2019 USAs Women’s 800, 1500, and Steeple Preview: Wilson, Houlihan, & Coburn Favored For Repeats; What Event Will Kate Grace Run?
By Jonathan Gault
July 23, 2019
It’s been a long time coming, but the 2019 USATF Outdoor Championships are finally here (Editor’s note: Although honestly, we think they should be held next month if the US wants to field the best team for Worlds), and there are World Championship spots on the line in every event. LetsRun.com will be on-site in Des Moines once the meet begins on Thursday, and to get you ready for the big meet, we’re previewing all the distance events in detail. Who will be the odd woman out in the 1500 meters? Will Clayton Murphy or Donavan Brazier prevail in the battle of the Oregon Project? Who steps up in Evan Jager‘s absence? The beauty of USAs is that no one can definitively answer any of those questions — though we’ll do our best to try.
One reminder before we continue our previews with a look at the women’s 800, 1500, and steeplechase: unlike in previous World Championship years, USATF is not allowing athletes to chase the IAAF standard in 2019. That means that if an athlete in the top three doesn’t have the standard by the end of USAs, their spot on Team USA will pass to the next-highest finisher with the standard.
Also be sure to enter our $200,019 LRC Running Warehouse Prediction Contest. It’s totally free to enter and our friends at Running Warehouse are giving away three pairs of HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 6 and two $100 gift certificates to the top finishers. Enter here.
Women’s 800: Ajee’ Wilson goes for the three-peat
Prelims: Thursday, July 25, 7:22 p.m. ET
Semis: Friday, July 26, 7:18 p.m. ET
Final: Sunday, July 28, 8:12 p.m. ET
Athletes with IAAF standard (2:00.60): Ajee’ Wilson, Raevyn Rogers, Hanna Green, Kate Grace, Ce’Aira Brown, Laura Roesler
Ajee’ Wilson has been the best non-XY DSD woman in the world for the last 2+ years. She has won in her past five trips to USAs (including indoors) and hasn’t lost an 800-meter race to an American since the 2016 Olympic Trials. She will be a massive favorite to win yet another US title in Sunday’s final, and it is hard to envision any other outcome. Wilson is the American record holder and owns the fastest time by an American this year (1:57.73) by almost a second. She also does a very good job running as the favorite, getting to the lead early and controlling the race from there. The debate here is who grabs the second and third spots to Doha.
Based on the results of the Prefontaine Classic, Raevyn Rogers and Hanna Green are in line for those spots. Both of those women cracked 1:59 in that race, Rogers taking 3rd in 1:58.65 (behind only Wilson and Caster Semenya) and Green 4th in 1:58.75. If they run like that again on Sunday, their chances of making the team are very good.
Of course, repeating those performances isn’t a given. Green, who was a three-time NCAA runner-up at Virginia Tech, had never broken 2:00 before this year and has failed to break 2:01.60 in her three other races this season. But Green has raced well at other distances, displaying vastly improved endurance in 2019. She was second behind Wilson in the 1000 at USA Indoors and has lowered her 1500 PR from 4:15 to 4:06 this spring. That bodes well for navigating the rounds at USAs.
Rogers, who finished one spot ahead of Green in winning 3 of her 5 NCAA 800 titles while at Oregon, has had a string of near-misses at USAs in recent years. Outdoors in 2017, she finished fourth, just missing the team to Worlds. She has finished second in her last three appearances, indoors in 2018 and 2019 and outdoors last year. She’s been solid on the Diamond League circuit in 2019 (5th in Doha, 4th in Stockholm, 4th at Pre, 6th in Monaco) and her 1:57.69 pb is tops in this field outside of Wilson. This is her best chance yet to make a US outdoor team.
There are several unknowns that could throw this event into disarray. Chief among them: Kate Grace. The unknown there isn’t Grace’s talent — she was the last American to defeat Wilson, winning the US title in 2016 and going on to reach the Olympic final — but rather whether she’ll run the 800 at all at USAs. Grace has finished 2nd and 3rd at USAs in the 1500 the past two years, and she’s entered in both the 800 and 1500 this weekend. Doing both is virtually impossible, so she’ll have to choose.
Grace will face tough competition in both events — I’d say her chances of making the team may be a hair better in the 1500 — but at the global level, her medal chances are far better in the 800. She’s not beating Shelby Houlihan, Laura Muir, Genzebe Dibaba, or Faith Kipyegon at Worlds. Jenny Simpson as well. But assuming the IAAF’s hyperandrogenism policy is upheld, who is there to truly fear in the women’s 800 besides Wilson? Running the 800 is the smart choice, and Grace looked great doing it at the Sunset Tour meet on July 9, defeating Houlihan in the process.
As recently as June 1, when she clocked a 4:06 1600 pb in Nashville, Ce’Aira Brown — who was 3rd at USAs last year and ran 1:58.01 last year outdoors but only 2:01.19 this year (1:59.4 indoors this year)– looked like a serious contender for the team. But she only managed 2:01 her next time out in Rabat on June 16 and hasn’t raced since. If she’s not at 100%, she’s going to struggle against this field.
Oh yeah. There’s also a 17-year-old with an outside shot at the team. Remember Athing Mu? If you watched the US indoor champs, the high school junior from Trenton was hard to forget, breaking the American record (and almost the world record) to upset Rogers and win the US 600-meter title. Mu has “only” run 2:01.38 this year outdoors (#6 on the all-time high school list), so she’d need to make a big improvement just to get the IAAF standard. She could also be tired — she just won the Pan American U20 title last weekend and now faces three races in four days. But Mu showed indoors that she can rise to — and exceed — the level of her competition. And the potential is there: her AR of 1:23.57 in the 600 is worth 1:58.43 for 800 according to the IAAF scoring tables. If she gets to the final, watch out.
JG prediction: Wilson FTW. That’s easy. The next two spots are trickier, but I’ll go with Rogers and Grace to round out Team USA (sub in Green if Grace opts for the 1500).
Women’s 1500: The top two are set, but who wins the wide-open race for third?
Prelims: Thursday, July 25, 6:30 p.m. ET
Final: Saturday, July 27, 4:42 p.m. ET
Athletes with IAAF standard (4:06.50): Shelby Houlihan, Jenny Simpson, Kate Grace, Alexa Efraimson, Helen Schlachtenhaufen, Nikki Hiltz, Cory McGee, Katie Mackey, Sinclaire Johnson, Heather MacLean, Shannon Osika
I’m not going to waste your time explaining why Shelby Houlihan will make this team. Go watch the Prefontaine Classic or any of the nine US titles she’s racked up over the last 2+ years.
Jenny Simpson doesn’t require much more justification. The greatest women’s 1500 runner in American history, she’s piled up four global medals at the distance and has made every US team since 2011 (plus three more teams in the steeple before that). Her only concern is her age (she turns 33 next month), but Simpson has already run 4:01 and 3:59 this year, times no American outside of Houlihan has bettered since Shannon Rowbury in 2016 (and Rowbury has since moved up to the 5k). Add in Simpson’s innate ability to judge her races perfectly and it would be a shock to see anyone other than Houlihan finish ahead of her in Des Moines.
So after the two Iowa-born favorites (yes, Houlihan and Simpson were born in Iowa, be prepared to hear that a lot this week), who grabs the third spot on Team USA?
That is one of the most compelling questions at this year’s USATF Outdoor Championships. Kate Grace, Alexa Efraimson, Nikki Hiltz, and NCAA 1500 champ Sinclaire Johnson are the leading candidates for that honor. Shannon Osika and Helen Schlachtenhaufen, 7th and 8th last year, are slightly longer shots. And NCAA 5k champ Dani Jones is lurking. It should be a thriller.
With Rachel Schneider and Elle Purrier opting for the 5k only at USAs, Grace has the top time in the field (4:02.99) behind Simpson and Houlihan. But as mentioned earlier, she’s also entered in the 800 and could very easily skip the 1500 entirely. By any objective measure — finishes at USAs, season’s bests — Grace has been a better 1500 runner over the past two years than everyone in this field save Houlihan and Simpson. Should she enter, she’d be the slight favorite to grab the third spot.
Behind Grace, Efraimson is next-best based on season’s best (4:04.06), followed by a cluster of women in the 4:05s. Efraimson was 6th and 5th at USAs in 2016 and 2017, but failed to make the final in Des Moines last year. She has put together a solid season, with a pair of 4:04s, but didn’t look quite as good in her toughest race of the year, managing just 4:06 for 10th at Prefontaine, where Grace beat her by almost four seconds.
Hiltz has been on an absolute tear in 2019, thriving under coach Terrence Mahon in San Diego. To channel the late Al Davis: she just wins, baby. Though her pb of 4:05.56 places her just 9th on the 2019 US list, Hiltz has racked up eight wins this year across all events. Unlike Grace and Efraimson, she hasn’t run any Diamond Leagues this year, but there’s a mental boost that comes with winning a ton of races, and learning to win also hones the racing chops that are vital to making teams in the 1500 meters.
Another woman in great form is Sinclaire Johnson of Oklahoma State. She ran 4:05.98 to win NCAAs on June 8 — moving to #2 on the all-time collegiate list behind Simpson — and is coming off an 800 pb of 2:00.43 on July 9. It’s also worth pointing out that the woman Johnson beat at NCAAs, Jessica Hull, went on to run 4:02 at the Pre Classic. If Johnson is able to hold her form from a month ago, she’ll be in the thick of things at USAs.
If there’s a dark horse in this event, it’s Colorado’s Dani Jones. Which seems weird to say about a four-time NCAA champion who was 5th at this meet last year. But Jones hasn’t had an easy go of it in 2019. A stress reaction derailed her indoor season, and she didn’t return to action until April 27. Then, tragically, her father Darcy passed away in May. Jones still managed to win the NCAA 5,000 title, but her two post-NCAA races haven’t suggested that she’ll make the team in the 1500. She did manage a PR at Pre, but it was a small one (4:07.33 to 4:07.28) and she finished behind Grace and Efraimson in that race. Nine days later at the Sunset Tour meet, she could only manage 6th in 4:09 — and four of the five women who beat her will be in the 1500 at USAs.
Jones is a smart racer and a strong closer, and she has access to incredible institutional knowledge by training with Simpson and under the guidance of Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. Wetmore will have designed her comeback from injury with USAs in mind (she doesn’t have XC eligibility this fall), but she still faces a big challenge here in a loaded event. She may have to wait until next year. (She also needs the IAAF standard of 4:06.50, so she’ll need a fairly fast final on Sunday).
One more wrinkle in this event: if Houlihan wins the Diamond League final — certainly within the realm of possibility — the US will be granted an extra spot at Worlds. So whoever finishes 4th at USAs will become a huge Houlihan fan for the rest of the season.
JG prediction: Houlihan will win and Simpson will finish second. Grace is my pick for third; if she runs the 800 instead, I’ll go with Hiltz.
Women’s steeple: Can a Bowerman Babe end Emma Coburn’s reign? And who finishes 4th?
Prelims: Friday, July 26, 5:57 p.m. ET
Final: Sunday, July 28, 7:09 p.m. ET
Athletes with IAAF standard (9:40.00): Emma Coburn (bye), Courtney Frerichs, Colleen Quigley, Mel Lawrence, Allie Ostrander, Marisa Howard, Paige Stoner
It is easier to predict the top three in the women’s steeple than in any other event at these championships. It would be a complete shock if Emma Coburn, Courtney Frerichs, and Colleen Quigley, who comprised the US team at the 2016 Olympics and 2017 Worlds, don’t go 1-2-3 in some order on Sunday. That leaves two issues to settle: who wins the race, and who finishes fourth?
For most of this decade, the win has been a foregone conclusion. Coburn has made seven appearances at USAs, and seven times she has walked away as the national champion in the steeplechase. But as Coburn has ascended to the top of the global ranks in the steeple, she has served as a target for the other Americans to shoot for, and last year in Monaco, Frerichs finally caught Coburn, running 9:00.85 to break Coburn’s American record. Coburn, two years older than Frerichs, still owns a commanding 13-1 advantage all-time, and beat Frerichs convincingly at Prefontaine last month, despite a mid-race fall. But she’s not the lock at USAs that she was from 2014-17.
Frerichs admitted that she is taking things slowly this year, with the goal of peaking at Worlds overriding all others. That means she should be fitter now than she was a month ago. But is that enough to unseat Coburn, who rarely has a bad race and 9:04 with a fall at Pre? That’s a tough ask. Frerichs’ best shot to beat Coburn may come in two months’ time at Worlds; right now, Coburn still looks to be ahead.
“One thing I’ve admired about [Coburn] the last especially two years is her ability to run pretty close to her times she’s going to be at for the whole year,” Frerichs said after Pre.
Frerichs isn’t the only Bowerman Babe gunning for Coburn. Colleen Quigley finished 3rd at USAs in 2015, 2016, and 2017 and desperately wants to move up the podium in 2013. Second might be a more realistic ask than first. Quigley is 5-5 all-time against Frerichs in the steeple (though Frerichs has won the last four) and finished less than two seconds behind Frerichs at Pre; meanwhile, Quigley is 0-13 against Coburn and has only finished within three seconds of her once, way back at the 2013 NCAA champs.
Quigley, the US indoor mile champ, has the best wheels of the three, but Coburn knows this; she’s comfortable running from the front and will try to put in a gap on the Bowerman Babes before the bell. Unless Quigley has made a massive jump in fitness over the past month, she’s not going to topple Coburn.
Now what about fourth place? It’s important this year, because Coburn, as world champion, has a bye into Worlds — meaning that the fourth-placer at USAs will be going to Doha as well. It will likely come down to Mel Lawrence, the 29-year-old Washington grad who finished 3rd at USAs last year (Quigley was absent), or Allie Ostrander, the three-time NCAA champ for Boise State who recently signed a pro deal with the Brooks Beasts. Their personal bests are very similar: 9:29 for Lawrence, and 9:31 for Ostrander, both run for 13th place in Diamond Leagues this year (Lawrence in Oslo, Ostrander at Pre). Who has the better shot at Doha comes down to whether you value Lawrence’s experience or Ostrander’s potential.
JG prediction: Frerichs and Quigley are among the best in the world, but Coburn has owned USAs and I’m not going to pick against her. Frerichs takes second, Quigley third (again), and Ostrander nips Lawrence for the fourth spot on Team USA.