LetsRun.com Olympic Trials Q&A: Who Are The Favorites To Make Rio? What Big Names Are Going To Stay Home?

by LetsRun.com
June 6, 2016

Last Wednesday marked one month to go until the Olympic Trials. The Summer of Greatness is officially here.

With that in mind, it’s time for the LRC crew to look ahead to the Olympic Trials. Who looks good? Who needs a lot of help? Who might surprise? Dare we say who will make the team?

The LRC crew (co-founder Weldon Johnson, Employee 1.1 Steve Soprano and staff writer Jonathan Gault) began discussing and debating the Olympic Trials to celebrate the one-month countdown.

Wejo: The Trials are one month out. It’s officially time to get excited. Unless you’re an athlete and then maybe you’re getting nervous. I take that back, the athletes who are getting excited are the ones who likely will be making the team, the ones who are purely nervous will probably be watching Rio on TV.

Where should we begin? How about with what seems like it would be a simple question, but I don’t think it is. Give me one lock to make the Olympic team on the men’s and women’s side.

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You might think men’s 800 and say Boris Berian. He just won Pre and is the World Indoor champion, but he didn’t make it out of the first round of USAs last year. Are you that confident in him?

Ok, turn to Matt Centrowitz in the 1500. Lock right? Well he’s been dealing with an injury. Don’t even think of saying Leo Manzano. He has made every US team he has tried out for, but lost to a high schooler at Pre.

The top 5000m runner right now is Hassan Mead. You’re not going to say he’s a lock are you? He’s made one US team in his life and it was at 10,000.

Rupp is already going in one event, but is he a lock to make it in two?

Well we’ve got Galen Rupp at 10,000 right? He’s coming off a marathon. How do we know he’s 100% healthy?

And I did momentarily skip the steeple. Evan Jager would be my lock, but in the steeple you can always fall like he did in Paris last year. Do that earlier in the race and get injured and you’re no longer a lock.

I’m going with Jager as my lock however.

Who wants to do the logic for the women? Without going through it all I think it’s a bit easier to find a lock there (Molly Huddle), but some other previously obvious choices like Ajee Wilson may not be locks.

Steve: I assume you mean a lock in the distance events? If we opened it to the sprints and field events there would be quite a few sure things. As far as distance runners go though, Emma Coburn would be my obvious choice as someone who is a “lock” to make the team on the women’s side.

Sure it’s the steeple and you can fall, but how often do professional steeplers fall and ruin their race? Once or twice in a career, if that? So not very often is the answer. She just set the American record at Pre and is on another level relative to the rest of the US steeple women. Leah O’Connor is the next fastest this year at 9:18 (admittedly not that far back), but then it’s another 11 seconds to Courtney Frerichs at 9:29. Point is, Coburn could fall a couple of times and as long as she doesn’t get injured, I think she’d still make the team.

Jonathan: I agree with Jager, Huddle and Coburn. If I had to bet my life right now on one distance runner making the Olympic team, it would be one of them. I also think Jenny Simpson is a lock on the women’s side. Simpson may be outclassed internationally by women like Faith Kipyegon and Genzebe Dibaba right now, but domestically she’s still a cut above everyone except Shannon Rowbury at her best.

On the men’s side, I agree with Weldon that there aren’t many locks. But I think Galen Rupp is one of them in the 10k. He’s owned that event ever since turning pro (seven straight U.S. titles) and if Alberto Salazar says he’s healthy and training well, I believe him. I don’t see a way he doesn’t make the team. Centro is back training and I think Centro at 85% is still one of the top three U.S. 1500 runners. Remember, four years ago he had knee surgery just over two months before the Trials and still made the team. He’s close to a lock in my book. And I know Berian didn’t make the final last year, but I’m pretty confident in him after his World Indoor title and DL victory at Pre. I’d still give proven studs Rupp and Centro better odds though.

Wejo: Let me interrupt to note that 2 of your “locks,” Centro and Rupp, have not run a race outdoors this year. If all is well they are locks, but all may not be well.

Steve: I’m a little bit more cautious on Rupp. Of course when it is prediction contest time I will be putting him in my top-3 (probably for the win), but we saw indoors that he is not immune to the fatigue that racing and training for the marathon can bring. A lot of it depends on what kind of training he’s doing now (Salazar recently indicated he was doing 145-mile weeks).

Is his focus to do well at 10,000 in Rio and the marathon is an afterthought? Or is it the other way around? If he’s really trying to train for both, then both events will naturally suffer to some extent. And what about his competition in the 10,000? Who else will actually be in it? Eric Jenkins, Bernard Lagat, Sam Chelanga and Shadrack Kipchirchir have all broken 28 minutes this year. Sure that’s a tempo for Rupp at his best, but in a tactical race it could come down to speed and marathon training could leave him lacking. (Rupp’s fortunate Chris Derrick and Dathan Ritzenhein aren’t in the shape they were in 2 or 3 years ago or it could be a lot tougher.)

Basically, if Rupp is focused on 10K training, no one in the US can touch him. But if he’s trying to “marathon train” his way through the Trials, then things could get interesting. We’ll get a better idea of what condition he and Centro are in when they race at the Portland Track Festival on Sunday, June 12th. (If you’re in Oregon for NCAAs and have a late Sunday or Monday flight, the meet is worth checking out.)

Murphy's 2015 season went all the way to the semifinals of the World Championships Will Murphy be the only collegiate Olympian in 2016?

Jonathan: Since I’ve been working on our NCAA previews this week, I’ve got another question: how many collegians will make Team USA in the distance events? In 2012, the answer was three: Donn Cabral, Emma Coburn and Shalaya Kipp (all in the steeplechase). This year, I think it’s only one, two tops.

The top candidates (I’ve listed them from most to least likely to make the team, in my opinion):

-Clayton Murphy, Akron: He was fourth in the 800 last year at USAs in ’15 and wound up making the semis at Worlds after Nick Symmonds was left off the team. He’s only improved since then and is a threat at 800/1500.

-Courtney Frerichs, New Mexico: Only Simpson and Coburn have run faster as collegians than Frerichs’ 9:29.31 at Stanford. Colleen Quigley made the team last year as a senior at Florida State and Frerichs might be better now than Quigley was then (though the team will be harder to make this year).

-Raevyn Rogers, Oregon: Ran 1:59.71 to win NCAAs last year as a true frosh and has owned the 800 so far this year.

-Shaquille Walker, BYU: #2 in the U.S. right now (1:44.99) and was 6th at USAs last year.

-Izaic Yorks, Washington: #2 in the U.S. at 1500 right now (3:37.74) and the only guy ahead of him — Hassan Mead — won’t run the 1500 at the Trials (editor’s note, this portion was written before Saturday’s Furman Elite 1500; Yorks is now #5 on the U.S. list). But Yorks, unlike the other athletes on this list, still hasn’t hit the Olympic standard, which he needs to do before the Trials.

Anyone else have an opinion?

Wejo: Making the team in the women’s 800 isn’t easy or the men’s 800 for that matter, but I think that either Murphy or Rogers makes it. They definitely have the talent to do it and Murphy made it last year. Making teams isn’t easy.

Wejo: And speaking of making teams not being easy, let’s turn to some big names who may not make it to Rio. Before we begin, let’s pause to note Chris Solinsky is not an Olympian.

As for Rio, where should we start? Ryan Hill (World Indoor silver), Andrew Wheating (DFL at Pre), Leo Manzano (made every team he’s tried out for, Olympic silver last time around), and Emily Infeld (bronze at Worlds last year) could all be watching Rio fro home. And that’s not to even mention someone like Mary Cain (I’d be shocked if she made the team) or Chris Derrick (he needs to have a perfect final 5 weeks of preparation).

Am I missing anyone? Of the people above who makes it to Rio? I’m going to go with Ryan Hill and that’s it.

Steve: I’d add Ajee Wilson to the list. Believe it or not, she’s only 9th among Americans this outdoor season with a best of 2:00.81 (7th place) from the Birmingham Diamond League meet. Before that, she only managed 2:03.33 (11th place) in Rome. It might be time for her to start panicking.

Hill earned his first global medal by taking silver in the 3k at World Indoors earlier this month Hill earned his first global medal by taking silver in the 3k at World Indoors in March.

Jonathan: Yeah, Ryan Hill will come around. He made the team in 2013 and 2015 and I’ll allow him one bad race at Pre considering how consistent he’s been since the start of 2015. Of the other athletes you mentioned, I’m most optimistic about Manzano and Infeld. Infeld ran 15:00 indoors in February but was poor at USAs (10th in the 3k) and hasn’t raced since then. If she’s healthy, she’s on the team, but injuries plagued her for years before her breakout last year and it looks like that may be the case again in 2016.

I know it’s foolish to pick against Manzano, a guy who has finished top-3 at USAs 10 years in a row, but I think this might be the year he misses out. He switched coaches from John Hayes to Ryan Ponsonby this year and missed a chunk of training time due to pneumonia and other maladies. Leo’s dealt with instability before, but at a certain point, you just run out of time and his training/racing will have to go absolutely perfectly between now and the Trials for him to have a chance in Eugene. Remember, last year he was just .02 from missing out on the team and that was with a much smoother buildup.

The one thing working in his favor: almost no Americans have the Olympic standard in the 1500. Here’s who has it: Centro, Jager, Garrett Heath, Kyle Merber, Cory Leslie, Ben Blankenship, Robby Andrews, Manzano. Of those eight, I expect only Centro, Merber, Blankenship, Andrews and Manzano to run the 1500 at the Trials. So Manzano would only have to beat two guys. That’s why I’m not counting him out completely.

Steve: Manzano is always an enigma. He can run so terrible one week and then come out of nowhere to throw down good races the next. But Jon as you said, this year is different as he’s had some setbacks and he actually hasn’t run a sub-4 mile or 1500 equivalent since September. If he could drop even a sub-3:40 1500 before the Trials, I’d have a lot more confidence in his chances.

Jon: Agreed. Going back to Weldon’s list, I don’t expect Derrick, Wheating or Cain to make the team.

Steve: Jon, I agree about Derrick and Cain. Both have been struggling for multiple seasons and there’s just no reason to think they’re all of a sudden going to turn it around in the next month. For Derrick, injuries have set him back and the timing is just bad luck. He was 4th at the 2012 Trials and then in the top-3 in 2013 and 2014, but now it’s 2016 and he’s unlikely to contend for a spot. We mentioned Chris Solinsky earlier in this discussion and Derrick could potentially fall in that “really good runners who never made the Olympics category.” I hope that isn’t the case. He’ll be 29 for the 2020 Games so he still has time to turn it around if he can get past his injury issues.

Andrew Wheating Wins A Wheating comeback?

For Mary Cain, even if she was in PR shape she’d have a tough time making the team in the 1500. Jenny Simpson and Shannon Rowbury were two of the best in the world last year (3rd and 4th on the 2015 world list) and there are several other US women running around or faster than Cain’s 4:04.62 PR as well. And Cain isn’t anywhere near that right now with a best of 4:12 in 2016 and 4:09 last year. She hasn’t raced since April (Alberto Salazar pulled her out of Oxy because she was “not ready to race”) so maybe she’s improved a lot in the last month, but the question to be asking is, “Will she make the final?” rather than the top-3.

But Jon, I’m not counting out Andrew Wheating at all. He was 5th at USAs last year and he’s run similar quality times in his build-up this year. He’s not one of my top picks, but I’m definitely not putting him in the same category as Derrick or Cain. He’s got a realistic shot to be top-3. (Although he still has to get the 3:36.20 “A” standard at some point.)

Cain_MaryFL-Eugene14 Mary Cain: 2016 2020 Olympian?

Steve: Back to Mary Cain for one moment, I think the bigger question with her is, “What about the long term?” With her struggles in the last couple of seasons (believe it or not, her 1500 PR is now more than 3 years old) people are starting to wonder if she’s “done” and never going to be “elite” again.

My prediction is Cain will eventually be an Olympian. She’s only 20. Plenty of young runners go through struggles when they first make the transition from high school. Molly Seidel is a great example. She was a Foot Locker champion, then ran poorly at the start of her college career, but now is an NCAA champion. Unfortunately for Cain, with all the hype surrounding her high school career, she’s had to do her struggling in the limelight, but if she sticks with it she has plenty of time to turn her career back around … just not in time for Rio.

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