Nick Symmonds Scratches & May Have Run His Final Race, Danny Mackey Talks Beasts, English Gardner Talks About “Dodging” Zika & More

June 30, 2016

EUGENE, Ore. — It’s the final day of June, and the running world has descended upon Eugene for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. The next 10 days represent manna from heaven for running fans as the best athletes in the country competing for one of the biggest stakes in the sport: the opportunity to compete at the Olympic Games. The crew made it safely to Oregon on Thursday and we’ve spent today battling early wakeup calls to get the scoop before the track action kicks off tomorrow night at Hayward Field.

There were two press events today, one hosted by Brooks and one by USATF. We got some useful info from each, but the most significant was a lengthy interview with Nick Symmonds where he talked about his decision to scratch from the Trials, what changes need to be made in the sport and whether he will keep running beyond 2016. We also caught up with Brooks Beasts coach Danny Mackey, plus potential Team USA stars Vashti Cunningham, Keni Harrison and the quotable English Gardner.

Symmonds’ Decision to Scratch and Two New Beasts

First off, the Brooks house — where the press conference/happy hour was held — was awesome. Pool tables, Pac-Man, forty beds upstairs, Hayward Field on its doorstep. It very much felt like the fraternity that occupies this house during the school year (don’t worry; the athletes and coaches are staying elsewhere, the house is for employees).

The biggest news of the day was Symmonds’ decision to withdraw from the 800 meters, which begin tomorrow. Symmonds has won the past two Olympic Trials — six U.S. titles overall — but he revealed today that he hadn’t run for three weeks due to an ankle injury he picked up after a speed session. Symmonds went to his usual physio in Eugene to fix it, but that didn’t work, so he got an MRI that revealed a grade II strain of the ligaments that run from the knee to the ankle. It didn’t improve, but Symmonds said if he could run without pain today, he would give it a go. He couldn’t, and decided to scratch rather than risk further injury.

Symmonds said that he won’t race again in 2016 and that it’s up to Brooks whether he runs one more season in 2017. His contract is up at the end of this year but Brooks holds a one-year option and Symmonds implied he’d run in 2017 if Brooks picks it up. It seems very unlikely that Symmonds competes beyond 2017 (he turns 34 at the end of ’17) based on his comments today.

The other news was Brooks announcing that they signed two more athletes: NCAA 1500 runner-up Izaic Yorks and fellow Washington grad Baylee Mires (8th in NCAA women’s 800), who will join Penn State alum Brannon Kidder and former BYU runner Shaquille Walker under Mackey with the Beasts.

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Full interview with Symmonds below, where he discusses possible solutions for distributing revenue generated by the USOC and IOC.

Life could get stressful for coach Danny Mackey the next two weeks

We caught up with Mackey and ran through his thoughts on several of his top Trials contenders. One guy we were particularly interested in was Cas Loxsom. Loxsom’s two 800’s so far this year haven’t gone great (1:48 at Oregon Twilight on May 6, 1:47, which was later nullified due to a DQ, at Oxy) but Mackey explained that the first race came in windy conditions while the second came in a race in which the rabbit went out in 22.9 for the first 200. Both Loxsom and Mackey were confident that he was in better shape than those results showed (he ran 1:14.96 for 600 on June 4), and Mackey feels that Loxsom is more prepared for the rounds this year than in 2015, pointing to a repeat 1k’s workout he did six weeks ago that was far superior to what he ran in the same workout this year. With that said, Mackey realizes that the 800 is stacked in 2016 and that Loxsom will likely have to break his 1:44.92 pb (set in the semis at USAs last year) to make the team. 

Toward the end, he talked about how the national championships can be stressful for a coach. Last year, his wife/athlete Katie Mackey fell during the 5,000 final, followed by Garrett Heath missing out on the team by .07 in the men’s 5,000. Between those two events, Mackey said he almost threw a bench onto the track out of frustration. This year, he’s hoping to avoid a similar fate, but with such high stakes, that could be tough.

Cunningham, Kendricks, Harrison and Gardner Cunningham, Kendricks, Harrison and Gardner

English Gardner has been “building an ark” this year in training. ““I feel like I’m Noah at this point in my career. I know something special is inside of me … I’m just waiting for you guys to see the rain.”

Gardner’s 10.81 sb, which she ran to win at Pre on May 28, is the third-best time in the world and just .02 off the PB she set in the semis at USAs last year. Gardner is the only American to have broken 10.80 since the 2012 Olympics, but another sub-10.80 could be in the cards this week between Gardner and U.S. leader Tori Bowie (10.80 sb). The 24-year-old Gardner, for one, believes she’s in the in the best shape of her life.

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“I’ve started to build this thing that I like to call my ark, basically,” Gardner said. “I feel like I’m Noah at this point in my career. I know something special is inside of me, I know something can happen and I’m just waiting for you guys to see the rain. So when you see the rain, don’t worry: I’ve been building the ark since the fall. Y’all can come aboard anytime.”

Gardner, as is her custom, was candid on other topics as well.

On whether a rivalry exists between her and Bowie:

“I’ve been waiting for this question. Me and Tori are cool. Outside the track, we talk, things like that. I think like any other sport when two competitors are going against each other, at that point, there is no friendship on that [start] line. Once we cross the line, we can hug, smile, go out to dinner, whatever she wants to do. It’s kind of like boxers preparing for a match. I respect her, she respects me. We just want to give you people the best show possible.”

image1 (3)Vashti Cunningham vs. The Bar

The 18-year-old Cunningham, who won U.S. and world titles indoors, will aim to make her first Olympic team on Sunday in the high jump (prelims are Friday, final Sunday). Cunningham said that she learned from her experience at World Indoors, particularly from veteran Spanish jumper Ruth Beitia, who was the runner-up behind her in Portland. The 37-year-old Beitia has been competing on the circuit since Cunningham was in diapers (Beitia jumped at World Juniors in 1998, the same year Cunningham was born) and she said that Beitia taught her how to stay calm and be happy during big competitions.

Cunningham also explained one of her rituals: when the bar reaches the higher heights during competition, she will walk up to it before each attempt and stare it down before walking back to her mark and taking her jump.

“It’s kind of a confrontation between me and the bar,” Cunningham said. “I’m going to look at it and realize that I can conquer it and I destroy it, basically.”

So now you’ll know what Cunningham’s thinking when you watch her compete on Sunday afternoon.

Keni Harrison and the Women’s 100 Hurdles Could Be Special

Harrison ran 12.24 at Pre; the world record is 12.21. So obviously we had to ask about it. And obviously she had to deflect and say she’s just focused on “executing.”

“Of course, I’ve thought about breaking the world record but you know in this race, I just like to execute and come across the line first. I think the times will come. I don’t want to think about getting on the line saying ‘Oh, break the world record’ because that just adds a lot of stress.”

Harrison couldn’t really explain her breakthrough 2016 season (she has the four fastest times in the world this year; Brianna Rollins is .29 back of Harrison on the world list) other than to say she’s adapted well to the next level after graduating from Kentucky last year and that not having school to worry about has helped.

Harrison’s 100 hurdles final next Friday will certainly be one of the best race of the Trials. Not only are the top five women on the 2016 world list from the U.S. (Harrison, Rollins, Jasmin StowersSharika Nelvis, Kristi Castlin), but with Ashton Eaton on the mend from a muscle tear, Harrison has the best chance of any athlete to set a world record at the Trials. 

Zika Fears Won’t Keep Track Athletes From Rio; Just A Scapegoat For Major Pro Sports? 

One takeaway from the final question of the press conference was that there is a stark contrast in the way track and field athletes are viewing the Zika epidemic in Brazil when compared to athletes in major moneymaking sports. Recently there have been some major withdrawals from Rio by athletes citing fears over the Zika virus as the reason, however, this has been in sports like golf where the Olympics are an afterthought, rather than the be-all-end-all for their entire career. For example, two of the top four golfers in the world, Jason Day and Rory McIlroy recently pulled out.

Track and field athletes on the other hand are not even considering passing up a chance for Olympic glory and the athletes at today’s press conference seemed relatively unconcerned. Pole vaulter Sam Kendricks summed up the outlook of athletes in Olympic sports pretty well: there is a relatively low risk for a potentially high reward.

Harrison, Cunningham and Gardner had similar views saying their focus would be on first making the team for Rio, and then shooting for Olympic gold and the virus wasn’t something that was going to be on their minds. Gardner had the best Zika quote of the night as she said,

“I told my mom, it’s like dodgeball: just don’t get hit. That’s it. You take the proper precautions, you’ll be fine…The burden of being great is too heavy; I don’t have any room to be carrying doubt or worry about some mosquitoes.”

This response fit in perfectly with a discussion on ESPN’s Mike & Mike radio show from last week following McIlroy’s Olympic withdrawal. For golfers like McIlroy and Day, their “Olympics” are the major golf tournaments throughout the year where they win huge sums of money. The actual Olympics are just an afterthought and in fact the Zika virus might provide an easy excuse for athletes to skip something they already didn’t want to do. On the radio show, Mike Golic‘s takeaway from it was great as he said:

“Hearing from Rory does nothing for me on this (the Zika issue). Hearing from an NBA player who’s not going to go, or a tennis player who’s not going to go, or a golfer player who’s not going to go. Show me the athletes who toil in anonymity and work for their four years before they go. When they start not going … and I don’t think that’s going to happen. Because to those people, this competition is everything to them. … I believe the high high, if not all of those type of athletes are going to go. So I’m not going to lie, pardon me if I don’t really care if Rory’s not going, or some NBA player’s not going or some tennis player’s going to go. Because … it doesn’t mean as much to them. … The one thing we can say is that they’ll choose their sports’ majors over their Olympic gold. … So for those athletes where Olympic gold is everything to them, they are going to go. It’s worth the risk.”

Watch the full video here or embedded below.

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