2014 World Juniors Preview: Mary Cain Is the Favorite for Gold in the 3,000; Alexa Efraimson Could Medal in the 1,500; Does Anyone Else Have a Chance?

By LetsRun.com
July 21, 2014

For the first time since the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, the United States is playing host to a global track and field championship. From Tuesday through Sunday, the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field will host the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships, one of the biggest meets ever held on U.S. soil. Eugene is bidding for the 2019 World Championships and a successful World Junior Championships would provide evidence that the city is ready to host a major international meet.

Traditionally, the United States has struggled to medal in the mid-d/distance events at World Juniors, a biennial which began in 1986 (this is the 15th World Juniors), but the U.S. has a decent chance at securing at least one medal this time around with senior World Championship finalist Mary Cain in the 3,000 and 4:07-woman Alexa Efraimson in the 1,500 (Elise Cranny has run 4:10 and should also be in medal contention). We first give you a history of the event and then preview the mid-d/distance races below. For each event, we’ve listed the top medal contenders as well as the U.S. entrants.

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Reminder: To be considered a junior by the IAAF, an athlete cannot turn 20 during the year of competition. So anyone born in 1995 or later is eligible to compete. But there also is a minimum age as well. You also must turn at least 16 during the calendar year, meaning anyone born after 1998 isn’t eligible (this is what prevented U.S. 400 hurdle prodigy Sydney McLaughlin from competing). So the event is for runners born between 1995 and 1998. Then there is one other key thing which on paper should make medals at World Jrs. much easier to come by than at the senior level. Each country can only enter a maximum of two athletes in each event.

Full entry list

A Less than Stellar Record

In the 14 previous renditions of World Juniors since the inaugural World Junior Championships in 1986, the United States has taken home a grand total of four medals at a distance longer than 400 meters. Here’s the complete list:

Gold: Ajee Wilson, 800, 2012

Silver: Cas Loxsom, 800, 2010

Bronze: Robby Andrews, 800, 2010; Rebekah Noble, 800, 2006

The U.S. has never won a medal, male or female, at a distance longer than 800 meters. That seems odd because the U.S. has four medals at 1500 or above in the last two global championships alone (Galen Rupp, Matt Centrowitz, Leo Manzano, Jenny Simpson). But distance talent in the U.S. generally takes more time to develop than overseas. That’s why there’s been a ton of hype surrounding Mary Cain the last two years. It’s exceedingly rare for a U.S. runner to be that good that young.

The other, more cynical, reason is that age records are much better kept in the United States. Everyone born in the U.S. has a birth certificate and it’s very difficult to fake your age if you were born in a U.S. hospital. That is not always the case in Ethiopia, Kenya or Uganda, three countries that traditionally run very well at World Juniors. That’s not to say that every athlete from those nations is overage — after all, many of those nations’ star junior runners go on to be stars at senior Worlds as well, people like Tirunesh Dibaba, Kenenisa Bekele, Haile Gebrselassie, and Asbel Kiprop are former world junior medallists.

But it is difficult to tell what to believe when even the IAAF reports different ages for an athlete. For instance, according to his IAAF bio, Kenya’s new world junior record holder at 1,500 meters, Ronald Kwemoi — who is not even competing at World Juniors — was born on September 19, 1995. But in an article published on February 16, 2013, Kwemoi is listed as being 18 years old, when his official birthday would only have made him 17. If the IAAF can’t keep its records straight with Kwemoi, one of the more prominent junior athletes in the world, it’s a good bet that he’s not the only athlete whose age is in question.

Is Kwemoi not running world juniors because he wanted to make money on the pro circuit instead of run the trials? Or because he wouldn’t be able to pass the age test?

World Championships are supposed to be conducted on level playing fields and age cheating at the junior level is similar to performance-enhancing drugs at the senior level: athletes claim to adhere to the same guidelines as everyone else, where in reality they do not. We know it’s very difficult to enforce if the runner is from a country that doesn’t keep good track of age records, but the issue needs to be raised when discussing meets like World Juniors to remind the athletes and the sport’s governing bodies that age cheating is not okay.

The good news is age-fraud may die down soon as Renato Canova said earlier this year on the messageboard that all Kenyan born after 2003 have actual birth certificates.

Whatever the reason, the U.S. hasn’t performed as well as you’d expect at World Juniors for a country that’s enjoyed so much recent success at the senior level. But 2014 represents the best chance yet to end that futility.  We preview the mid-d and distance events below, starting with the ones the U.S. is most likely to medal in down to the ones in which the U.S. doesn’t have a prayer.

The Favorite for Gold

Cain ran great at USAs last month

Cain ran great at USAs last month

Women’s 3,000 (final Thursday, 11:15 p.m. ET)

Dating back to 1998 (the last year for which we could find full results for World Juniors), an American woman has never placed higher than sixth in the 3,000 at World Juniors (Aisling Cuffe in 2012 and Laurynne Chetelat in 2008). But the U.S. has never sent a woman to this meet quite like Mary Cain. Okay, technically it has — Cain was sixth in the 1,500 at World Juniors in 2012 — but back then she was merely a very good high school sophomore, not a woman who has run 1:59.51 for 800, 4:04.62 for 1,500 and made the final of the senior World Championships.

Right now, you’re probably thinking: “That’s great, but if Cain made the 1,500 final at Worlds last year, why is she running the 3,000 at World Juniors?” It’s a good question with a simple answer.

The reason is very simple: the 3,000 represents Cain’s best chance to win.

It has nothing to do with Cain ducking the other U.S. high school studs, Alexa Efraimson and Elise Cranny, as so many insinuated all spring. The US senior meet, where Cain was second and Efraimson failed to make the final, showed that Cain doesn’t need to be worried about either of them right now. But there are two a few junior girls from Africa that Cain does need to worry about and by running the 3000, she stays well clear of them.

Cain’s coach, Alberto Salazar, never rushes into things and always has a reason for his decisions. Cain only raced two (sub-par for her) 800s prior to USAs last month, but once she hit the track in Sacramento in the 1,500, Cain was clearly ready to go, finishing a convincing second place, behind only former world champ Jenny Simpson. So if Cain and Salazar decided to run the 3,000 at World Juniors, you can bet that they have a very good reason for doing so.

Dawit Seyaum would most definitely be favored over Mary Cain if they both were in the 1500. 2014 adidas GP Photos.

Dawit Seyaum would most definitely be favored over Mary Cain if they both were in the 1500. 2014 adidas GP Photos.

If Cain entered the 800, she’d be up against Sahily Diago Mesa of Cuba. Mesa has run 1:57.74 this year, faster than anyone else in the world including world champ Eunice Sum until Ajee Wilson’s 1:57.67 on Friday. Cain is a very good 800 runner (she’s fifth on the junior list this season) but she very well could struggle to beat the former world leader who’s run 1:57.

Likewise, the 1,500 also features a world-class runner at the top in Ethiopia’s Dawit Seyaum. Seyaum has run 3:59.53 this season and beat Simpson by almost two seconds on June 14 in New York. Her Ethiopian teammate, Gudaf Tsegay, has run 4:02.83 and would also be difficult for Cain to beat.

In the 3000, there is no one from Africa entered who has one of the top times in the world as is the case in both the 800 and 1,500. When Ethiopia first announced its team earlier this month, it included the formidable Senbere Teferi, who has run 8:41 for 3,000 and who took bronze in the 1,500 ahead of Cain at World Juniors two years ago. But when the entry lists came out on Saturday, Teferi was listed alongside Seyaum and Tsegay in the 1,500 and wasn’t entered at all in the 3,000. Without Teferi, there are just two women who have broken 9:00 —Lilian Kasait of Kenya (8:53) and Sofia Ennaoui of Poland (8:59). Cain’s 3000 pb is 9:02.10 from an indoor meet on the oversized UW track in 2013, but she ran 9:38.88 for 2 miles indoors last year, a performance we called the greatest distance performance in US HS history, which converts to about 8:55.82 for 3,000.

8:55 doesn’t seem that dominant against women with PRs of 8:53 and 8:59, but PRs don’t tell the whole story. We couldn’t find a 1,500 PR for Kasait, but Ennaoui, the only other sub-9:00 woman, has run 4:07.34 — fast, but not as fast as Cain’s 4:04.62. Second, Cain’s 3,000 “PR” (her converted 2 mile) was run in February 2013. Since then, Cain has won two U.S. indoor titles, finished second at USA outdoors twice and made a World Championship final. She’s a lot better than she was 17 months ago so it’s not a stretch to say that Cain would be able to run in the 8:40s right now.

This is a 3,000, not a 1,500, but it’s also a championship race and closing speed is important. Cain is an 1:59 800 runner and has the best kick of anyone in the field. If it goes slow, it plays into her hands. And with the second-fastest 3,000 PR in the field, it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to run away from Cain before the final lap.

So to return to our original point, it makes perfect sense why Cain is in the 3,000. Does Cain have a better shot at winning by using her superior 1,500 speed in a longer event or by trying to beat women who have run 1:57 and 3:59 in events that are their specialties? Kasait shouldn’t be totally overlooked — she did win the World Youth title last year — but she hasn’t run a world leader (as Diago Mesa has in the 800) or convincingly beaten Jenny Simpson (as Seyaum has in the 1,500). Even though it’s an unfamiliar distance for Cain, it’s clear that she and Salazar made the right decision. Cain isn’t just a strong bet for a medal: she’s the favorite in the 3,000.

Name Country PR Comment
Lilian Kasait Rengeruk Kenya 8:53.41 World Youth champ in 2013
Mary Cain USA 8:55.82 10th at senior worlds last year in 1500 (PR converted from 9:38.68 2 mile)
Sofia Ennaoui Poland 8:59.44
Berhan Demiesa Ethiopia 9:00.06
Etagegne Woldu Ethiopia 9:02.17
Valentine Maiteko Kenya 9:15.3
Stephanie Jenks USA 9:21.56 HS soph was 2nd in adidas Dream Mile in NY in 4:42 (PR converted from 10:06.54 2 mile)

A Decent Chance

Efraimson ran 4:07.05 in New York on June 14

Efraimson ran 4:07.05 in New York on June 14

Women’s 1,500 (prelims Friday, 3:15 p.m. ET; final Sunday, 6:55 p.m. ET)

One benefit of Cain doing the 3,000 is it allows all three American high school prodigies to compete at World Juniors. Cain (4:04.62), Alexa Efraimson (4:07.05) and Elise Cranny (4:10.95) are the three fastest US high schoolers all time at 1,500. If they all entered the 1,500 at USA Juniors, one of them wouldn’t have been able to run a World Juniors, which is a waste of resources for the United States. With Cain in the 3,000, Efraimson and Cranny both get to run the 1,500 at World Juniors, where they could each contend for a medal.

Ethiopia could learn from the U.S’s management of resources. Going by PR, Ethiopia has the top two runners by some margin, with Seyaum and Tsegay. But they’ve also got Teferi, a 4:04.55 performer whose PR would be third-best in the field. The simple solution would be to have one of them run the 3,000 — Teferi, with an 8:41 PR, seems a logical choice. Instead, all three are entered in the 1,500 even though only two of them can compete. Neither of Ethiopia’s entrants in the 3,000 has broken 9:00; it doesn’t make sense why Ethiopia wouldn’t enter one of its best runners in order to maximize its medal chances. Of course, this is a country that refused to double Tirunesh Dibaba or Meseret Defar at Worlds last year to “give younger runners a chance,” so maybe medals aren’t Ethiopia’s highest priority.

That’s only two-athlete limit per country really benefits the U.S. in the girls 1500 as Ethiopia actually has five of the top eight juniors on the 2014 world list at 1,500. Just as Americans like Matt Centrowitz benefit from the three-athlete limit at the Olympics, Efraimson and Cranny are helped here since Ethiopia can grab at most two medals.

With just two Ethiopians in the field, Efraimson is the third-fastest entrant, while Cranny is #5 going by PR. However, there is also the threat of the Kenyans, Sheila Chepngetich and Winfred Mbithe, for whom we couldn’t find any results outside of the Kenyan trials, where they ran 4:12 and 4:15, respectively.

Efraimson, with a faster PR and a victory over Cranny at USA Juniors, has the best shot at an American medal in the event, and even though she’s not as likely to medal as Cain, she has a much better chance than any other American in a distance race. She has one of the fastest PRs and is experienced against top competition, setting her PR at the adidas Grand Prix in New York and taking bronze at World Youths in the 1,500 last year (Seyaum took silver). Efraimson is not a lock, but if you assume the Ethiopians go 1-2, she has a better shot at bronze than anyone else.

Name Country PR Comment
Dawit Seyaum Ethiopia 3:59.53 World Youth silver medalist beat Jenny Simpson to finish 2nd in NY DL meet
Gudaf Tsegay Ethiopia 4:02.83
Alexa Efraimson USA 4:07.05 HS junior was 10th in NY DL meet; #2 all-time among US HSers
Sofia Ennaoui Poland 4:07.34 2nd at European Juniors last year
Elise Cranny USA 4:10.95 Stanford-bound runner is #3 all-time among US HSers
Sheila Chepngetich Kenya 4:12.0h
Winfred Mbithe Kenya 4:15.7h

A Long Shot

Women’s 800 (prelims Tuesday, 3:15 p.m. ET; semis Wednesday, 3:55 p.m. ET; final Thursday, 11:00 p.m. ET)

Men’s 800 (prelims Friday, 3:50 p.m. ET; semis Saturday, 7:25 p.m. ET; final Sunday, 7:15 p.m. ET)

Men’s 1,500 (prelims Tuesday, 2:45 p.m. ET; final Thursday, 11:40 p.m. ET)

The chances of a U.S. medal in one of these three events are bleak but not non-existent. Take a look at the top entrants in each race, with the Americans listed at the bottom:

By PR, there are large gaps between the top Americans and the real medal threats which make it unlikely for an American medal in any of these events. Because of the unpredictable nature of the 800 at championship meets, that event represents a better chance for a medal than the men’s 1,500 even though the relative skill level of the Americans is similar across both distances. In particular, the women’s 800 is the most promising because of Raevyn Rogers, the Texas high schooler who will attend Oregon in the fall.

Fisher is tops among American high schoolers but World Juniors is another level of competition

Fisher is tops among American high schoolers but World Juniors is another level of competition

Rogers won two medals at World Youths last year — bronze in the 800 and gold as part of the sprint medley relay. Rogers won New Balance Nationals last month but was just fifth at the Brooks PR Invitational on June 21, running just 2:06.67. She righted the ship to run 2:04.40 to win USA Juniors, but finishing fifth against a field of U.S. high schoolers doesn’t bode well for her medal chances a month later.

After Rogers, the chance for an American medal is even dicier. As good as Foot Locker/Dream Mile champ Grant Fisher is, he’s still several seconds away from the top guys in the 1,500 and was just ninth in the World Youth final last year (not to mention just second at the U.S. trials). Fisher could be a real shot to medal two years from now but it would be a big ask for him to do it in 2014. Tre’tez Kinnaird has run 1:47.99, a great time for a college freshman but only good enough for 20th on the world junior list this year. Between the men’s and women’s 800s and the men’s 1,500, the U.S. could be looking at multiple finalists, but if even one of them medals it should be considered a huge success.

The U.S.’s chances at a medal would have improved had either of Colorado’s superfreshmen, Ben Saarel or Zach Perrin, decided to compete. Saarel (3:41.54) and Perrin (3:42.39) are both ranked in the top 11 in the world among juniors at 1,500, but neither chose to compete at the U.S. trials.

Women’s 800

Name Country PR Comment
Sahily Diago Mesa Cuba 1:57.74 2014 world leader
Zeyituna Mohamed Ethiopia 2:01.55 Ethiopian senior champ
Georgia Wassall Australia 2:01.78 4th at World Youths in ’13
Anita Hinriksdottir Iceland 2:00.49 World Youth champ; 4th at World Juniors in ’12
Dureti Edao Ethiopia 2:03.25
Raevyn Rogers USA 2:03.32 NB Nationals champ has committed to Oregon; World Youth bronze in ’13
Sabrina Southerland USA 2:03.59 Big East indoor champ for Georgetown

Men’s 800

Name Country PR Comment
Alfred Kipketer Kenya 1:44.2h World Youth champ anchored Kenya to victory in 4×800 at World Relays
Nikolaus Franzmair Austria 1:46.78
Joshua Masikonde Kenya 1:46.83
Mamush Lencha Ethiopia 1:46.88 4th at World Youths
Andreas Almgren Sweden 1:46.99
Jena Umar Ethiopia 1:47.00
Kyle Langford Great Britain 1:47.41 World Youth bronze
Karl Griffin Ireland 1:47.44
Andres Arroyo Puerto Rico 1:47.57 U. of Florida runner made it to NCAAs but missed final
Tre’tez Kinnaird USA 1:47.99 Indiana frosh was 2nd at Big 10s
Myles Marshall USA 1:48.43 Texas HS junior was 3rd at NB Nationals

Men’s 1,500

Name Country PR Comment
Hillary Cheruiyot Kenya 3:35.87 Runner-up in 2012
Hassan Ghachoui Morocco 3:38.56
Jonathan Sawe Kenya 3:38.61 World Youth bronze; 2nd in National 1500 at Pre in ’13 (beat McNamara, Bumbalough)
Oussama Nabil Morocco 3:40.07
Thiago Do Rosario Andre Brazil 3:40.59
Shaun Wyllie Great Britain 3:41.43
Grant Fisher USA 3:43.29 HS junior won adidas Dream Mile in NY (1500 PR converted from 4:02.02 mile in that race)
Patrick Joseph USA 3:43.70 Frosh at Virginia Tech

No Chance – All of the Long Distance Events + Steeples

Men’s 5,000 (final Friday, 11:45 p.m. ET)

Women’s 5,000 (final Wednesday, 10:40 p.m. ET)

Men’s 10,000 (final Tuesday, 11:35 p.m. ET)

Women’s 3,000 steeplechase (prelims Thursday, 1:05 p.m. ET; final Saturday, 7:55 p.m. ET)

Men’s 3,000 steeplechase (prelims Friday, 2:40 p.m. ET; final Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET)

An American has never medalled in the steeplechase, 5,000 or 10,000 at World Juniors and that will almost certainly still be the case on Monday after World Juniors are over. The top Africans are just so far ahead of their American counterparts that there is little hope for a medal of any kind.

It’s also unfair to ask guys like Jonathan Green (30:54 PR), the U.S. Junior champ at 10,000 meters, or Brendan Shearn (29:49.04 PR), the US runner-up, to race against Tsegaye Mekonnen, who won the Dubai Marathon in January in 2:04:32 and followed that up with a fifth-place finish in London in 2:08:06. To put that in perspective for, Mekonnen’s 2:04:32 marathon PR is the equivalent of running 29:30 pace for 10,000 for 26.2 miles. Neither Green or Shearn has run that for one 10,000 – let alone for more than four in a row without stopping.

The odds are similarly stacked against the Americans in the other events, as you can see from the lists of top entries below.

Men’s 5,000

Name Country PR Comment
Phillip Kipyeko Uganda 13:16.92 6th at World Juniors in 2012
Moses Mukono Letoyie Kenya 13:19.26 8th at World Juniors in 2012
Yomf Kejelcha Ethiopia ??? 7:36 3k; World Youth champ at 3k in ’13
Tsegay Tuemay Eritrea 13:20.89
Yasin Haji Ethiopia 13:32.20
Fredrick Kipkosgei Kiptoo Kenya 13:33.6h
Colby Gilbert USA 14:07.13 U. of Washington freshman
Brian Barraza USA 14:13.54 U. of Houston freshman

Women’s 5,000

The USA only has one entrant in this event — Schmaedick was just 5th at U.S. trials but she was the only girl with the 16:40 IAAF qualifier.

Name Country PR Comment
Alemitu Haroye Ethiopia 14:52.67 #6 on senior world list in ’14; 3rd at World XC jr. race in ’13
Alemitu Hawi Ethiopia 15:35.3 10th in jr. race at World XC last year
Agnes Jebet Tirop Kenya 14:50.36 Silver at World XC jr race; bronze at World Junior 5k in ’12
Loice Chemining Kenya 15:53.0
Kate Spencer Australia 15:32.29 Also entered in steeple (5k is first)
Maggie Schmaedick USA 16:18.24 U. of Oregon freshman

Men’s 10,000

Name Country PR Comment
Tsegaye Mekonnen Ethiopia 28:15.5 Won Dubai Marathon in January in 2:04:32; 5th in London in 2:08:06
Yihunilign Adane Ethiopia 28:30.4 13:38.13 5k
Joshua Cheptegei Uganda 27:56.26
Keisuke Nakatani Japan 28:51.10
Abdallah Mande Uganda 28:40.00
Elvis Cheboi Kenya 28:33.73 2nd at African Junior champs in ’13
Nicholas Kosimbei Kenya 28:37.58
Hazuma Hattori Japan 28:55.31 Asian Junior champ in June
Brendan Shearn USA 29:49.04 Freshman at Penn
Jonathan Green USA 30:54.62 Redshirted at Georgetown last year

Women’s 3,000 steeplechase

Name Country PR Comment
Ruth Jebet Bahrain 9:27.90 Won senior Asian Champs last year
Buzuayehu Mohamed Ethiopia 9:40.26
Weyneshet Ansa Ethiopia 9:59.46 Bronze in 2k steeple at World Youths in ’13
Kate Spencer Australia 9:53.15 Also entered in 5k (5k is first)
Rosefline Chepngetich Kenya 9:43.25 6:12.0h 2k steeple last year (World Youth champion)
Daisy Chepkemei Kenya 9:47.22 Won World Juniors two years ago at age 15
Elinor Purrier USA 10:24.46 UNH freshman
Hope Schmelzle USA 10:23.38 Purdue freshman

Men’s 3,000 steeplechase

Name Country PR Comment
Meresa Kahsay Ethiopia 8:26.08
Titus Kipyego Kenya 8:22.46 3:39.7h for 1500
Barnabas Kipyegon Kenya 8:24.10
Soufiane Elbakkali Morocco 8:32.66
Tumisang Monnatlala South Africa 8:38.70
Bailey Roth USA 9:03.92 HSer heading to U. of Arizona in the fall
Bryce Miller USA 9:01.37 Freshman at UMKC