By Jonathan Gault
March 14, 2019
I was planning on spending Monday writing a column about what I learned covering the 2019 NCAA indoor meet. Then this happened. And this happened. Suffice it to say, things have been pretty busy at LetsRun.com this week.
But now that I’ve had a few days to catch my breath, I figured I’d revisit what happened last weekend in Birmingham. With its condensed two-day format and nonstop finals on Saturday evening, it can be hard to take a step back and figure out what it all means; before I could even finish talking to Ohio State’s Julia Rizk in the mixed zone following her surprise win in the women’s mile, Northern Arizona’s Geordie Beamish was already halfway through authoring his own upset in the men’s mile. For spectators, it’s great entertainment, but it can be hard to see the bigger picture when you’ve only got a few minutes between races.
That’s what this article aims to do. Below, five things you may have missed amid the madness of NCAAs.
1. Grant Holloway has all the makings of a big-time star
If you follow the NCAA at all, you’ve already heard of Grant Holloway, the supremely talented University of Florida junior: he entered 2019 as a four-time NCAA champion and the collegiate record holder in the 60-meter hurdles. But watching him all weekend, two things were apparent: 1) he has everything you’d want from a future star; 2) he is not returning to Florida for his senior year.
Regarding the future star business, it’s all there. He was the life of the pre-meet press conference, always happy to stop by the mixed zone (he made multiple visits each day, which is uncommon; most athletes will only stop to talk after their final event of the day), and handled it all with ease. At times, the 21-year-old Holloway had a full-blown entourage following him around — the Florida SID, video crews — and it didn’t sap one ounce of the genuine joy that seems to emanate from him at all times. At the end of the meet, after they handed out the awards for the men’s 4×400, I finally wrangled him for an interview, and as we walked from the podium to the mixed zone, about 50 meters away, he must have stopped at least four times. Everyone in the NCAA knows who Grant Holloway is, but apparently Grant Holloway knows who everyone in the NCAA is as well, because he had friends and well-wishers from across the country. It felt like he was the king of the NCAA (which, in a way, he is).
Then there’s the talent. The guy finished third in the long jump on Friday despite passing his final three attempts to focus on the sprint prelims (he was in the lead when he stopped jumping). The next day, he broke the American record in the 60 hurdles at 4:40 p.m. and 40 minutes later won the flat 60, running the second-fastest time in the world this year. And he closed it out by splitting 46.00 on Florida’s third-place 4×400 (a full second slower than the 44.91 he split last year, though I’ll give him a pass since he didn’t have to run the 60 in 2018).
Even though he broke the American record in the hurdles, what struck me most about Holloway on the track last weekend was the flat 60. Guys built like Grant Holloway — 6-foot-2, 190 lbs. — aren’t supposed to be good 60-meter runners. The two fastest men ever in that event, Christian Coleman and Maurice Greene, both stand just 5-foot-9; it is hard for a man of Holloway’s size to spring out of the blocks and accelerate that quickly in a race that lasts less than seven seconds. His best event remains the high hurdles — his big goal this spring is to break Renaldo Nehemiah‘s legendary 13.00 collegiate record in the 110 hurdles, set all the way back in 1979 — but his exploits over 60 meters this winter, an event he basically picked up for fun two months ago, make me really want to know what he is capable of in the 100 outdoors. Olympic 110 hurdles champ Omar McLeod, whose collegiate 60 hurdles record Holloway broke last year, is the only man to have broken 13.00 in the 110 hurdles and 10.00 in the 100. Holloway hasn’t done either yet, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him join the club one day.
Perhaps Holloway’s only slip-up this weekend came at the end of his final interview, when he accidentally suggested that he’ll be turning pro after the 2019 NCAA outdoor season. Talking about Kentucky’s Daniel Roberts — who was second to Holloway in the 60 hurdles in Birmingham — Holloway paid his respects, which included saying that “next year, it’s going to be his year” (3:38 mark in the video below). When Flotrack’s Lincoln Shryack quickly pointed out that Holloway still had a year of eligibility remaining, Holloway couldn’t help but smile.
Holloway (realizing what he just said): “Yeah. Shit. Fuck. Yeah.”
Shryack: “Are you going to go pro after this year?”
Holloway: “No. Fuck, I don’t know. Y’all stop! I’m out! I’m out! I’m out!”
But this wasn’t some athlete storming off after a question didn’t like. It was more like Holloway was tacitly admitting, we all know what’s going on here. This is a guy who last June wrote a letter explaining why he was passing up a pro contract (and he would have had many suitors) to return to Florida for his junior year. A guy who is talking openly about breaking one of the most hallowed collegiate records on the books, which would require a time (sub-13) that only one man in the world managed last year. It’s not like Holloway was spilling state secrets; everyone already expected he was turning pro this year.
And that led to one last piece of Grant Holloway magic: even when he decides to cut an interview short, you can’t help but smile at the guy.
2. You don’t need to run indoors to be a great indoor runner
One of the most interesting tidbits to come out of NCAA indoors was the fact that Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald, who swept the two longest races of the weekend, the men’s 3k and 5k, says he only ran one workout on an indoor track all season. Here’s some footage of his final pre-NCAA workout, courtesy of Badgers coach Mick Byrne:
Last “Track” session prior to NCAA Mile🥉,3k🥇,5k🥇,DMR7️⃣. pic.twitter.com/bawndhGk08
— Mick Byrne (@WiscoByrne) March 10, 2019
This year, McDonald has transformed from great college runner to an NCAA-title-winning machine, and a big part of it is down to the fact that McDonald has been able to make it to the NCAA meet in one piece. McDonald made NCAAs indoors and outdoors as a sophomore in 2016, finishing 12th indoors before running an impressive 13:29 to finish 5th in the 5k at NCAA outdoors.
But last weekend was the first time McDonald had made it back to an NCAA track champs since that race, with injuries largely preventing him from reaching his potential (he redshirted last year indoors to run the Commonwealth Games in his native Australia, won the Australian Trials…and promptly got hurt again). Since returning from the Commonwealth Games in April, however, McDonald has put together an uninterrupted training block of almost a year, and he’s done it by working with Byrne to figure out the best ways to stay healthy — such as staying off the indoor track (except for races).
It’s a good example of problem solving by coach and athlete. Even the most talented athlete in the world can’t win a gold medal if he can’t make it to the start line.
Now McDonald is two-thirds of the way through a perfect year at NCAA champs, and with his 13:15 pb and three national titles already under his belt, he’ll be the favorite in the 5k at NCAA outdoors as well.
3. Mike Smith has done more than inherit a great team at NAU; he’s building a legacy of his own
For the second straight year, Northern Arizona University produced an unlikely winner in one of the distance races at NCAA indoors. Last year, it was Andy Trouard upsetting Justyn Knight to win the 3k in College Station; this year, it was Geordie Beamish taking down NCAA 1500 champ Oliver Hoare to win the mile.
Seriously, when was the last time that a team’s #4 guy at NCAA XC won a national title on the track…followed by their #6 guy at NCAA XC winning one the following year? Because that’s what Trouard (35th in 2017) and Beamish (39th in 2018) have done under Smith’s guidance.
Smith inherited a great situation when he moved to Flagstaff in 2016 (Smith took over as distance coach after NAU won the 2016 NCAA XC champs), where former coach Eric Heins left him a loaded roster with a history of success, and Smith admitted as much after guiding NAU to the NCAA XC crown in 2017
“I got handed a really wonderful team culture,” Smith said. “I got handed wonderful athletes. I got handed just a really fantastic situation.”
But even with that situation, few coaches would have been able to accomplish what Smith has in just over two years: two NCAA XC titles (NAU has yet to lose a race under Smith), two NCAA individual titles on the track, and no signs of slowing down.
4. Four separate USC women have won NCAA individual sprint titles
While we’re giving out credit to coaches, how about the job done by USC’s Caryl Smith Gilbert? Heading into the NCAA meet, I didn’t give anyone a chance to stop the Arkansas women. And while the Razorbacks did eventually pull it out to win their second NCAA indoor title in five years, USC had them sweating it out for a little bit, scoring 51 to Arkansas’ 62; no runner-up has scored more points since 1999.
The main reason I didn’t give USC a chance is because Arkansas was projected to score in the 70s, with a team that could score big in the distances, sprints, and in the field. USC, meanwhile, was a sprints-only team (they qualified one long jumper, but she didn’t score), and scoring the 50+ points that would be required to win while relying on only one discipline seemed impossible.
But the Trojans’ sprint corps was incredible in Birmingham. They won the 60, went 4-7 in the 200, 1-3 in the 400, 1-6-7 in the 60 hurdles, and finished 6th in the 4×400 (they actually could have scored 52 as Anna Cockrell was a DNS in the 60 hurdles final. Had she just walked it, she would have been given a point but it’s hard to walk a hurdles race).
Perhaps the craziest thing is USC is now capable of trotting out an entire relay team composed of NCAA individual champions: Twanisha Terry (2019 60m), Chanel Brissett (2019 60m hurdles), Kaelin Roberts (2019 indoor 400m), and Anglerne Annelus (2018 outdoor 200m). For a team that lost three NCAA individual champs last year in Michael Norman, Rai Benjamin, and Kendall Ellis, it’s remarkable how the Trojans have reloaded.
5. Oh yeah, Florida has a Japanese sprint phenom on its roster
While Grant Holloway was instrumental in the Florida men repeating as NCAA champions, Gators coach Mike Holloway wanted to make it clear that Florida was more than a “one-man band,” giving credit to all his scorers at NCAAs. One of them was Hakim Sani Brown, a 20-year-old sophomore from Japan who finished 3rd in the 60 and could be one of the stars of the 2020 Olympics.
Sani Brown, whose mother is Japanese and father is Ghanaian, first turned heads in 2015 when, as a 16-year-old, he swept the 100 and 200 the World Youth Championships. Later that summer — the equivalent of the summer after his sophomore year of high school — he ran at the senior World Championships and advanced to the semi-finals. His 200 PR at 16? 20.34.
Two years later, at 18, he ran 10.05/20.32 to sweep the Japanese titles in the 100 and 200 and advanced to the final of the 200 meters at the World Championships in London, placing 7th. He accomplished all of this before even enrolling in college.
So how did he end up in Gainesville, Florida? Well, education was important to Sani Brown’s mother, and she wanted him to experience a new culture. The NCAA system seemed like a good fit.
“He came to visit and he was sitting at my house,” Holloway said. “We kind of jokingly, I always ask him, what kind of a car would he like to have if he could have any car he wanted? He said he would take a Bugatti. So I told him, ‘You’re going to be a Bugatti.’ And just before the visit was over, he goes, ‘You have a new Bugatti.'”
Sani Brown didn’t race much as a freshman — he finished 6th in the 60 at SECs in his only indoor meet, and suited up just three times outdoors, none after April. But Holloway had bigger plans.
“When he came to me, he was 18 years old, he was a little fragile, a little dinged-up,” Holloway said. “I just had to let him grow up. It would have been unfair for me to rush him into doing the things that he’s capable of doing. I promised his mom that I was going to be patient with him. The goal was for Hakim to be ready in ’19 and obviously be ready in ’20 because the Olympic Games are in his backyard. So that wasn’t about the University of Florida, it had to be about Hakim and his career.”
Sani Brown has made big progress this indoor season, dropping his 60 PR down to 6.54 (tied for #7 in the world this year) and finishing just five-thousandths of a second out of second place in Birmingham. To achieve his bigger goals, Sani Brown will have to battle history — Japan hasn’t had an Olympic finalist in the men’s 100 or 200 since 1932 — but if he can make the final in Tokyo, he will have an entire country behind him.