US Olympic Trials Men’s 800: Old (Nick Symmonds/Duane Solomon) Vs. New (Boris Berian, Clayton Murphy, Donavan Brazier) Over Two Laps
June 29, 2016
One of the greatest events in track and field — the United States Olympic Team Trials — are upon us. No domestic event holds more significance or produces more drama than this meet, which will be held at Hayward Field from July 1-10. LetsRun.com will have all hands on deck, providing wall-to-wall coverage from Eugene over the next two weeks. Below is our look at the men’s 800.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the most intriguing events of the Trials. The presumptive favorite is world indoor champ Boris Berian, a guy who decided to scratch out of his final two races before the Trials to wage a legal war with Nike (which he won!). The U.S. leader is 19-year-old Donavan Brazier, who announced his presence with one of the most impressive races in NCAA history, a 1:43.55 masterpiece three weeks ago in Eugene. Then there’s Clayton Murphy, the NCAA champ indoors (800) and outdoors (1500) who beat Berian at the Drake Relays and was a World Championship semifinalist last year. These three young men (average age: 21) comprise the future (and quite possibly, the present) of the 800 in the United States.
Then there’s the old guard: 31-year-old Duane Solomon and possibly 32-year-old Nick Symmonds. Four years, ago they became only the second and third Americans in history to break 1:43, going 4-5 in the Olympic final, the greatest 800-meter race of all time. Both men will go down as legends of the event in the U.S. and between them, they’ve won the past eight U.S. titles at this distance. But both have been banged up in 2016. Does either have what it takes to make one more Olympic team? We dig into the event below.
Men’s 800 (prelims Friday, July 1, 7:15 p.m. ET; semis Saturday, July 2, 3:00 p.m. ET; final Monday, July 4, 8:51 p.m. ET) *Rio Standard is 1:46.00
|Boris Berian||1:43.34||1:44.20||Can he put the Nike lawsuit behind him? Didn’t make final last year. Won Pre this year|
|Donavan Brazier||Nike||1:43.55||1:43.55||NCAAs made him a rich man. Can he do it at this level?|
|Nick Symmonds||Brooks / BROOKS Beasts TC||1:44.53||1:47.82||6-time US Champ. Dealing with an ankle injury. Hasn’t raced since May 18. Can he find the magic?|
|Erik Sowinski||Nike||1:44.84||1:45.80||Won in Beijing in 1:45.80 on May 18th (Symmonds was there); World Indoor bronze|
|Casimir Loxsom||Brooks / BROOKS Beasts TC||1:44.92||1:48.60||Made Worlds last year but former world junior silver medallist has not run fast this year.|
|Shaquille Walker||Brooks / BROOKS Beasts TC||1:44.99||1:44.99||3rd at NCAA indoors and outdoors, former BYU guy just signed with Brooks Beasts|
|Charles Jock||Nike OTC||1:45.40||1:47.67||Looking for the 1:44.67 Jock from 2011, no 800s since late May|
|Michael Rutt||Hoka One One / New Jersey New York Track Club||1:45.47||1:47.20||Former UConn guy hasn’t been running well this year, Ran 1:45.08 in 2013.|
|Duane Solomon||Saucony||1:45.47||1:45.47||2nd fastest American ever ran 1:45.47 to win Mt. SAC but then missed a month. Did win in Victoria last time out.|
|Brannon Kidder||Penn St.||1:45.58||1:46.42||4th at NCAAs in 1500|
|Clayton Murphy||Nike||1:45.59||1:46.13i||Made Worlds last year in this event, domianted NCAA 1500 a few weeks ago.|
|Drew Windle||BROOKS Beasts TC||1:45.65||1:45.65||4th at USA indoors. Has PR’d in last 2 races, winning Portland Track Festival on 6/12|
|Isaiah Harris||Penn St.||1:45.76||1:45.76||Penn State true frosh should be a force in 2020, 4th at NCAAs.|
|Jesse Jorgensen||1:45.76||1:48.61||Former Wash State runner (2015 Pac 12 champ) ran huge pb at USAs last yaer but didn’t make final.|
|Ryan Martin||ASICS||1:45.79||1:47.64||4th at ’12 Trials. 6th in ’14, 5th last year.|
|Mark Wieczorek||1:45.89||1:47.53||He was the unsponsored darling of the 2012 Trials final where he was 7th.|
|Brandon Johnson||Nike||1:46.12||1:46.12||Ran 1:43 in 2013 but only 1:46.12 this year|
|Craig Engels||Ole Miss||1:46.13||1:47.06||7th at NCAAs in 1500.|
|Julian Parker||Louisiana Athletics Program||1:46.17||1:48.66||2015 SEC champ|
|Harun Abda||Nike OTC / NIKE OTCE||1:46.33||1:46.75||5tha t USAs indoors|
|Christian Sanders||La Salle||1:46.52||1:46.52||6th at NCAAs|
|Joseph White||Georgetown||1:46.66||1:46.66||Big East champ|
|Christian Harrison||Georgia||1:46.69||1:46.69||4th placer at SECs|
|James Gilreath||Team Green Running||1:46.70||1:46.70||PRds in early June|
|Nick Hartle||1:46.73||1:46.73||5th at Pac 12s|
|Goaner Deng||Minnesota||1:46.81||1:46.81||Didn’t make it to Eugene in NCAA action|
|Abraham Alvarado||Cal St. Stanislaus||1:46.90||1:46.90||DII runner-up.|
|Jesse Garn||State University of New York at Binghamton||1:47.11||1:47.11||4th at NCAAs in 2015|
|Holland Sherrer||Ole Miss||1:47.13||1:47.13||Didn’t make SEC final but is in the Trials|
|Christopher Low||1:47.14||1:47.14||Former Long Beach St runner|
The 2016 studs: Berian, Brazier and Murphy
On paper, two guys stand out above the rest based on 2016 accomplishments over two laps: Berian and Brazier. Berian won World Indoors in March and then became the first American since 2013 to win a Diamond League 800 by taking down a world-class field at the Pre Classic. Berian hasn’t raced since then (as you may have heard, Nike was suing him over breach of contract) but assuming the lawsuit wasn’t too big of a distraction, he will be favored to earn a spot on his first Olympic team.
Brazier, like Berian, has had an interesting year. It began on January 16, when he smoked an incredible 1:45.93 in his first collegiate 800; that time held up as the third-fastest in the world indoors in 2016. Brazier ripped through the indoor season before DNFing his prelim at NCAAs with back problems. Outdoors, he was only 5th in his season opener, running a pedestrian 1:51 in a dual meet against UCLA. But he got down to 1:46 at SECs before PR’ing in the prelim at NCAAs and ripping off that unforgettable 1:43 in the final.
In a one-off final, you’d pick these guys to go 1-2 in some order. They have the top two times in 2016, and over the past two years, they’re clearly the fastest in the U.S.
Fastest Americans at 800 since 2015
1. Boris Berian, 1:43.34 (2015 Monaco)
2. Donavan Brazier, 1:43.55 (2016 NCAAs)
3. Nick Symmonds, 1:44.53 (2015 USAs)
4. Matthew Centrowitz, 1:44.62 (2015 adidas GP)*
5. Erik Sowinski, 1:44.84 (2015 USAs)
*not running 800 at USAs
But the 800 at major championships is brutal: three races in four days. Yes, you need speed, but you also need the strength to make it through two prelims and still have enough in your legs to close hard over the final 100 meters. This year, it’s particularly tough, as the first round is at 4:15 p.m. local time on Friday and the semis are at noon local time on Saturday. That’s fewer than 20 hours’ recovery.
Berian famously didn’t make it out of the semis in 2015 despite entering as the U.S. leader. That’s unlikely to happen again — he’s more experienced now and navigated the rounds okay at World Indoors (though he only made the final on time) — but it’s a reminder that anyone can fall in the 800.
Brazier, like Berian, needs to be careful in the rounds. They didn’t affect him at all at NCAAs: he ran a PR of 1:45.07 in the prelims and came back and ran 1:43.55 two days later. But USAs is a different level of competition with an extra round. As talented as Brazier is, we can’t just assume he’ll breeze through to the final. One other concern: how does Brazier fare in a tactical race? In most of his races this year, he had Texas A&M teammate Hector Hernandez leading the way as a de facto rabbit. In the NCAA final, Mississippi State’s Brandon McBride replaced Hernandez in that role. There will be front-runners at the Trials (Berian, for starters), but Brazier may find himself in a race without one. If one of his races goes slow, how will the 19-year-old respond? He’s clearly very inexperienced at racing in tactical 800s.
Clayton Murphy hasn’t reached the same heights in the 800 as Berian and Brazier this year, but he’s put together a ridiculous season in his own right. His 1:46.13 indoors in February was barely off what Berian and Brazier ran, and he took down a stacked field to win NCAAs the next month. He followed that up with a near-perfect outdoor season, including a win over Berian at the Drake Relays (1:46 in horrible conditions) and a spectacular 3:36 victory in the 1500 at USAs. His only loss since January came on a windy day in Seattle at the Brooks PR Invitational on June 18. It was his fourth 1500 in 11 days and he packed it in late once he realized he was not going to hit the Olympic standard of 3:36.20.
Murphy may only be 21, but his strength (in addition to his 1500 exploits, he ran 30:43 for 10k in XC as a sophomore at Akron) means that rounds aren’t a problem for him: remember, he PR’d in all three rounds at USAs last year, taking 4th in the final. That result allowed him to gain even more championship experience as he won Pan Ams and took silver at NACACs before heading off to Beijing for Worlds. There are only a few minor knocks on Murphy. First, his PR (1:45.59) is not exceptional, but he hasn’t had a good opportunity to lower it this year. Given what he’s accomplished in 2016, he’s likely in 1:44 shape or better. Second, he may have been more focused on the 1500 this year. He hasn’t run an 800 since his conference meet on May 14 and he chased the 1500 standard at two meets post-NCAAs, which doesn’t make sense unless he wanted to run the 1500 at the Olympic Trials. But how much of a difference does that really make? After all, Murphy beat Berian at 800 earlier this year.
Can Solomon and Symmonds turn back the clock?
Let’s start with Symmonds. There’s a good chance that the six-time U.S. champ doesn’t even run the Trials. When we spoke to Symmonds 11 days ago at the Brooks PR meet, Symmonds left open the option of scratching if he doesn’t feel that he can make the team. For most of 2016, Symmonds has logged his training through the Sweat Mobile app. His early-season workouts were not encouraging and his opening two races (1:48 in Shanghai on May 14, 1:47 in Beijing on May 18) reflected that. But after returning from China, Symmonds logged a few impressive workouts (3 x 400 w/4 min rest in 51.9, 50.9, 52.3 on May 27; 8 x 400 w/2 min rest in 61, 61, 59, 59, 59, 58, 58, 57 on June 3). It was starting to look that Symmonds might be rounding into shape, just like he did last year when he won USAs.
But that 8 x 400 workout on June 3 is the last one Symmonds posted, and he withdrew from both the Portland Track Festival on June 12 and the Brooks PR meet on June 18 with a nagging ankle injury. Symmonds is a fierce competitor and after what he did last year, we’ll never count him out. But scratching from a race due to injury two weeks before the Trials is never a good sign. Just like 2015, if Symmonds shows up in Eugene and looks good through the rounds, he has to be considered a threat in the final. But given what he’s done so far in 2016, Symmonds has greater chance of skipping the Trials entirely than making the team.
Solomon is in a better position. His 1:45.47 at Mt. SAC in April puts him #4 on the U.S. list this year, and though he battled a hamstring injury after that race, he ran and won his last tuneup race at the Victoria Track Classic on June 19, clocking 1:46.71. Last year, Solomon tried to make the team after battling an injury earlier that spring but couldn’t get ready in time; he made it to the final, but after going out crazy fast (49.76 at 400, 1:16.34 at 600), Solomon’s body gave out and he wound up walking it in the final 100. The Solomon of 2012-2014 makes this team, but can the Solomon of 2016 get back to that level? He’s shown glimpses, but has struggled to put together blocks of healthy training and hasn’t broken 1:45 in almost two years. It will be fascinating to see how his body holds up through three rounds in Eugene.
Don’t forget about Erik Sowinski; others to watch
Sowinski is easy to overlook. He wasn’t a big star in college at Iowa and still trains in Iowa City rather than with a pro group. But the 26-year-old’s low-key approach is working: since turning professional, Sowinski has won two U.S. indoor titles, made Team USA last summer and, most recently, took home World Indoor bronze in March. Since then, Sowinski hasn’t done anything amazing, but he’s posted several solid results, running a pair of 1:45’s to win races in Japan and China in May. His most recent result, 1:15.06 for third in the 600 in Birmingham on June 5 was fine; he lost to David Rudisha and Pierre-Ambroise Bosse handily, but both of those guys are fit right now. Aside from the men we’ve already mentioned, the consistent Sowinski has the best shot to make the team. But he’ll likely need one or more of the studs like Berian, Brazier or Murphy to mess up as they all have higher ceilings than Sowinski. That may sound odd to say about a guy who earned a World Indoor bronze three months ago, but the 800 is a very different race indoors. Plus Sowinski lost to two of those men, Murphy and Berian, convincingly at Drake in April.
The 800 rarely goes to form, and there are several other guys who could contend for a spot in Rio. Without further ado, the best of the rest.
- Shaquille Walker (1:44.99 sb): The former BYU star, who recently signed with the Brooks Beasts, was third at NCAAs indoors and out. He’s got tremendous speed (45.31 relay split for BYU this year in the 4 x 400) and was 6th at USAs last year.
- Cas Loxsom (1:48.16 sb): Third at USAs last year outdoors and this year indoors, but he has struggled in 2016. He’s only run two 800’s, with a best of 1:48.16 (the other was a 1:47.69 but he was later DQ’d). Can he find his form at the Trials?
- Drew Windle (1:45.65 sb): Could Windle, an alum of Division II Ashland (Ohio) University, be the Brooks Beasts best shot at an 800m Olympian? Perhaps not now that Walker’s in the fold, but he’s peaking at exactly the right time, with PRs in two straight races (1:46.81 at Adrian Martinez, 1:45.65 at Portland Track Festival).
- Isaiah Harris (1:45.76 sb): The Penn State true freshman from Maine has gotten lost in the Donavan Brazier hype, but he’s improved a ton in his first year in the NCAA system, slicing almost four seconds from his HS pb. He’ll enter the Trials with no pressure and nothing to lose.
- Ryan Martin (1:47.64 sb): Martin has struggled this year but was .25 from making the team four years ago and has made the final at USAs three of the past four years.
- Brandon Johnson (1:46.12 sb): Johnson, now 31, has battled injuries since 2013, when he ran 1:43 and was the first man out of the World Championship final. But he’s run 1:46 low this year and won his final pre-Trials race at the Adrian Martinez Classic. Johnson also needs the Olympic standard but he’ll almost certainly have to break 1:46 if he’s going to make the team.
LRC Prediction: This event could go in several directions, and in all likelihood, one (or more) big names will be left out of the final, especially if the semis aren’t balanced. But we like the three best guys this year to make the team, and that’s Berian, Brazier and Murphy. That Solomon is more experienced through the rounds, but is his hamstring healed enough to make it through three tough races in four days? Symmonds is a huge question mark. We’re going with the young guns.
- Berian 2. Brazier 3. Murphy
But if you asked us which of those guys we are more confident finishes top 5, we’d say Murphy as he’s never flamed out before like Brazier did this year indoors at NCAAs and Berian did last year at USAs.
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