Many Top US Distance Stars Haven’t Raced Yet in 2021. Are They Injured? In Shape? Find Out Here
By Jonathan Gault
March 24, 2021
Believe it or not, the US Olympic Team Trials — Track & Field are only 87 days away. So far in 2021, we’ve seen several athletes stake or affirm their claims for spots on that team. Donavan Brazier, Bryce Hoppel, and Elle Purrier all broke American records indoors. Grant Fisher and Elise Cranny both ran fast outdoors on the West Coast. Emily Sisson has put the disappointment of the Olympic Marathon Trials behind her and is showing she will be a force to be reckoned with on the track.
But there are a number of Olympic hopefuls who were last seen on the backs of milk cartons. Shelby Houlihan and Lopez Lomong skipped the Bowerman Track Club’s recent racing spree. Raevyn Rogers hasn’t raced since August. Jenny Simpson hasn’t raced in over a year. Eighty-seven days isn’t that long — just over 12 weeks — to get into peak shape (or something to it) for the Trials. Where is everyone?
LetsRun.com put out an all-points bulletin to get to the bottom of things. Here’s what we know about the big US-based names yet to compete in 2021.
Credentials: 2016 Olympian, American record holder at 1500 and 5,000 meters
Last race: December 4, 2020 (15:02 5k win at Track Meet)
According to Houlihan’s agent Stephen Haas, there were some discussions about Houlihan running a 10,000 this winter, potentially targeting Molly Huddle‘s 30:13 American record. But that was only an option if Houlihan was 100% healthy with no setbacks in training. That wasn’t the case, as Houlihan dealt with a sore plantar during Bowerman TC’s recent altitude trip to Flagstaff, but Haas said the issue was a minor one.
“When she was in Flag, training was going really well,” Haas said. “I think she had a little plantar niggle. I don’t think it was anything that was keeping her out of training but at the same time, she had pretty much checked all the boxes that she needed to check in terms of getting standards and things like that, so I think the goal was to continue the upward trend of the workouts and the training.”
The 1500/5000 double at the Olympics would have been tough already, but the recent adjustment to the Trials schedule — which places the two events 30 minutes apart — make it impossible for American athletes. So has Houlihan, who won both events at USAs in 2018 and 2019, decided which event she’ll focus on in 2021?
“That’s a great question,” Haas said. “That’s a Jerry question, that’s not me. They can decide what they want to do. I think she’s definitely bummed for not having the option to do both now. But Jerry will have to make that decision for her to potentially medal. I know that’s the conversation: what’s going to be the best situation for her to medal at the Olympics?”
Credentials: Two-time Olympian, reigning US 5k/10k champ
Last race: July 21, 2020 (1:22/4:04 600/1500 double at Bowerman Intrasquad Meet III)
Lomong, who already has the Olympic standard in both the 5,000 and 10,000, sat out Bowerman’s recent standard-chasing races in California. According to his agent Tom Ratcliffe: “Lopez is doing well…he was in Tokyo (where his wife works) until the end of 2020.”
Credentials: 2019 World Championship bronze medalist (5,000m), North American 5,000-meter record holder
Last race: August 8, 2020 (5:00.72 in elimination 2k at Bowerman Intrasquad Meet IV)
Okay, so Ahmed isn’t Americana and doesn’t need to be in shape in 87 days, but since we recapped Houlihan and Lomong, we figured you’d be interested in what Bowerman TC’s top distance man has been up to. Here’s what Ahmed’s agent Dan Lilot had to say:
“Moh has been fully healthy and training really well since he went on a tear last summer, especially up at their altitude camp this winter in Flagstaff, and he wanted to take advantage of that fitness, but indoors, what little there was, didn’t really excite him. We looked at going over for the RAK Half Marathon, but that long of a trip during a pandemic didn’t seem wise, and the event ended up being canceled anyway. He would have loved to have taken a crack at Rupp’s 10,000 Area Record (26:44.36), and all accounts were that he was in that kind of shape, but doing that all, or even mostly, on your own, is no small task. He’ll likely open up with a shorter race or two this spring, and then most likely head over to Europe in June, should conditions allow it.”
Credentials: Three-time Olympian, four-time global medalist, hasn’t missed a World/Olympic team since 2005
Last race: February 14, 2020 (14:58 5k win at Valentine Invitational)
Simpson, 34, didn’t race at all last summer, though she did continue training and took her normal end-of-season break at the end of the summer.
“I remember having this conversation with [my coaches] Mark [Wetmore] and Heather [Burroughs] saying I’ve raced a lot in my life and a lot in my career and I don’t feel like I need it,” Simpson told LetsRun in December of her decision not to race outdoors in 2020. “If I was a younger athlete, I think I would need it. So just a combination of being here with the [University of Colorado] students, not wanting to engage in a bunch of unnecessary travel, and then knowing that I didn’t really need to race, I have plenty of racing experience, I think there were a lot of reasons why we didn’t.”
Simpson often races at her sponsor’s meet, the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, in February, but this year opted to skip it as the result of what Simpson says was “a collective decision between myself, NB, and coaches to stay in a training block.”
Credentials: 2019 World Championship silver medalist (800m)
Last race: August 29, 2020 (2:01 800m win in Gothenburg)
Rogers, who left Derek Thompson to join coach Pete Julian‘s training group in 2020, was supposed to race the 600 at the American Track League #2 on January 31 but had to withdraw due to contact tracing protocols. Julian told LetsRun she had a minor calf issue after that which prevented her from racing at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix on February 13 but that she had a good winter training camp in Arizona and will race by late April.
Credentials: Three-time Olympian, former American record holder at 1500 and 5,000 meters
Last race: September 13, 2020 (4:02 1500 for 5th at ISTAF Berlin meet)
Rowbury, who gave birth to daughter Sienna in 2018, was 6th in the 5,000 at USAs in 2019 — the first time she had missed out on a US World/Olympic team since 2007. Last year, however, she showed that she remains a serious contender to make the team for Tokyo, running 4:02 for 1500 and 14:45 for 5,000 — her fastest times at those distances since 2016. As for why she hasn’t raced yet in 2021, here’s what Julian said:
“Shannon’s case was similar to much of the world during a pandemic. Raising a kid during a pandemic and keeping everyone safe around the family doesn’t freely lend itself to coming and going so easily. We have a plan in place for the spring and summer.”
Julian added that Rowbury is currently healthy and, like Rogers, will race by late April.
Credentials: 2016 Olympic finalist, 2019 World Championships team member
Last race: August 29, 2020 (28:08 10k for 5th at Sunset Tour meet)
Blankenship’s most notable accomplishment this winter was sponsoring the women’s mile at the second American Track League meet in January. Here’s what his agent Stephen Haas told us about why Blankenship didn’t race indoors:
“A few niggles, nothing major that was gonna keep him out of anything. [I] also think [coach] Mark [Rowland] and Ben work better when you know you have certain guarantees and you know there are definitely going to be races and things like that. And they were definitely planning on doing some things in the fall with the Sound Running meets and trying to go back there or potentially the one that just happened. But again, little niggles, nothing major. He’s coming up to Flag this week. This will be his first altitude camp of the year and I think [there is] just more of a focus on what happens at the Trials and this summer rather than doing things in the fall and the winter. But he’s healthy and he’s coming up and hopefully he’ll be racing in May. The talks are trying to find what the best options are going to be domestically to try to hit the 1500 A standard.”
Credentials: 5th and 10th at last two World Championships in steeplechase
Last race: February 29, 2020 (DNF US Olympic Marathon Trials)
Kebenei, the second-fastest American steepler in history, hasn’t raced on the track since finishing 10th in the 2019 World Championship final. Last year, he made his marathon debut at the Olympic Trials in Atlanta but wound up dropping out. Later in the year, his wife gave birth to twins, which has kept him busy. His agent Hawi Keflezighi says Kebenei is “healthy and ready to go” and will make his season debut sometime next month.
Credentials: Three-time NCAA steeple champion, 2019 World Championships team member
Last race: February 27, 2020 (15:19 5k for 8th at BU Last Chance Invitational)
Ostrander hasn’t raced at all in 2021 due to a pair of stress reactions in her legs. Ostrander shared more details on her injury in this video.
Ostrander does not yet have the Olympic standard of 9:30.00 (her personal best is 9:30.85).
Credentials: 2019 World Championship finalist in steeple
Last race: February 28, 2020 (13:24 5k for 9th at BU Last Chance Invitational)
Bayer, 31, finally broke through by making his first World Championship team in 2019, where he ran a personal best of 8:12.47 (#7 all-time US) to finish 12th in the final in Doha. Whether he returns to chase his first Olympic berth in 2021 remains unclear, however.
“Training has taken a backseat to him going back to school for his engineering (master’s) degree,” Bayer’s agent Paul Doyle told LetsRun.
Bayer was 4th in the 2012 Trials in the 1500 and 4th again at the 2016 Trials in the steeple.