.

    For athletes in the U.S. and worldwide, everything they've done this year is aimed at Daegu. Every time a star skips a meet, every strategy used to combat an injury, every time and distance recorded, it's part of each individual's plan to pace themselves to turn in a peak performance at the World Championships.

    Without a WC medal to show for it, an undefeated outdoor season or world No. 1 ranking can be deemed meaningless. This is one of the two track meets (including the Olympics) at which legacies are made.

    Now that we know who's competing, here are 25 Team USA  athletes to watch at the World Championships:

    * 25 International Athletes to Watch

Ashton Eaton (Decathlon)

1 of 25

    College: Oregon

    2009 World Championships: 18th place

    Ready or not, Eaton has been given the World Championships as his stage to become a superstar. Nike is making Eaton the face of its track/running apparel, and nowhere this year will he have more eyes on him than in Daegu.

    But why put so much faith and financial support behind a 23-year-old who has never competed in the Olympics and who finished 18th in his only WC decathlon?

    Because Eaton has proven that he's prepared for the spotlight.

    His weakest events have always been the throws, but in 2011, Eaton hit career-best marks in the outdoor shot put and javelin, as well as a PR in the indoor shot put.

    He broke his own world-record score in the indoor heptathlon (6,568), and set a personal best in the outdoor decathlon (8,729) while destroying the field at the USA championships.

Allyson Felix (200 Meters, 400 Meters)

2 of 25

    College: USC

    2009 World Championships: 200m gold medal, 4x400m relay gold medal

    It looks like one way or another, Felix is going to make history in Daegu.

    If she goes for the 200/400 double—the question that's been following her like a shadow since last year—she could become the first woman to win gold medals in both events at the same World Championships.

    If she decides to skip the 400 (her "other" event), Felix could still become the first woman to win four straight WC gold medals in the 200.

    Felix's road to glory will be tougher in the 400, where she'll be challenged by defending WC gold medalist Sanya Richards-Ross (USA) and world No. 1-ranked Amantle Montsho (Botswana). In the 200, Felix has the experience and psychological edge over the field, not to mention the world's No. 2 ranking.

Bernard Lagat (5000 Meters)

3 of 25

    College: Washington State

    2009 World Championships: 1500m silver medal, 5000m bronze medal

    Lagat is still setting records at 36 years old. Earlier this summer, for example, he broke the American record in the 5000 meters with a 12:53.60 clocking.

    Because of his age, that means Lagat is also putting his name in the record books for 35-and-up Masters track and field—which would be like a golfer from the Senior Tour competing with the PGA regulars and consistently winning tournaments.

    In his last two World Championship appearances, Lagat pulled double-duty in the 1500 and 5000. He could have done the same in Daegu, but relinquished his spot on the U.S. 1500 team in order to put all of his efforts into the 5000. 

    Now that he's focusing on just one event, can be finally break the 12:50 barrier he's been eyeing?

Brittney Reese (Long Jump)

4 of 25

    College: Ole Miss

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Reese isn't going to win any awards for technical brilliance, and may not be the athlete that youth long-jump coaches tell their kids to watch. Her form isn't textbook. She just manages to jump farther than everyone else almost every time out.

    The defending WC gold medalist and 2010 World Indoor Championship gold medalist is again ranked No. 1 on the planet, and set a personal-best mark when she jumped 7.19 meters at the USA Championships in June.

Christian Cantwell (Shot Put)

5 of 25

    College: Missouri

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Cantwell is traditionally at his best on U.S. soil. Since 2000, eight of his 12 season-best throws have happened in his home country, including this year's 21.87-meter mark he set at the USA Championships on his way to a second-place finish.

    So if he can find some way to trick himself into believing Daegu is Denver, he'll be fine.

    Seriously, though, the defending world champion has consistently finished in the top three in major meets this season and is ranked No. 2 in the world. No matter the venue, Cantwell is on the radar of every shot-put contender.

David Oliver (110-Meter Hurdles)

6 of 25

    College: Howard

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    When you go undefeated for an entire year, the bar of expectation is set impossibly high for the following campaign (unless you're Edwin Moses).

    So that's why the book on Oliver says 2011 has been a letdown for him, even though he's still ranked No. 1 in the world and No. 1 in the Diamond League standings in his event.

    The "problem" is that Oliver has lost a few races this time around—once to rival Liu Xiang (China) in Shanghai, a couple times to Dayron Robles (Cuba), and once to USA teammate Jason Richardson.

    Oliver goes into the World Championships as the slight favorite to win gold, and considering how untouchable he was last year, that's a significant downgrade from being an overwhelming favorite.

Carmelita Jeter (100 Meters, 200 Meters)

7 of 25

    College: Cal State-Dominguez Hills

    2009 World Championships: 100m bronze medal

    It could be argued that nobody is running better right now than Carmelita Jeter.

    She has been a juggernaut in the 100, posting the fastest time in the world this year (10.70 seconds) and going undefeated on the Diamond League circuit since mid-May. In the 200, Jeter has the second-fastest time in the world (22.20) and three of the top five postings.

    And it's not just that she's winning, but she's winning decisively. From the best the U.S. has to the offer to the recently dominant contingent from Jamaica, just about all of them have been humbled by Jeter at least once this season.

Dwight Phillips (Long Jump)

8 of 25

    College: Arizona State

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Either this is the year Phillips officially gets pushed out of the class photo of the world's elite long jumpers, or he's plotting a seize-the-moment comeback at the World Championships to rival that of George Foreman during the second phase of his career.

    It's tough to predict, because Phillips been a ghost this season. He finished fourth at a Diamond League meet in Shanghai in mid-May, placed sixth at a meet in the Netherlands a couple weeks later, then he went underground for a full month before resurfacing at the USA Championships. '

    Phillips placed 10th at that meet, although he didn't have to compete thanks to a WC automatic pass. His limited body of work and sub-standard distances this year (season-best 8.07 meters) have Phillips ranked 22nd in the world.

    So what does he have left for Daegu? At 33 years old, Phillips isn't too old to win his fifth WC medal (three gold, one bronze). But it also wouldn't be a big surprise if he goes out with a whimper.

Jenn Suhr (Pole Vault)

9 of 25

    College: Roberts Wesleyan

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    You might already know her as Jenn Stuczynski, the '08 Olympic silver medallist with two handfuls of indoor and outdoor USA championships and American records in the indoor and outdoor pole vault.

    Now married and going by Jenn Suhr, she is going for her first World Championship medal. She has the two best pole-vault clearances in the world this year at 4.91 meters and 4.79 meters, which she accomplished during a 10-day span between late July and early August.

Galen Rupp (5000 Meters, 10000 Meters)

10 of 25

    College: Oregon

    2009 World Championships: 10000m eighth place

    Rupp is one of those athletes who seemed like he was in college forever (think David Lighty at Ohio State).

    And while he still looks like he's in high school with the baby face and skinny build, he's a grown man at 25 and ready to take on one of the most grueling schedules of any Team USA member at the World Championships.

    Rupp is ranked higher internationally in the 5000 meters (12th) than he is in the 10000 meters (24th), and he posted a career-best time of 13:06.86 in the 5000 last month. But he is coming off a first-place finish in the longer race at the USA Championships vs. a third-place finish in the shorter run.

Kellie Wells (100-Meter Hurdles)

11 of 25

    College: Hampton

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    Because they haven't seen her yet on an Olympic or World Championship team, and because she looks younger than her 29 years, casual track observers may mistakenly think that Wells is a newcomer to the international elite scene.

    Not quite.

    Wells has been through the ups and downs, which for her included a torn hamstring at the '08 Olympic Trials, but didn't break through to the top level until this year. She won the 100-meter hurdles crown at the USA Outdoor Championships and the 60-meter hurdles title at the USA Indoor Championships.

    She goes into her first WC meet ranked No. 3 internationally and with three of the top 10 times in the world to her name.

Jeshua Anderson (400-Meter Hurdles)

12 of 25

    College: Washington State

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    I know track stars don't always make good football players. But WSU has been a Pac-10/12 doormat for the past few years, and considering that Anderson voluntarily left the team after his sophomore year to focus on his track career, you have to wonder if the former wide receiver could have at least helped the Cougars get out of the conference basement.

    On the track, Anderson doesn't seem to know how to lose. He won his third NCAA title this year, which he parlayed into a USA title and status as one of the favorites to medal at the World Championships.

    His path to the podium will be tougher with defending gold medalist Kerron Clement added to the field—Clement didn't have to run at the USA Championships—but Anderson is on a roll.

    The 22-year-old Anderson's title-winning time of 47.93 seconds was the fifth-best on the planet this year and the fastest of anybody outside of South African star L.J. Van Zyl.

Lashinda Demus (400-Meter Hurdles)

13 of 25

    College: South Carolina

    2009 World Championships: 400m hurdles silver medal, 4x400m relay gold medal

    Similar to reigning men's long jump World champion Dwight Phillips, Demus has been mostly M.I.A. on the summer circuit. But when she does show up, she shows the same dominant form that has pushed her to four USA championships.

    Demus ran a season-best 53.31 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles at the Prefontaine Classic in early June, and came back to the Oregon track later that month to claim her fourth national title by a decisive margin in 54.21 seconds.

    Demus' No. 4 world ranking is more due to inactivity than how she's run this year. Going into the WC, she represents the toughest competition for Jamaican favorite Kaliese Spencer.

Jesse Williams (High Jump)

14 of 25

    College: USC

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    For three of the last four years, Williams has been the USA high jump champion. The one year he didn't win the title just happened to be in '09, when he finished fourth and failed to qualify for the World Championships.

    Given another opportunity this year to make the WC roster, Williams didn't let it slip away. He popped off a career-best jump of 2.37 meters (7 feet, 9.25 inches) to take the American crown—also the world's best outdoor high jump mark this season—before fixing his sights on a World Championship medal.

Justin Gatlin (100 Meters)

15 of 25

    College: Tennessee

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    Just when it seemed Gatlin had enough obstacles to overcome to complete his comeback story, now he'll be running at the WC with frostbite on both feet. Gatlin came down with the condition a couple weeks ago when he wore wet socks during a cryogenic chamber cooling session.

    Six years ago, Gatlin was the top sprinter in the world—2004 Olympic gold medallist in the 100 and bronze medalist in the 200, and '05 World Championship gold medalist in the 100 and 200.

    But a four-year drug suspension ('06-10) took him off the track map, and his return wasn't really expected to result in anything significant on the world stage.

    All Gatlin has done since coming back, however, is slice his 100-meter times below the 10-second barrier and his 200-meter times below the 20.50-second range. He could have won the 100 at the USA Championships had he not started celebrating early.

    Gatlin should also have a spot on Team USA's 4x100-meter squad in Daegu. Double national champion Walter Dix excels on the curve (first or third position in the relay), and Tyson Gay is out of action, so Gatlin may even find himself anchoring the relay unit.

Morgan Uceny (1500 Meters)

16 of 25

    College: Cornell

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    Uceny's come-from-way-behind win at the USA Championships was maybe the most memorable moment of that meet.

    After regular runner-up Christin Wurth-Thomas went HAM from the starter's gun and looked like she was on her way to a Secretariat-style blowout win, Uceny calmly tracked her down and cruised past her during the last 200 meters to win her first national title and punch her ticket to the World Championships.

LaShawn Merritt (400 Meters)

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    College: East Carolina

    2009 World Championships: 400m gold medal, 4x400m relay gold medal

    Merritt was cruising toward a legacy as one of the greatest 400-meter runners of all-time before he tested positive for a banned substance last year and was slapped with a suspension.

    He was allowed to return to international competition in July—finishing second in the 400 at the Diamond League meet in Stockholm—and will run at the World Championships thanks to his automatic entry as defending champion. Merritt is still ineligible for the London Olympics, a decision he's currently appealing.

    Merritt looked solid in his only major meet appearance, clocking 44.74 seconds for the sixth-fastest time in the world this year.

    But then again, everybody was running well that day: four of 400-meter finalists posted their season-best time in Stockholm. How will Merritt respond to stiff competition at the WC when he isn't as battle-tested as the rest?

Sanya Richards-Ross (400 Meters)

18 of 25

    College: Texas

    2009 World Championships: 400m gold medal, 4x400m relay gold medal

    Every now and then, an aging or slumping superstar has to turn in a clutch performance just to remind everybody why he or she is still the ruler of the roost. The truly great ones have a knack for doing this on the biggest stages.

    Richards-Ross needed one of those superstar-certification moments this summer, and she made it happen in the final Diamond League meet before the World Championships.

    When she won the 400-meter dash in 49.66 seconds, she bumped her name up to No. 2 in the world ranking and back in the discussion of WC medal favorites.

    After taking most of 2010 off, Richards-Ross struggled for most of this season. She was routinely losing at major meets, and at the USA Championships finished seventh in the 200. (Her WC automatic pass allowed Richards-Ross to skip the 400.)

    With so much attention being paid to Allyson Felix, the defending World gold medalist Richards-Ross waited until the DL meet in London on Aug. 6 to sound a loud alarm that she's still the woman to beat at the World Championships.

Nick Symmonds (800 Meters)

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    College: Willamette

    2009 World Championships: Sixth place

    Symmonds put it best in the latest issue of Track & Field News magazine: "On the U.S. level, I'm the favorite and that scares me a little bit, but on the world level—where I'm an underdog—I really like the prospect of maybe a tactical 800 shaping up and me sneaking in there for a medal."

    Since an American hasn't won an Olympic medal in the 800 since '92 or a WC medal since '97, "sneaking in there" is precisely what Symmonds would appear to have done should he reach the podium at the Worlds.

    The four-time USA champion, Symmonds also said he's following the same training program this year as '09 WC silver medallist Alfred Kirwa Yego of Kenya—more strength work, less speed work. It has paid off in the form of a No. 5 world ranking going into Daegu.

Shalane Flanagan (10000 Meters)

20 of 25

    College: North Carolina

    2009 World Championships: 14th place

    Given the apparently across-the-board dominance of African, European and Asian runners in events like the 10000 meters, some consider it a success if an American gets anywhere near the top 10 in a distance race.

    But Shalane Flanagan is supposed to be better than that. The world's third-ranked 10000-meter runner in '08 (when she won an Olympic bronze), Flanagan is looking to improve on a disappointing 14th-place finish at the '09 WC.

    She took the USA Championships crown in 30:59.97, the sixth-fastest time in U.S. history. Her season-best time of 30:39.57 back in May was the second-fastest in the world this year, and Flanagan is the only runner to have two times posted among the world's top 20.

Tony McQuay (400 Meters)

21 of 25

    College: Florida

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    If you haven't noticed, Florida is a track beast right now. Three current Gators (Christian Taylor, Will Claye, Tony McQuay) made it onto Team USA for the World Championships, and sprinter/tailback Jeff Demps finished one spot and 0.01 seconds shy of making the 100-meter cut.

    McQuay has the best chance of anybody in the UF contingent to return to campus with a gold medal. His winning time (44.68 seconds) at the USA Championships is the third-best 400 in the world this year.

    More importantly, the 400-meter field is wide open. The three medal winners from the '09 WC are in various states of vulnerability: LaShawn Merritt (USA) may be rusty coming off a suspension, Jeremy Wariner (USA) is out with an injury, and Renny Quow (Trinidad & Tobago) has struggled all year to run world-class times.

    That leaves a void for rising youngsters like McQuay to fill.

Trey Hardee (Decathlon)

22 of 25

    College: Texas

    2009 World Championships: Gold medal

    Every decathlete has (at least) one event that's a potential disaster.

    For Hardee, it was looking like his Achilles heel would be the pole vault, after he failed to clear a height in the '08 Olympics and cost himself a medal.

    But he redeemed himself a year later at the WC, when he cleared 5.20 meters—about two inches shy of his personal best—on his way to winning the decathlon gold medal.

    Hardee set PR's in three events at those World Championships while recording a career-high score for the entire decathlon. Since then he's set four other PR's in decathlon events.

Shalonda Solomon (200 Meters)

23 of 25

    College: South Carolina

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    Solomon was a high school phenom who racked up five gold medals at the World Junior Championships and Pan American Junior Championships, but she hasn't quite lived up to her potential since.

    But at 25 years old, she's far from finished, and 2011 is shaping up as her professional breakout campaign. Solomon is ranked No. 3 in the world in the 200, the event she won at the USA Championships with a season-best time of 22.15 seconds.

Walter Dix (100 Meters, 200 Meters)

24 of 25

    College: Florida State

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    Following a decorated college career in which he collected eight national championships and 18 All-American nods, Dix has consistently been one of the top pro sprinters in the world, but just outside the mainstream spotlight as a true star. He can change that over the course of the next week.

    With national standard-bearer Tyson Gay failing to qualify at the USA Championships (and later shutting himself down for the season) due to a a hip injury, Dix capitalized by winning the 100 and 200, and joins Asafa Powell as the most realistic threats to dethrone Usain Bolt.

    Dix is ranked No. 1 in the world this year in the 200 (his best event), with a top time of 20.02 seconds and an undefeated record in Diamond League meets. His odds are longer in the 100, where he ranks 18th globally with a season-best time of 9.94 seconds.

Will Claye (Long Jump, Triple Jump)

25 of 25

    College: Florida

    2009 World Championships: Did not compete

    In the history of the World Championships, no man has ever medaled in the long jump and triple jump in the same year. The only woman to do it was Russia's Tatyana Lebedeva, who won gold in the LJ and silver in the TJ in '07.

    Claye, a rising senior at Florida, has a chance to make history in Daegu after he finished second in both events at the USA Championships.

    The odds are stacked against Claye—his season-best distance of 17.35 meters in the triple jump is 13th-best in the world, while his 8.29m long jump is 12th-best—but he at least has a shot making the medal podium twice in one meet, which is a rarity in itself for a jumper.