29 Reactions From USAs

By Kyle Merber

July 12, 2023

It would not be a trip to Eugene without flight delays, so predictably, I am coming to you late Monday evening from a plane that the airline finally located at the eleventh hour. My voice is gone, but my heart is full as another exciting US Championship has concluded. Every time you get the entire track and field community together in the same six-block radius there is going to be more excitement and drama than can realistically be packed into your standard issue Wednesday newsletter. But alas, I’m going to try to unpack the top moments and takeaways anyway, now that we (mostly) know who is heading to Budapest…

Group Run - USATF Outdoor ChampionshipsGroup Run - USATF Outdoor Championships

Johnny Zhang/@jzsnapz

Sha’Carri is THE show – It seems like with each passing day the once long list of Sha’Carri Richardson doubters grows shorter. Three months since opening her season with a 10.57 (+4.1), the fire is still burning hot! Her opening round of 10.71 (+0.1) was the world lead until Shericka Jackson answered back at the Jamaican national championships. Performing in all six races is one thing, and Sha’Carri did that. But it’s leading an off-track meeting of disgruntled athletes, the wig removal, having Lewis Johnson chase her around the stadium for comments, and the refusal to speak with the traditional track press that left everyone wanting to know what she’ll do next. And I count myself in that “everyone!” (She did stop to talk with Tee, however.)

What happened to Grant? – Most people probably didn’t have the American record holder being left off the podium on their bingo cards. Even if you could revise your bets with a few laps to go, you’d still feel good about that wager. Grant Fisher looked to be employing his patented tightening of the screws over the final mile of the 10,000m – it just wasn’t enough. In the aftermath, there was plenty of head-scratching. But the 5000m DNS, due to the pain of a stress-related femur injury, gave us all a collective moment of “oh, that makes sense.” It’s amazing how quickly things change from one year to the next, yet for the world’s best, the pendulum tends to swing in both directions. Just look at Elise.

Welcome back! – When Elise Cranny ran 30:14 to narrowly miss breaking the then 10,000m record in the March of 2022, it seemed like the sky was the limit. But two months later Cranny would hit the reset button on the season as she combatted the symptoms of fatigue associated with RED-S. Look no further than the results of every prediction contest and it was quite evident that this spring’s campaign was not enough to convince fans that she was fully back. With a 4:30 final 1600m and the opening of a five-second gap on Alicia Monson in the final lap of the 10,000m, Cranny showed why we run the races rather than leaving it to the polls.

The most boring prelims – It has to be a toss-up between the 400m hurdles and the steeplechase for the most snooze-inducing first round. You’d expect the whole jumping thing to create some zest! Instead, there was such crazy separation between the best and the rest that the rounds felt like a formality. I don’t have any major suggestions. It just feels like something that needs to be said and since I know you agree I wanted to be the brave one to say it.

When do new rules trickle down? – World Athletics recently changed the rules around qualifying in distance events to a strict big Q system. But that wasn’t reflected at USAs. So we still had little Qs, and as expected, all three time qualifiers in both prelims of the 1500 came from the same heat, once again exposing the flawed system that it is. Reinforcing why this rule is being passed in the first place, none of the time qualifiers performed particularly well in the final. The other update that’s coming – but unfortunately is not yet in place – is filling empty lanes, which would have been nice in the 110H since an injured Devon Allen did not contest the semi-final and the defending world champion Grant Holloway bypassed the finals.

Raising the bar, again – After a sixth straight outdoor high jump title, it seems like Vashti Cunningham’s consistency and dominance are not being properly appreciated. If you haven’t been keeping a tally, that’s now 13 national titles all-in, including indoors. The 25-year-old has made 1.91m look effortless for years, but to get back on the podium at Worlds then it’s going to take 2 meters and some wings. But just as importantly, when is she turning the athlete walk-ins into her runway?

Track needs more babies – After winning the triple jump, Donald Scott brought his daughter out for a victory lap and post-race interview. And Clayton Murphy held his son Cash in his arms through the mixed zone as he spoke to media. Marisa Howard finished 5th in the steeplechase just 13 months after giving birth. Hot take: I believe the children are our future.

The 100m is a Disney movie – Before talking with Cravont Charleston I expected his reaction to winning the 100m title would be a bit more incredulous. This is a guy who never made an NCAA or US final, and now one year after the United States swept the podium at Worlds, he is the national champion. The difference between Cravont and most of us is that he never doubted this outcome. It wasn’t a surprise for him – he felt like it was something that he always knew he was capable of doing. You’d be hard-pressed to find many people outside of his immediate circle who would have felt similarly up until a few days ago. Whatever mental gymnastics Cravont had to do to convince himself he was better than two World Champions… well, they worked. He stuck the dismount!

Ranking confusion – So many questions! I found myself cheering for athletes with the World Championship standard just to make our lives easier. With the option to chase marks until the end of the month, there are a number of spots that are still very much question marks. Imagine having to explain to your great-aunt why she maybe shouldn’t be buying plane tickets to Hungary just yet. This ambiguity is par for the course for field events, though the 10,000m is a new source of headache. The inclusion of eight athletes in a 27-person field who will have qualified by running watered-down cross country races is a good example of trying to do too much. They’re different sports!

Not the expected pole vault team – Having cleared 6.07m to set the American record just last month, it seemed like KC Lightfoot would not only be a lock for the team, but a medal contender at Worlds. Sadly, a hamstring injury forced an early retirement (in competition, not his career), and in a moment’s notice, both KC and Sam Kendricks were opening the door to Zach McWhorter and Zack Bradford’s first teams. Fun note: McWhorter broke his own record of best clearance ever by a lefty at 5.86m.

Division II’s unsung hero – The Bowerman snub will go down as the best thing that ever happened to Cordell Tinch’s personal brand. World leading hurdle mark aside, Tinch had the crowd behind him partially because he was running back and forth between the hurdles and the long jump, but mainly because everyone loves an underdog. Seven months ago Tinch was selling cell phones and now he is awaiting the arrival of an enormous box of Team USA gear.

Sydney is figuring it out – Ambition was high the first 200m in Paris when McLaughlin-Levrone came through in 22.66 seconds and felt a world of Paulino pain that last straightaway. Perhaps overcorrecting in New York, she made it seem easy, running conservatively and coming through in 23.74 while finishing two-tenths of a second faster. This weekend she Goldilocks’d it with a halfway split of 23.24 seconds that led to a breakthrough to 48.74, just narrowly missing Sanya’s American record. Right now, Sydney is five-for-five in sub-50 second performances. But for perspective, when Richards-Ross ran 48.70 in 2006, it was her 23rd 400m race of the season (including prelims, indoors, and relays). All that is to say the one lapper is a rhythm race and I like Sydney’s trajectory.

The feel-good 400m – Bryce Deadmon was put into a boot in the middle of March and spent nine weeks on the sidelines. Miraculously he opened up his season the first week of June running 44.72, proving to the world that pool running is not just for distance runners. One month later and Deadmon ran a new personal best of 44.22 to win his first national title. And with Vernon Norwood qualifying for his first individual team since 2015, plus the now former(?) 400m hurdler Quincy Hall rounding out the squad, this trio will warm your soul like chicken noodle soup.

Best race of the weekend – They, and also me, always say that intriguing head-to-head match-ups are what make for the most exciting races. Every now and then a world record performance will make me question that assertion. Well, Athing Mu’s foray into the 1500 makes me think I’m wrong on both accounts: it’s all about the storylines! Like many people, I had my doubts about whether Athing would be able to contend, but not so much that I didn’t give my thoughts on how I’d plan to beat her in last week’s newsletter. Maybe we were all fooled into a feeling of false confidence after the prelims though, because no one took heed of my advice. Instead, the field allowed Mu to run the precise race she wanted, and with 600 meters to go it was quite obvious that everyone had allowed her to become a factor. Fortunately for Nikki Hiltz, they’re no slouch when it comes to speed either. Hiltz was able to tap into their 1:59.00 800 pedigree to find one last gear on the home stretch en route to their first US outdoor title, which will pair nicely with the one from indoors.

Do not apologize for confidence – After the first round, I asked Sinclaire Johnson if having Athing Mu in the final would change her race plan at all. Like all confident athletes should, Johnson suggested that no, having the Olympic 800m champion there would not change the way she runs and that the 1500 is a different event. Mu fans are getting on her for that answer now that Johnson finished fourth (no matter, she will make Worlds as Athing is choosing to concentrate on the 800). But it was an extremely reasonable and honest response for the defending champion to not let an unknown determine her strategy.

The most fun event in T&F – In the words of 2009 USATF Jr Champion Mac Fleet, the 1500 is the one event you can race yourself into or out of with tactics. There might be some 800 or 5000m runners that would disagree, but name another event that has the 12 best kickers in the world (or so they believe) lining up against one another. Yared Nuguse was the heavy favorite, given his American record in Oslo, but anything can happen once the rabbits are gone and a big “anything” almost did. Somehow a college kid always seems to find his way onto this team, and somehow everyone always forgets that. With 200m to go Joe Waskom’s impulsive move looked like the overconfident play of a youngster used to racing against other youngsters. But despite the aggressive surge and against his dentist’s wishes, Waskom gritted his teeth and made us all regret doubting his tactical decision-making.

All good things must come to an end – The last time that Emma Coburn did not win the steeplechase national title, the first iPad had just been released. And her 11th straight US championship looked like it was inevitable with 500m to go. Coburn was breaking the field and starting to open up real estate. But Krissy Gear could still sniff the win from fourth place at that point, and over the last 50 meters there was a changing of the guard. This event has completely evolved over the past 12 years and Coburn led that transformation. In 2010 the winning time at this meet was 9:53.59 by Lisa Aguilera – today the USATF qualifying standard is 9:35.00.

Kenneth gets knocked down – But he gets up again! Kenneth Rooks, the NCAA champion from BYU, took a tumble and completed two full barrel rolls early into the steeplechase after getting tangled in a barrier. Rather than panicking, he popped back to his feet and proceeded to inch his way back towards the pack. With one lap to go it was like nothing had ever happened. In what should eventually be turned into a cheesy motivational TikTok set to the audio of a Rocky Balboa speech, he moved past the leaders over the homestretch and broke the tape. Rooks was not such an overwhelming favorite that he should be able to recover from such a setback – but that’s what happens when the traditional favorites are removed from the equation and it’s truly anyone’s race.

We NEED to get TV back! – I don’t want to sit around and point fingers at whoever’s fault it is that the US Championships are no longer being broadcast on national television, but “we” need to do something about it immediately. Having a few thousand fewer fans in the stadium than capacity already isn’t ideal – we want a packed house. But missing out on hundreds of thousands of eyeballs because watching the meet from home confusingly requires multiple streaming services? That’s even worse, and will impact athlete contracts. Why pay a premium for stars to wear your logo if no one will see it?? Especially when said stars go to Worlds or the Olympics and wear the US kit anyway. If you’re a brand, there is a good alternative that pro athletes aren’t gonna like – pay high school kids peanuts for NIL deals and YouTube vlogs.

The officials made the right non-call – Fans love to hate on officials for making questionable calls, but it’s only fair that we acknowledge when they also do a good job. There was a lot of concern in the men’s 800m that someone was going to get disqualified because it was a physical race. Despite the yellow flag and three possible arguments to be made for three different runners being the primary agent of chaos, the results ultimately stood after the dust settled. Disqualification should be a last resort, and sometimes a physical race is also a clean one. Maybe the referees have been watching this year’s Tour de France?

Toughest team in the world – It’s not uncommon for the 100m hurdles final at the US Champs to be a more competitive race than the World Championship or Olympic final. This was one of those years. There were 13 American women with the world standard entered into the meet, which means that at least 10 athletes should try to find some secondary citizenship. Nia Ali may have won gold in Doha during the 2019 season and has been a regular on the team since 2013, but due to the incredible depth of talent she’s routinely up against, this was her first US title.

A high schooler made the team – Because it wasn’t on the track, Hana Moll’s third place finish in the pole vault may be the most overlooked performance of the weekend. The Washington-bound senior set a new high school record of 4.61m and if her ranking holds, will qualify for Worlds. Consider that the only two people she did not beat were Katie Moon and Sandi Morris. There is no shame in a high schooler beating everyone except the defending World Championship gold and silver medalists!

When Nia is hot, she is hot – If you’re going to make the 800m team then the prelims likely shouldn’t be that hard. Like, if you are ready to finish in the top three, let alone win, then it should be pretty easy to skate through the opening rounds. Nia Akins looked borderline bored en route to wins on Thursday and Friday, which was a promising sign heading into the final. Surprise, surprise. The UPenn graduate took home the Beasts first outdoor national title since Nick Symmonds won the 800 in 2015. And she didn’t need performance enhancing gum to do it!

Train smart: don’t train – It had been eight weeks since Rai Benjamin went over a hurdle due to a quad injury, though you wouldn’t know it if he hadn’t told you. Changing gears the last 150m, the Olympic silver medalist looked like he was coming off a perfect training block as he ran 46.62 to set the 400m hurdles Championship record. Is this what natural talent does? Although Benjamin has been named to a showdown in Monaco with Warholm and Dos Santos, he said via Twitter that he is not definite. If this is what he is capable of off the bench, then let’s just get him to Budapest in one piece.

What is Abdi capable of? – Three American men ran 12:56 or faster this year, and that’s not including the one with all the medals, Paul Chelimo. If you are just looking at the descending order list ahead of the race, maybe Abdi Nur’s 13:05 doesn’t scream, “eventual national champ!” but that’s why you have to actually watch these things. When a guy can fall mid-race and still get up to dominate the last lap and knock out his standard chase in the process then he’s likely got some more left in the tank. With 1,000 meters to go, Nur took to the front and started winding things up, covering his final K in 2:21 thanks in part to a 53.6 last quarter. That 13:24 will once again look soft on paper compared to all the 12:40s that have been run in Diamond Leagues, but don’t discount what you saw!

How good of a teammate are you? – There are three different scenarios where an individual can potentially give up one of their two earned spots so that a teammate can also run at Worlds. Sean McGorty is on the bubble of getting into the 10,000m for his ranking, or if he knocks out the 5000m standard then he has the option to give that spot up to (a currently injured) Grant Fisher. Does Alicia Monson want to run the 5,000m and 10,000m, or does she give the shorter one up so training partner Josette Andrews can get the nod? And then there is the possibility that Bowerman’s Elise Cranny –who didn’t sound overly enthused about running the 10,000m – defers and gives Karissa Schweizer the opportunity. The Lap Count’s take: This is an individual sport – those aren’t teammates, they’re training partners. Do what makes sense for your goals. But don’t be surprised if things get awkward at practice.

The biggest winner of the meet – Injuries derailed Gabby Thomas’s 2022 campaign and she failed to make the World Championships. That wasn’t a problem this year. In the semi-finals, Thomas set a world leading mark of 21.86 and made it look easy. She temporarily lost that honor to Shericka Jackson, before taking it back in a new personal best of 21.60 (-0.4). One year ago there were questions as to whether Jackson could break the world record, and now we actually have a race for it.

Kenny forgot about Noah – After the 200m I asked Kenny Bednarek in the mixed zone what he thinks about this team heading to Budapest and he noted how constant he and Erriyon are, and how good Courtney Lindsey looks. Remember, 19.86 didn’t make it! Then I reminded him, “And Noah…” and we had a good laugh as he had temporarily overlooked the American record holder’s bye in his post-race haze. Out of sight, out of mind!

Do NOT worry about Fred – Fred Kerley may not have made the 200m team, but he’s still very much the favorite to defend his title as the fastest man in the world. (Quick aside, if I were the best 200m runner on earth I’d be pretty miffed I don’t get a similar honorific.) He ran a tough bend that looked uncomfortable, which is likely connected to his perpetual ankle problems. Don’t forget, that was a major factor in why he stopped running the 400m. Fortunately, there are no turns in the 100m.

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Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.