2017 USATF Men’s 800: Donavan Brazier Finds Redemption To Win His First National Title with a Brilliant 1:44.14
By Jonathan Gault
June 25, 2017
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — What a difference a year makes.
In 2016, Donavan Brazier showed up to his first U.S. Olympic Trials as a callow yet preposterously talented teenager and was eliminated in the first round. Today, he redeemed that disaster with a spectacular run to win his first national title at the tender age of 20 years and 71 days old. After overcoming two shaky preliminaries, Brazier silenced his critics with his 1:44.14 victory.
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“I know I scared a lot of people coming in third [in the first round] but I knew the first round, I’d get through on time. The second round, I just kind of ran stupid. And once I knew I got to finals, [I knew] I’d get a London spot.
“…I just really wanted to prove myself. I knew I could do it, my coach knew I could do it, my teammates knew I could do it. But you guys just didn’t know I could do it.”
Let’s set the record straight here. Yes, Brazier may have picked up a few critics after his Olympic Trials performance last year, but his talent has never been in doubt. It was clear from his very first 800 for Texas A&M last year that he was destined for greatness.
Today’s race played out perfectly for Brazier. Erik Sowinski took the race out, hitting 400 meters in the lead at 51.31 with Brazier on his outside shoulder ready to strike and a three-meter gap back to 2016 Olympian Charles Jock in third. That was not so fast as to be suicidal, but quick enough for Brazier to take the race to a place where only he could go on the second lap. And midway down the backstretch, that’s exactly what he did, separating from Sowinski and opening up a gap on the field. Though Penn State’s Isaiah Harris — like Brazier, just 20 years old — would close on him slightly down the homestretch, Brazier was never seriously challenged as he cruised to the win. He threw up a #1 to the sky as he crossed the line, but that was academic; anyone who watched the race knew who the best man was today.
With 100 to go, Brazier was well on his way to victory, but the battle for second and third was very much up in the air, especially since Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy was a pre-race scratch with a hamstring injury. Sowinski was powerless to go with Brazier and was starting to slow down as Harris moved past Jock into third entering the home straight. Ten meters behind him, Drew Windle, last with 200 to go and only seventh now with 100 meters remaining, swung into lane two and quickly began to accelerate.
With 50 to go, Harris passed Sowinski for second and 25 meters later, Windle did the same for third, the former DII star turning it over so quickly that he made Sowinski look as if he were standing still. And with that, the team to London was set, Harris (1:44.53) and Windle (1:44.95) both breaking 1:45 for the first time as all three men qualified for their first U.S. team.
Sowinski, 5th at the Olympic Trials last year, was once again the odd man out as he had to settle for 4th in 1:45.39.
Results (lap-by-lap splits)
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QT: The future of U.S. 800-meter running is very, very bright
Just as Nick Symmonds and Duane Solomon are leaving the sport, a new crop of guys has risen up to take their place. The first and second-place finishers in today’s 800-meter final are both 20-year-old college sophomores. Windle, the senior member of this year’s U.S. squad, is 24. And the U.S. has a 22-year-old Olympic bronze medalist and a 24-year-old World Indoor champion who did not even compete today.
Kenya is still the world’s foremost power in the 800 — they have 18 of the world’s 28 fastest guys this year, all of them under 1:45.5 — but the U.S. is a clear #2 right now and only figures to be getting better.
QT: Donavan Brazier was incredible today, but he should buy Erik Sowinski a beer for the rabbit job (once he’s old enough)
Though it’s weird to say that a USATF final — the biggest race of Brazier’s life so far — brings less pressure than preliminary rounds, that looked like the case today. Brazier appeared out of sorts at the Trials and in the prelims and semis in Sacramento, but today he looked like the guy that ripped off a 1:43.55 NCAA record last spring as he destroyed the field over the final 250 meters. Brazier’s ceiling is higher than everyone else’s — no one else in the field has ever run 1:44.14, which is what Brazier did today — and on the days that he can harness that potential, he’s incredibly tough to beat.
Though Brazier is the one who ran the time and a deserving U.S. champion, he should buy a beer — or maybe a soda, since Brazier is only 20 years old — for Sowinski, who acted as a de facto rabbit for Brazier today. Brazier is most at home running right off the leader’s shoulder in a quick race as those kinds of races are more about pure speed than tactical nous, as shown by his two greatest victories (today and 2016 NCAAs). Brazier may well have made the team had the race played out differently, but if you had drawn up the ideal scenario for him for this final, it would have been close to what happened today.
In an interview with NBC after the race, Brazier said his coach Alleyne Francique told him to sit in second until he felt good and then he was to make a move but the key was he “just had to be confident in my move.”
That’s good advice. In our minds, Brazier should be golden even if the pace is slow as long as he hammers the last 150. What many people fail to realize is that he has great natural endurance for such a speedy 800 guy. There aren’t many 800 talents who run 4:07 for the full mile in HS as well as in the 15:20s for cross country (6th at Michigan state meet in XC).
QT: From Lewiston, Maine, to London in two years
Two years ago, Harris was third at New Balance Nationals as a high school senior. Today, he was second at the U.S. championships. It’s been a meteoric rise for the Maine native, and you might have missed it given all the attention foisted upon Donavan Brazier (who was in Harris’ same graduating class in high school) and Clayton Murphy. But without those guys, it’s Harris everyone would be going gaga about. 1:44.53 and second at USAs as a true sophomore is an incredible result.
“Of course every high school kid has dreams of making Olympic and World teams, so I had hopes for myself,” Harris said. “But did not expect it to be this soon. I could not have imagined that at all, going from 1:49 to 1:44 in two years. I’m just so humbled and so happy. Words can’t even describe how I’m feeling right now.”
Harris has some decisions to make now — about a potential professional career and a summer racing schedule. It’s been a long year for Harris, who ran his first race for Penn State way back on January 14, but he still thinks he is capable of more and that he can run 1:43 this year.
QT: Drew Windle channels his idol Nick Symmonds to come through when it matters for the Brooks Beasts
Like Symmonds, Windle was not a hot prospect coming out of high school in Ohio. Though he ran 1:51 to win his state meet as a senior, his PR was just 1:57 entering the postseason and 1:57 doesn’t get you a lot of college offers. So Windle went to DII Ashland University, just over an hour up I-71 in central Ohio. Windle flourished at Ashland, sweeping the NCAA indoor and outdoor titles his final three years.
“I’ve been hearing that comparison for four or five years now and it’s just awesome that my name’s brought up along with his,” Windle said. “I’ve been channeling him this entire weekend, I guess. After the semifinal, I had a bison burger to get that extra little kick there at the end.” (Symmonds has nicknamed himself the bison this year as he’s tried to run fast as a larger runner.)
Symmonds would be proud of Windle today. Not only did Windle use a classic Symmonds strategy, moving up from last place to make the team, but he ensured that the Brooks Beasts did not leave USAs without putting a guy on the team — something they could not do in 2016.
Brooks does not have the resources of Nike and the Beasts do not have the luxury of relying on Division I studs like Brazier or Murphy. Instead, they have to take chances on overlooked athletes. Like, say, a DII stud who had only broken 1:47 once when he graduated college.
Though the Beasts have put guys on teams before (Symmonds and Cas Loxsom in 2015), before today, nobody on their current roster (since Nick Symmonds is now retired from the track) had made a U.S. Worlds/Olympics team. Windle’s run changed that.
“Our team is so dedicated,” Windle said. “Nobody on our team has seen what it takes to go from exiting college, becoming a pro and making a team. I just wanted to go out there and be like the first example from our team that it’s possible…Today it was for the team. I really wanted to go out there and just show that we’re this young group and we’re not here to just show up and bow out in the rounds.”
One thing should be pointed out — and this is not a knock on Windle, who just ran a PR in the biggest race of his life. Neither Clayton Murphy nor Boris Berian — the Olympic bronze medalist and World Indoor champ, respectively — ran this race. If either of them toed the line healthy today, we’d have liked them to make the team over Windle. But they didn’t, so Windle is headed to London.
QT: Erik Sowinski: “There were three guys better to me today, and hats off to them”
Sowinski wanted to be near the front, but thought Brazier would take the lead. When that didn’t happen, he found himself in first and decided to go for it.
“I don’t think there’s any shame in going for it like that,” Sowinski said. “I ran 2 ¾ solid races this weekend and when I really needed it, I didn’t have it.”
Sowinski looked terrific in Friday’s semis, but unlike Brazier, Harris and Windle, he was unable to reach a new level in the final, and that’s what it would have taken to make the team — apart from his 1:46 in the first round on Thursday, he’s run 1:45 in his five other 800’s this spring, but he needed a 1:44 today, a time he’s only achieved twice in his career.
QT: Clayton Murphy gambles big…and loses
We applauded Murphy when he announced his intention to double in the 800 and 1500 at USAs this year, but after running four races in three days and making zero teams, there’s no way to sugarcoat it: his meet was an unmitigated disaster.
This isn’t intended as a criticism of Murphy, who was clearly in tremendous shape this year and remains one of the United States’ brightest young talents, but he learned the hard way this weekend why so few Americans attempt the 800-1500 double — and why no man has won both events at USAs since 1933.
It didn’t help that conditions were brutal all weekend in Sacramento, with temperatures routinely exceeding 100 degrees and all but one of Murphy’s races being run before the sun set. That may have been a contributing factor to the hamstring cramps that kept him from racing today. Murphy’s agent Paul Doyle offered the following statement on Murphy’s status (we’re pretty sure he meant the 1500 final, not semifinals).
“Both of Clayton’s hamstrings cramped up on him with about 250m to go in the 1500m semifinals. He couldn’t get them to loosen up and had to scratch today’s 800m final.”
Had Murphy attempted this double last year, with the events spread over 10 days and cooler conditions in Eugene, he may have been able to pull it off. But it was always going to be a lot to ask for a 22-year-old college senior to run five races in four days against the best the U.S. has to offer. Murphy has plenty more USAs ahead of him, and given the way he was running coming into this meet, a run at Johnny Gray’s 1:42.60 American record is not out of the question later in the season. But he won’t be at Worlds, and that has got to sting.
QT: Abraham Alvarado isn’t going pro
When Alvarado, who surprisingly won his semifinal on Friday, showed up to the start line in a Nike pro singlet, it sent rumors flying that he had turned pro. But that is not the case. He couldn’t wear his BYU singlet today as BYU athletes aren’t allowed to wear their school singlets while competing on Sundays. But since Nike sponsors BYU, Alvarado was able to get a Nike singlet from his coach to wear today. It just happened that the singlet was identical to what Nike’s pros are wearing this season.