4 Big Storylines to Follow at Pre: How Will The 3 Olympic Champs Returning From Layoffs Do, Old vs. New in the Women’s 100 & More

By Jonathan Gault
June 28, 2019

The Prefontaine Classic is two days away, and it’s time to get excited. Because it’s the only US Diamond League meet, and because most Nike athletes have it written into their contract that they must race at Pre, the fields at this meet are terrific year after year, and that’s the case once again in 2019. If you’re a true distance nerd, you will want to check out our detailed previews of the men’s and women’s distance races, which can be found here:

LRC 2019 Pre Classic Men’s Distance Preview: Centro Returns in a Stacked Bowerman Mile vs. Kejelcha, Cheruiyot, J. Ingebrigtsen & More
LRC 2019 Pre Classic Women’s Distance Preview: USA vs the World in the Steeple, Semenya (and Kipyegon & Houlihan & Ayana) Returns

In this week’s podcast, we also spent about 45 minutes talking about the entire Pre Classic meet.

But there’s plenty to watch for at Pre beyond simply who wins the races, from the return of a trio of Olympic champions, to some aging American sprint kings, to seeing how fast Michael Norman can run 400 meters. Below, the four biggest questions I have about this year’s Pre Classic.

1. How will these three Olympic champs fare after a long layoff?

Here’s a list of things that were true when Faith Kipyegon ran her last race:

  • The Houston Astros, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, and Toronto Raptors had never won a championship.
  • The marathon world record was 2:02:57
  • Pep Guardiola had never won a Premier League title
  • It had been over 30 years since an American woman had won the New York City or Boston Marathons
  • Jakob Ingebrigtsen was 16 years old (okay, so he’s still only 18 now…Jakob Ingebrigtsen is young)
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Yes, plenty has changed since September 1, 2017, when Kipyegon won the Diamond League title in Brussels to go with her world and Olympic crowns. Back then, Shelby Houlihan was merely a good American runner with a 4:03 PR; now she’s a global force at 1500 meters and the American record holder in the 5,000. Houlihan and Laura Muir are the top athletes Kipyegon will face as she makes her much-anticipated return to the 1500, almost exactly 12 months after giving birth to daughter Alyn.

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Kipyegon isn’t the only Olympic champ making their return. 10k WR holder Almaz Ayana, who didn’t race at all last year after undergoing knee surgery in Switzerland, is running the 3,000, her first race since November 2017. And of course Matthew Centrowitz, the Olympic 1500 champ, will be running the Bowerman Mile, his first race as a member of the Bowerman Track Club.

For all three, it’s a baptism by fire because the fields at Prefontaine are stacked.

2. How fast will Michael Norman and Christian Coleman run?

Stanford’s Cobb Track is known for attracting fast distance times year after year, in part because the conditions are usually perfect, and in part because many of the world’s top distance runners actually come out to compete.

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Fast sprint times at Stanford? Not so much. Aside from the occasional Pac-12 championship, top sprinters rarely visit Stanford. The facility records in nine of the 10 sprint events date back to 2002 or 2003, the last two times the track hosted USAs. Which makes Sunday’s meet something of an unknown.

What we do know: Christian Coleman and Michael Norman are fast. Coleman leads the world in the 100 with his 9.85 from Oslo earlier this month; Norman’s 43.45 from April’s Mt. SAC Relays puts him #1 on the 2019 world list and is tied for fourth on the all-time list. Plus Norman just handed Noah Lyles his first-ever DL loss at 200 meters, running a PR (and world leader) of 19.70 in Rome. Norman actually has some experience on this track — he ran 44.40 to win the Pac-12 title here last year. Coleman has never raced at Stanford.

Both will be heavily favored to win on Sunday, which means that I’ll be watching the clock more than the rest of the competition (though reigning US 400 champ Kahmari Montgomery, who ran 44.23 to win NCAAs, could be capable of something special). The track records (9.99 in the 100 by Maurice Greene, 44.33 in the 400 by Tyree Washington) seem likely to fall; how low can Coleman and Norman take them?

3. Will old or new prevail in the women’s 100?

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When 19-year-old LSU freshman Sha’Carri Richardson ran 10.75 to win the NCAA title and vault into the world all-time top 10, it looked as if we had a new favorite for the world title in Doha this fall. After all, no woman had run that fast for almost two years; Richardson’s time was a tenth of a second better than anyone else managed in 2018.

Then the Jamaicans said, not so fast.

Actually, maybe that’s not the best phrase. First it was 2016 Olympic champ Elaine Thompson returning to form with a 10.89 to win in Rome. Then 2008 and 2012 Olympic champ Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce went one better with a 10.88 in Kingston. And when Thompson and Fraser-Pryce met at the Jamaican champs last week? Fireworks. Thompson and Fraser-Pryce both clocked 10.73, Thompson earning the narrow win as Fraser-Pryce ran her fastest time in six years.

Thompson is running the 200 at Pre, but Fraser-Pryce is staying in the 100, setting up a battle with Richardson, the newly-signed Nike pro. When Fraser-Pryce won her first Olympic title, Richardson had just finished up second grade. Now they are peers, and I have no idea who is going to win on Sunday.

4. Do aging Olympic champs Justin Gatlin & LaShawn Merritt have anything left?

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Justin Gatlin and LaShawn Merritt have a few things in common. They’re both Olympic champions, both have served doping bans, and both are on the wrong side of 30. Both are also running their specialty events at the Pre Classic on Sunday.

Gatlin, 37, is the reigning world champ in the 100 meters but has not broken 10.00 since his gold-medal run in London two years ago. He’s also largely stayed off the Diamond League circuit, as he ran just one DL in 2018 (7th in Shanghai in 10.20) and Pre will be his first DL of 2019. Gatlin has gotten close to the barrier in his two races this year, running 10.00 in May and 10.01 earlier this month, so he could well get back under the barrier at Stanford. Even if Gatlin breaks 10.00 on Sunday however, he still has a ways to go to become the oldest man under 10.00; Kim Collins ran 9.93 at age 40 in 2016.

With Coleman having already run multiple 9.8s this year, the win is likely out of the question, ruining Gatlin’s perfect 3-0 record against Coleman. But with a bye into Worlds, Gatlin doesn’t need to rush back into shape.

Merritt, the 2008 Olympic 400 champ, just celebrated his birthday on Thursday, turning 33 (thought he’d be older than that, right?). Merritt is only two years removed from his last Diamond League win — a 44.79 at Pre — but he hasn’t run a DL since then. In fact, he hasn’t run a 400 at any meet since the 2017 World Championships, when he was eliminated in the semis; his only race this year was a 20.51 200 on June 8.

The 400 is a young man’s event, and with the 2017 (Fred Kerley), 2018 (Kahmari Montgomery) and likely 2019 (Michael Norman) US champs in the field, all of whom are 24 or younger, Merritt will get a major test at Pre. Can he contend with the young bucks and make one more run at a Worlds team?

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