Predicting The Next Wave of Olympians from The NCAA Championships
Chris Chavez and I discussed the NCAA track and field championships on last week’s CITIUS MAG podcast. One topic we covered was that the meet included many of the next wave of U.S. Olympic stars, even though we may not exactly know who those people are yet.
Chris challenged me to predict who from last weekend’s meet will be representing the USA at the 2020 Olympics. Here’s my stab at it.
THE OBVIOUS CHOICES
There are a few athletes who are almost assuredly going to make the 2020 Olympic team if they show up to the next Trials at roughly the same competitive level they’re at right now.
Exhibit A is Michael Norman. His time at the NCAA Championships makes him the fastest American in the last ten years. Most male quarter-milers peak between ages 19 and 23, and Norman will be 22 at the 2020 Trials. As long as he avoids the injury problems that slowed him last year, he should be a lock.
Another obvious choice is Sydney McLaughlin. She is the current world leader in the 400 hurdles and would be a strong favorite against anyone, anywhere right now. This comes with a caveat, though; the USA has a glut of talent in the 400 hurdles right now, with six women having run between 52.64 and 53.14 from 2016 to present. Getting back on the Olympic team she made in 2016 is not a slam-dunk.
Even more obvious a choice, but not getting the attention she deserves, is Keturah Orji. She is not just the best female American triple jumper right now, she’s the best ever. She was fourth at the last Olympics, the best any American woman has ever finished. Her worst day is still good enough to make the US team.
If you’re wondering why I’ve gone this long to mention Rai Benjamin, whose 47.02 over 400 hurdles is the second-best in history, it’s because there are issues with eligibility. He wishes to compete for the USA but his current national affiliation is Antigua and Barbuda and changing that is getting complicated. Whether he’s on the 2020 U.S. Olympic team is more about paperwork than running.
A few others are about at Olympic-team level at the moment too. Grant Holloway finished fourth in the 110 hurdles at last year’s US Championships as a college freshman and has improved from there to within spitting distance of 13.00. That’s always good enough to make the team.
Another is Lynna Irby. She is the fourth-fastest American at 400 meters from 2016 to present, and one of them—Allyson Felix—will be hard pressed to stay in front of her in two years. As with the 400 hurdles, there is a good bit of depth to the women’s 400 in the USA, but both Irby and Kendall Ellis stand very good chances to make the Olympic team given the extra spots for the relay.
The pole vault is a notoriously unpredictable event, but Chris Nilsen is clearly the second-best pole vaulter in the USA right now. If he brings his A-game to the Trials, it’s hard to see him not making the team.
To sum up:
THE NOT-SO-OBVIOUS CHOICES
If you looked for something all US Olympians have in common, it’s not that they were great college stars. Some were, some were not. The thing they have in common is making consistent improvement over several years since leaving college. For every Olympian like Galen Rupp, a record-setter and multi-time NCAA champion, there is an Olympian like Desi Linden, a runner who was essentially unknown on the national level until six years after college.
So who are the current NCAA athletes whose upward trends or latent talent are enough to make the 2020 Olympic team?
Eli Hall was on the cusp of becoming a sub-20.00 sprinter this spring before something slowed him down, presumably injury. He was on the US team for last year’s Worlds before withdrawing due to injury, and injuries cut short his 2017 indoor season too. As long as he can stay healthy, in my mind he has the most upside of any of the American sprinters in the NCAA this year.
Aleia Hobbs is the other American sprinter who I think has the talent to make the Olympic team, provided she is able to take her performance level up a notch. LSU’s 100 meter champion has run some fast times but the competition is strong and she was a well-beaten seventh at last year’s USATF Championships.
Zach Bazile, the long jump champion for Ohio State, seemingly came out of nowhere to win the NCAAs with an 8.37 meter (27′ 3″) mark. He’s slowly but consistently improved to get to that level, but you need a little more than “just” a 27-foot jump to make a US team. Five men jumped over 27 feet (8.23m) at last year’s USATF Championships, and seven did it at the 2016 Olympic Trials.
He didn’t show it at the NCAA championships, but Oklahoma high jumper Vernon Turner can already jump high enough to make an Olympic team. He’s just a freshman and his PR is 2.33 meters (7′ 7¾”). He will have to become more consistent, but that generally comes with maturity.
A pair of this year’s collegians earned spots on the 2016 Olympic team but suffered a dip in performance since then. Rudy Winkler won the hammer at the 2016 Olympic Trials while competing for Cornell, but he ran out of Ivy League eligibility this year and took a graduate transfer to Rutgers and has not thrown as far. I’ll call him a question mark, especially since it’s tough for any American man to make it to the Olympic hammer throw competition.
The other 2016 Olympian who most certainly did not look like an Olympian last weekend was Ariana Washington. She earned 4×100 relay spots for both the 2016 Olympics and 2017 Worlds. Between this year’s NCAA indoor and outdoor championships, she ran one individual final: last in the 100 meters. We haven’t the foggiest idea what happened because Bill Belechik is loose-lipped in comparison to the Oregon coaching staff. The competition is so tough these days that I don’t think she’s going to be able to make another team.
It’s in the distance events and throwing events where you really need a crystal ball to see who will be the next crop of Olympians.
Success in the middle distances requires not just talent but racing skill, and no American collegians this year stood out in that regard like Clayton Murphy or Matthew Centrowitz did in the recent past. A man with remarkable talent is Texas A&M half-miler Devin Dixon. He closed the gap on Michael Norman over the first half of his 4×400 anchor leg at the NCAAs. I repeat, he closed the gap on Michael Norman. He has a lot of upside.
One distance runner who I think has the right combination of strength and speed is Stanford’s Sean McGorty. He was a surprise winner of the 5000 only because he missed all of 2017 with Achilles problems. He’s a 3:53 miler who also finished 7th in the NCAA cross country championships.
Can Karissa Schweizer improve enough in two years to make the Olympic team in either the 5000 or 10,000? The transition to pro running isn’t always easy so that’s an open question. The fact that she’s unlikely to have to battle established stars such as Shannon Rowbury, Molly Huddle, and Shalane Flanagan makes her road to the Olympics a bit easier but it’s still a very difficult team to make. I’m going to go out on a limb and say yes.
If there’s a current collegiate athlete who I think has “Olympic marathoner” written all over her it’s Allie Ostrander, but I don’t think that’s going to happen until 2024–especially since she will still have collegiate eligibility in 2020. She’s good in cross country, she’s good in the steeplechase (an event that often predicts the ability to take 26 miles of pounding on pavement), she has twice run a NCAA championships one-day distance double, and she appears to love running for its own sake, all of which says to me that she has what it takes to be a top marathoner.
What about throwers? Maggie Ewen could make the Olympic team in either the shot put or the hammer throw, but she’ll have to pick one. I think she could do it in the shot more easily than the hammer, and that’s because the women’shammer is such a rapidly improving event in the USA. Two different women have broken the American Record within the last two weeks, and NCAA champion Janeah Stewart is on such a rapid improvement curve that she could break it by 2020 too – she’s now #6 on the all-time US list in just her second season of throwing the hammer.