World and American Records Tumble on the Greatest Night of NCAA Sprinting Ever

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March 10, 2018

COLLEGE STATION, Texas — Day two of the 2018 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships was, quite simply, one of the greatest evenings of sprinting the world has ever seen. During the span of three hours, the fans at the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium saw two world records (men’s 400m and 4×400), two more American records (women’s 400 and men’s 200) and a total of six collegiate records across the 60, 200, 400, and 4×400-meter relays. And perhaps most strangely, they saw a team break a world record and fail to win the race (we’ll get to that in a minute).

LSU’s Aleia Hobbs clocked the first collegiate record by tying Hannah Cunliffe’s mark of 7.07 to win the women’s 60, but the madness truly began with the men’s 400 final, where 20-year-old University of Southern California sophomore Michael Norman arrived as a global star by running 44.52 to win the men’s 400 and, in the process, break Kerron Clement’s 13-year-old indoor world record set at the 2005 NCAA meet.

The stage was actually set in the “slow” heat when Auburn’s Akeem Bloomfield ran a world-leading 44.86 (also a new Jamaican national record), just one-hundredth of a second off Fred Kerley’s facility record set last year. Knowing he had to run a personal best to win, Norman — who entered the meet as the NCAA leader at 45.00 — hammered the first turn and never let up, crushing the final straightaway to pull away and stop the clock at 44.52.

Norman first made a name for himself as a high school senior in 2016 when he finished 5th in the 200 at the U.S. Olympic Trials and won the same event at the 2016 World U20 Championships.

Norman’s fellow USC Trojan Kendall Ellis might be feeling just a little peeved at Norman for stealing her thunder. Just a few minutes after Norman’s run, Ellis broke the American (and NCAA) record by running 50.34 to win the women’s 400.

Unluckiest of all was Kentucky freshman Sydney McLaughlin. Running in heat 2 of the women’s 400 (Ellis was in heat 1), McLaughlin clocked 50.36 — well under Phyllis Francis’s previous NCAA/American record of 50.46 — but that was only good for second place.

But the records were just beginning to tumble. An hour later, Houston’s Elijah Hall ran 20.02 in the 200 to break Wallace Spearmon’s NCAA/American record of 20.10 to go with the 60-meter title he won earlier in the meet.

Not to be outdone, Harvard’s Gabby Thomas stepped up in the women’s 200 and broke the collegiate record in that event, running 22.38 to erase Bianca Knight’s 10-year-old mark of 22.40.

The men saved the fastest event for last, as the culminating 4×400 relay would see both a world record and a world best (and yes, there’s a difference).

Even without the storylines from earlier in the meet, the men’s 4×400 was a must-watch event. Both USC, Florida, and Texas A&M had recorded times during the regular season faster than the previous collegiate record (USC was the top seed at 3:01.98), and all three of those squads were in the final heat along with Houston. Add in some major star power in USC’s Norman, Florida’s Grant Holloway (who had won the 60 hurdles and placed 2nd in the long jump earlier in the meet) and Houston’s Hall (yes, the 60-meter champ ran the 4×400) and it was clear something special was in store.

And that’s exactly what happened. USC handed off in first after the opening leg and broke it open on the second leg thanks to an incredible 44.35 split by Rai Benjamin, the fastest of the night. USC still held the lead at the final exchange, and with world record holder Norman receiving the baton, appeared to have the race in hand.

But Florida anchor Benjamin Vedel and A&M anchor Mylik Kerley (brother of Fred) would not let Norman coast his way to victory. At the bell, both men were still within striking distance, and on the back straight of the final lap, Vedel actually moved up onto the Norman’s shoulder.

But over the final 150 meters, Norman showed his class as he powered away from his rivals, splitting 44.52 to stop the clock at 3:00.77 — the fastest time in history, exactly a second better than Poland ran a week ago to win the World Indoor title.

Texas A&M finished second in 3:01.39 and received the consolation of breaking the world record (a relay world record must include four athletes from the same country, and USC’s second leg, Rai Benjamin, represents Antigua & Barbuda). Florida finished third in 3:01.43 — the third-fastest time ever run. The Gators’ consolation was the team title, redemption for their near-miss last year.

On the women’s side, Georgia won its first national title, piling up 61 points to win by 12 over Arkansas. The Bulldogs were led by their jumpers as star Keturah Orji won her third straight triple jump title and was part of a 1-2-3 sweep in the long jump on Friday night.

Analysis and interviews below.

Quick Take: The talent level in the NCAA is unreal

If you want to know why the U.S. has been a perennial power in the sprints on the global stage, one of the reasons is the development system of the NCAA. The amount of talent the NCAA churns out, year after year, is simply incredible.

In 2015, Trayvon Bromell ran 9.84 in the 100 as a 19-year-old but didn’t even win the NCAA title as he lost to Andre De Grasse. Both men medalled in the 100 at Worlds later that year. But just two years later, Christian Coleman ran faster than either of them, clocking 9.82 to set the collegiate record and eventually earn silver at Worlds. In the 400, Texas A&M’s Fred Kerley ran 43.70 to break the collegiate record.

But with Coleman and Kerley gone, surely the sprints would suffer in 2018? Not so. Granted, Elijah Hall isn’t as fast as Coleman (yet), but winning the 60 and 200 is still an incredible feat. And Michael Norman ran (significantly) faster than Kerley ever did indoors and he’s only a sophomore. Eventually, Hall and Norman will go pro and someone else will rise up to take their places. It’s amazing.

Quick Take: If you didn’t break the collegiate record, you didn’t win the 200 or 400 today

The NCAA record fell in all four events (200 and 400, men’s and women’s), which is totally crazy. We feel bad for athletes like Akeem Bloomfield of Auburn (44.86 in 400), Sydney McLaughlin of Kentucky (50.36 in 400), and Ashley Henderson of San Diego State (22.41 in 200), who all turned in ridiculous performances but didn’t even win their respective races.

Quick Take: Now healthy, Elijah Hall is a force to be reckoned with (and has some pretty fast coaches)

Last year, Hall qualified for Worlds in the 200 but he struggled with a hamstring issue all year that ultimately caused him to miss London 2017. That is no longer an issue (though he still wears tape on his hamstring to keep his mind at ease) and today he broke through with a pair of huge performances, shaving .04 off his pb to win the 60 in 6.52 (his 6.56 in the prelims yesterday was also a pb) and running a pair of huge PRs to break the American record in the 200. Heading into the meet, Hall’s indoor best was 20.51, but he ran 20.26 in the heats yesterday and 20.02 today (only Namibia’s Frankie Fredericks has run faster indoors, though remember the 200 is not contested at World Indoors). Considering Hall’s outdoor PR (20.21) came into a big headwind (-2.3), he seems destined to run well below 20 seconds this year outdoors.

The 23-year-old Hall, who has three children (a six-year-old and two five-year-olds) has a great support team as Houston has two former 100-meter world record holders on its coaching staff. Leroy Burrell is the head coach, while Hall’s primary coach is Olympic legend Carl Lewis. Not a bad pair of men to be learning from.

Here’s Burrell and Lewis celebrating the 200m win:

This is why USC’s time in the 4×400 wasn’t a world record

USC’s 3:00.77 may have been the fastest indoor 4×400 ever, but IAAF rule 260.3 (d) states that for a world record to be set, “An athlete (or athletes in the case of a relay event) who sets a World Record must…in the case of relay events, must all be eligible to represent a single Member in accordance with Rule 5.1.”

Rai Benjamin, USC’s second leg (and their fastest leg tonight) has represented Antigua & Barbuda on multiple occasions (the most recent being three years ago at World Relays). Even though Benjamin, who transferred from UCLA at the beginning of this year, was born born in the US,  went to a US high school. and wants to represent the U.S. moving forward, right now he’s not eligible to represent the U.S. (the IAAF has freezed all changes of allegiance) and therefore the Trojans’ time can’t count as a WR. For more on Benjamin, check out this story.

Interview with USC’s 400 champ/AR holder Kendall Ellis and explanation on how she set AR from slow section

The sprinting was so incredible at NCAAs that Kendall Ellis set a American record from the slow section of the 400m final. The way the finals work at NCAAs is there are eight runners, split into two sections of four. The first 2 seeds are put into the second heat with the premise being they can battle for the win and the title while the 3rd and 4th seeds race before them in the first section and presumably can also run fast without having to battle the #1 and #2 seeds for position. The NCAA’s premise is that if the four fastest runners are in the same section, there can be too much jostling and slower times, which is what happened at USATF indoors this year (USATF puts the four fastest in the final section).

But at the NCAA level, you can be rewarded for running not as fast on day #1 and getting put into the second section as the #3 seed, where you can time-trial while not having to jostle the top two seeds for position.

It’s a shame Sydney McLaughlin and Kendall Ellis didn’ t get to race at NCAAs, but it did result in an American record. A better solution for fans would be for the top four to be in one final and have them compete for spots 1-4 based on place. The “B” final then would be competing for places 5 through 8 and there would be no comparison between the sections based on time.

Interview with Harvard’s Gabby Thomas after breaking 200 CR

Thomas wasn’t recruited heavily out of high school and has enjoyed getting her revenge on the big schools while repping the Ivy League. She’s the first Ivy League sprinter, male or female, to win an NCAA indoor title — and she set the collegiate record, too.


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