USA Track & Field Championships: 10 Things You Need to Know Before the Event

Amaar Abdul-Nasir@amaarabdulnasirAnalyst IIJune 23, 2011

USA Track & Field Championships: 10 Things You Need to Know Before the Event

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    If you’re like me, you’ve spent the spring and summer months watching every track meet you can find on TV—from the Big 12 Championships in Oklahoma to the Diamond League events in Oslo, Norway—getting psyched for the upcoming World Championships.

    If you’re more like a sane person, you may have watched the last World Championships in 2009, and you may watch in 2011, but you haven’t really been paying attention to track and field since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and probably won’t catch up again until the 2012 London Olympics.

    But just in case you do find yourself watching ESPN2, Universal and/or NBC this weekend and settle on the USA Track & Field Championships, here is a mini viewer's guide for the festivities at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore.—the 10 things you should know going into 2011's biggest track meet on American soil.

This Is Worth More Than Medals

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    This year's USA Championships double as the qualifying event for the World Championships, which open August 27 in Daegu, South Korea. And the World Championships are just like the Olympics, only without all the swimming, gymnastics and "boxing" getting in the way.

    Also, the USA Championships are the finale of the Visa Championship Series. For the top male and female finisher—as of today, 110-meter hurdler David Oliver and 100-meter sprinter Carmelita Jeter—there's a $25,000 bonus.

Team USA Is No Longer the World's Sprint Powerhouse

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    In case you missed it, Jamaica owns the crown now.

    Usain Bolt is the reigning Olympic and World Champion and world-record holder in the men’s 100 and 200 meters; Shelly-Ann Fraser-Price is the reigning Olympic and World Champion in the women’s 100; Veronica Campbell-Brown won the women’s 200 gold at the Beijing Olympics; Brigitte Foster-Hylton is the women’s 100-meter hurdles World Champion; and Melaine Walker is the reigning Olympic and World Champion in the women’s 400-meter hurdles. Then there’s Asafa Powell, Kerron Stewart, Steve Mullings, Aleen Bailey, Nesta Carter, Sherone Simpson ... plus the Jamaican men and women are the teams to beat in the 4x100 relays.

    In other words, gone are the days when the USA Championship winners are automatically penciled in for international gold.

Allyson Felix Is Making History

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    No woman has ever won World Championship gold in the 200 and 400 in the same year. And no woman has ever won four career World Championships in the 200. Allyson Felix can accomplish both feats this summer, and her performance this weekend will play a significant role.

    As the three-time defending champ in the 200, Felix gets a free pass to the WC, meaning she won't have to run the 200 in Eugene. She'll turn her attention to the 400, and determine whether it's feasible to run a full 200-400 schedule in one meet before making a decision on Daegu. So even if Felix wins the U.S. title in the 400—the event in which she's ranked No. 2 in the world—she could pass on the opportunity and focus on the four-peat.

Sanya Richards-Ross Is Still Finding Her Stride

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    Once upon a time, Richards-Ross was the best female long-sprinter in the world, the standard by which the Allyson Felixes of the sport were judged. But that was a whole two years ago.

    After dominating the field in 2009—winning World Championships in the 400 and 4x400 relay, plus a share of the $1 million Golden League jackpot—the three-time Olympic medalist took most of 2010 off. Now she's struggling to regain her dominant form.

    Richards-Ross is ranked 13th in the world in the 400, she hasn't finished higher than third in a meet this season, and while she gets an automatic trip to the World Championships in the 400, she's hardly a lock to qualify for Team USA in the 200, her second event. Her season-best times of 22.88 seconds in the 200 and 50.98 in the 400 are significantly slower than her usual standard. Can Richards-Ross pull it together this weekend and build some positive momentum?

The Decathlon Is Back

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    Almost 20 years after "Dan vs. Dave," the decathlon is almost back in the spotlight.

    From the 1930s to the '60s, there was a good three-decade stretch where the U.S. dominated the competition, but lately the gold medals have been spread out and no superstars have emerged.

    That could change in 2011.

    Trey Hardee, the defending World Champion, already has a secure spot in Daegu. That leaves three WC spots open for a strong group of U.S. decathletes: 2008 Olympic champ Bryan Clay is still near the top of his game at 31 years old; Jake Arnold is becoming a popular darkhorse pick; Duke freshman phenom Curtis Beach came into college getting more hype than some Blue Devils basketball players, and delivered with a second-place finish at the NCAA Championships in his first go-around; Cal-Berkley junior Michael Morrison was the man who beat Beach; and 23-year-old Ashton Eaton, a three-time NCAA champ and world-record holder in the indoor heptathlon, is more talented than all of them.

    Whether it's one of the contenders in Eugene or Hardee in South Korea, a star may be born this summer.

The Women's 100-Meter Hurdles Is Completely Unpredictable

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    In a sport where the difference between winning and losing can be measured in fractions of inches and tenths of seconds, domination is impressive—e.g., Usain Bolt or NASCAR's Jimmie Johnson—but not always intriguing.

    Meanwhile, complete parity has turned the women's 100-meter hurdles into a must-see race on the pro level.

    Lolo Jones is the event's biggest celebrity. But from a competitive standpoint, Lolo hasn't been able to put any distance between herself and U.S. rivals Dawn Harper (2008 Olympic champ), Kellie Wells, Danielle Carruthers, Nia Ali and Ginnie Crawford, not to mention international contenders like Canada's Priscilla Lopes-Schliep and Perdita Felicien, Jamaica's Brigitte Foster-Hylton, and Australia's Sally Pearson.

    Line up those 10 hurdlers and run them for 10 races, and you could easily get 10 different winners.

America Needs a New 400-Meter King

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    The men's 400 pool isn't quite as deep as the women's 100 hurdles, but it's getting there.

    The reigning Olympic and World Champion, LaShawn Merritt, is out on a performance-enhancing drug suspension. That leaves an opportunity for somebody to step into the leading role, with Jeremy Wariner, David Neville and Calvin Smith as the prime candidates.

    Wariner is the front-runner, the one you might actually recognize even if you're not a track fan. He's had more success than any quarter-miler in the world over the last decade, though he is starting to decline a bit as an "old" 27-year-old. He might also be Cyclops from X-Men; I'm not sure I've ever seen Wariner's eyes behind those ever-present shades.

Justin Gatlin Is Back ... and Relevant

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    At the top tier of track and field, a four-year suspension is almost a career death sentence. But after serving his time from 2006-10 for positive PED tests, Gatlin is back and refusing to fade into oblivion.

    The 2004 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist and '05 World Champion in the 100 and 200, Gatlin will run both sprints this weekend and has a legit shot at making the U.S. team for Daegu. His season-best times of 9.97 in the 100 and 20.20 in the 200 put him right in the mix.

There's a Rivalry Brewing in the Pit

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    Every sport is better with rivalries, and track is no different. At the USA Championships, a one-on-one matchup you'll want to follow is the one between long jumpers Brittney Reese and Funmi Jimoh.

    Reese, 24, finished the last two years as the top-ranked jumper in the world, winning gold at the 2009 World Championships and 2010 World Indoor Championships. Her career-best jump of 7.06 meters (23'2"') ranks third all-time nationally, behind Marion Jones and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

    Jimoh, 27, has a bad habit of coming up short in major competitions, but 2011 has so far been a career year. Jimoh is ranked No. 4 in the world this season and No. 1 in the Diamond League standings, and appears on pace to challenge her personal best jump of 6.96 meters (22'10").

    Nothing against 2010 USA Championship medalists Chaunte Lowe and Briana Glenn, or reigning NCAA champ Tori Bowie, but this should be a two-woman competition between Reese and Jimoh.

American Distance Runners Are Catching Up

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    It's a big-time meet at Hayward Field, which means something memorable will happen during the distance races. It's like going to Madison Square Garden for the Big East Tournament and knowing you're in store for some great basketball; the setting alone breeds drama.

    In the men's 800, Nick Symmonds and Khadevis Robinson headline a pack of nine U.S. runners who have already cracked the World Championships "A" Standard this season (1:45.40). Oregon alum Galen Rupp returns home to defend his 10,000-meter U.S. championship and compete for a 5,000-meter title. Andrew Wheating, another Oregon product, is one of the favorites in the 1,500 along with breakout star Russell Brown, defending U.S. champ Lopez Lomong and ageless wonder Bernard Lagat, who reportedly beat Pheidippides in a half-marathon back in high school. Lagat will also be defending his 5,000-meter U.S. crown in Eugene.

    On the women's side, defending champs Alysia Robinson (800), Anna Pierce (1,500) and Lauren Fleshman (5,000) are among the runners to watch. 

    But whatever happens this weekend, will Team USA make a dent on an international scene still dominated by African and European countries? Don't be surprised if they do. Americans earned 13 top-10 spots at the last World Championships, and the U.S. distance program has only improved since then.