One Last Shot: Which Athletes Could Be Running Their US Final Olympic Trials in 2021?
By Jonathan Gault
April 14, 2021
For a number of American track & field stars, this year’s Olympic Trials will be their last. We just don’t know which ones yet.
For every Usain Bolt — who announced his retirement in 2017 and has stayed retired (for now) — there is a Dawn Harper-Nelson, who retired from the sport in 2018 only to return last year. Few would have expected Bernard Lagat to make it to another Olympic Trials after he won the 5,000 at the 2016 Trials in Eugene. But there he was on the start line of the Olympic Marathon Trials, age 45, four years later in Atlanta. In sports, you never know when the end is the end.
But we can still make some educated guesses. Below are two tables listing the youngest and oldest US Olympians in every running event since 2000, which gives us an idea of an athlete’s window in each event.
The Youngest and Oldest US Olympians Since 2000 – Men
|100||20 (Trayvon Bromell ’16)||34 (Justin Gatlin ’16)||26.3|
|200||21 (John Capel ’00)||34 (Justin Gatlin ’16)||25.8|
|400||20 (Jeremy Wariner ’04)||32 (Michael Johnson ’00)||25.4|
|800||20 (Andrew Wheating ’08)||35 (Khadevis Robinson ’12)||25.9|
|1500||21 (Alan Webb ’04)||33 (Bernard Lagat ’08)||25|
|5000||23 (Brad Hauser ’00)||41 (Bernard Lagat ’16)||28.1|
|10000||21 (Dathan Ritzenhein ’04)||31 (Abdi Abdirahman ’08)||26.9|
|110 hurdles||21 (Devon Allen ’16)||33 (Allen Johnson ’04)||27.1|
|400 hurdles||21 (Byron Robinson ’16)||33 (Angelo Taylor ’12)||25.9|
|3000 steeple||22 (Donn Cabral ’12)||32 (Mark Croghan ’00)||26.2|
The Youngest and Oldest US Olympians Since 2000 – Women
|100||20 (Lauryn Williams ’04)||37 (Gail Devers ’04)||26.9|
|200||18 (Allyson Felix ’04)||32 (Carmelita Jeter ’12)||23.7|
|400||19 (Sanya Richards-Ross ’04)||30 (Allyson Felix ’16)||25.5|
|800||22 (Ajee Wilson ’16)||37 (Joetta Clark Diggs ’00)||28.5|
|1500||23 (Shannon Rowbury ’08)||31 (Suzy Favor Hamilton ’00)||25.5|
|5000||23 (Shalane Flanagan ’04)||35 (Marla Runyan ’04)||28.1|
|10000||23 (Kate O’Neill ’04)||35 (Libbie Hickman ’00)||28.1|
|100 hurdles||24 (Dawn Harper-Nelson ’08)||37 (Gail Devers ’04)||28.9|
|400 hurdles||16 (Sydney McLaughlin ’16)||31 (Sandra Glover ’00)||24.3|
|3000 steeple||21 (Emma Coburn ’12)||25 (Emma Coburn ’16)||22.8|
Note: Age is the athlete’s age on day 1 of that year’s Olympic Trials
Those tables are a reminder of how much history some athletes will have to overcome just to make the team in 2021. In the women’s 1500, 34-year-old Jenny Simpson would be three years older than any other 21st century US women’s 1500 Olympian. 36-year-old Molly Huddle would be the oldest US women’s Olympian in any distance event since 2000. And on the other end of the spectrum, Cole Hocker, who turns 20 two weeks before the Trials, would be the youngest US men’s Olympian in any running event since the turn of the century.
But those tables aren’t etched in stone. Five years ago, the data suggested a 16-year-old 400 hurdler and a 41-year-old 5000 runner would have had no shot at an Olympics; Sydney McLaughlin and Bernard Lagat proved otherwise. Exceptions can be made for greatness.
With that in mind, I’ve taken a look at some stars who could be competing at their final Olympic Trials in 2021, and broken them down into categories based on how likely they are to be at the next Trials in 2024.
Say Goodbye — 2021 Will Be Their Final Trials
Gatlin’s initial plan was to retire after the Olympics in 2020. For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen. Now he’s dropping hints that he’ll try to make the US team for the Eugene Worlds in 2022. But no way will he be at the 2024 Olympic Trials at age 42.
By the time of this summer’s Olympics (if she makes it), Felix will have been competing at global championships for over half her life. She was 17 years, 9 months, and 8 days old when she debuted at the 2003 World Championships in Paris; when the track & field competition in Tokyo kicks off on July 30, 17 years, 11 months, and 4 days will have passed since Felix’s first race at those 2003 Worlds.
Felix would like to make her first Olympic team as a mom — and her fifth overall — this summer, and an Olympic medal in Tokyo (a near-lock if she makes a relay team) would tie her with Carl Lewis for the most ever by an American track & field athlete (10). But with six Olympic golds already, she has nothing else to prove in the sport. She confirmed to LetsRun on Wednesday that her plan is for Tokyo to be her final Olympics.
Very Likely Their Final Trials — At Least on the Track
Rowbury, fourth in the last two Olympic 1500 finals, has moved up to the 5,000 in 2021 and remains a serious threat to make the team this year after clocking 4:02 and 14:45 last summer. But will she still have the ability — and desire — to chase another Olympic berth in 2024 at age 39?
No. Track & Field News published a piece today saying she signed a one-year deal with Nike and this is it unless she makes the Olympics and then she’ll run one more year.
Huddle has won five straight US titles at 10,000 meters, but a sixth is looking tough. Couple the emergence of Karissa Schweizer and Elise Cranny with Huddle’s declining speed, and this summer could very well represent Huddle’s swan song on the track. If Huddle is to chase an Olympic berth at age 39 in 2024, it will likely be in the marathon.
True has never made an Olympic team, and as an unsponsored 35-year-old, who is paying a guy $20,000 a year to train with him, 2021 very much seems as if it is Olympics-or-bust for the Dartmouth alum. But True has already stated his intention to eventually move up to the marathon, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him at the marathon trials as a 38-year-old in 2024.
The 2016 Trials champion at 800 meters missed out on a trip to Worlds in the 1500 by .27 in 2019. But it’s tough to be competitive in the 1500 once you hit your mid-30s, and Grace, as an 800/1500 type, seems ill-suited for a move up to the 5k in 2024.
They Could Be Done By 2024…But You Never Know
I’ll be honest: after Lomong finished 10th in the 5,000 at the 2016 Trials (following a 6th-place finish at USAs in 2015), I was fairly confident he wouldn’t even make it to the 2020 Trials. In the five years since, Lomong has reinvented himself, adding the 10,000 to his resume and running some of the fastest times ever by an American (his 27:04 10,000 in 2019 ranks him 3rd all-time; his 12:58 5,000 from 2020 is 8th). I wouldn’t be shocked if Lomong hangs ’em up before 2024, but considering he’s showing no signs of decline, why would he?
This one will likely come down to desire. As consistently brilliant as Simpson has been — she has made every US World/Olympic team since 2007 — it’s hard to envision her being a factor in the 1500 meters at age 37. But Simpson, like her one-time rival Rowbury, could have a future in the 5,000 meters. She is the 2013 US champ at that distance, and sowed the seeds for a potential move up by hitting the Olympic standard with a 14:58 indoors in Boston in February 2020. Simpson wouldn’t be a global medal threat at 5000, as she has been for the last decade in the 1500, but if she wants to stick with the sport, she could be a contender to make the US Olympic team at that distance in 2024.
And yes, I know what you’re thinking: What about the steeple? While it is true that Simpson once held the American record in that event (9:12.50 from 2009), Emma Coburn, Courtney Frerichs, and Colleen Quigley have all since run faster and all are significantly younger than Simpson. Add in the fact that Simpson hasn’t run a steeple in 12 years and the 5k seems like the better bet.
Hill’s best days are likely behind him, which explains why Nike was willing to let him go at the end of 2020. But Hill — and his new sponsor, HOKA — clearly believe he has something left as he signed a multi-year deal with the brand back in January, and he ran 13:15 less than a year ago. Hill will be 34 by the next Olympic Trials, so if he can turn things around to the point where he is at least in contention to make US teams in 2021 or 2022, he’ll likely make it to the 2024 Trials. But 34 is also right around the time many 5k specialists hang them up. Looking at some of Hill’s former Bowerman TC teammates, Andrew Bumbalough retired at 33, Matt Tegenkamp retired two weeks after turning 34, and Chris Solinsky retired at 31 (though he dealt with significantly more injury issues than Hill).
We think him being in the marathon trials is much more likely.
For runners of a certain age, it seems crazy to ponder that 2021 could be Andrews’ final Olympic trials (I’m one of them — Andrews is 54 days younger than me). But Andrew Wheating retired at 30. Alan Webb retired a month after turning 31. Andrews, the 2017 US 1500 champ and 2016 Olympian, has been beset by injuries and illness for the last three years; you’d have to go back to his 3:36 in Oslo in 2018 for his last world-class performance. If he can’t stay healthy or return to his old form, will he stick it out for another three years?
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