USATF Golden Games Preview: What A Meet!!! Brazier v Hoppel v Murphy, Lyles v Bednarek, Jager Returns, McGorty Debuts, & DK Metcalf
By Jonathan Gault
May 7, 2021
We’re just six weeks out from the US Olympic Trials, and this weekend many of America’s top athletes have decided it’s time to show their cards. Evan Jager is running his first steeple since 2018. Allyson Felix is running her first 200 outdoors since 2017. And world champions Noah Lyles (200m) and Donavan Brazier (800m) will run their specialty events for the first time outdoors in 2021 — the latter against a stacked field that includes Bryce Hoppel and Clayton Murphy.
Of course, some exceptions remain. Shelby Houlihan is still nowhere to be seen and Sydney McLaughlin remains steadfastly committed to racing the 100m hurdles (she’ll run it for the fourth time in six weeks on Sunday) rather than her best event, the 400m hurdles. But by Sunday night, we’ll know significantly more about how certain events will look at the Trials in Eugene. Can Kenny Bednarek challenge Lyles in the 200? (They’re squaring off at Mt. SAC). Will Sean McGorty be a factor in the steeple? (He’s making his debut Sunday). And will NFL star DK Metcalf even make it to the Trials? (Probably not, but he’s entered in the 100m this weekend).
There are a ton of events to get through, so let’s hit it with a blowout meet preview. We present the key events in the order that they will be run.
Here is the TV info:
Women’s 100 (prelims 3:18 p.m. ET, final 4:57 p.m. ET): The Sha’Carri Richardson Show
Let’s not beat around the bush: Sha’Carri Richardson is going to win this race. But even if the outcome is predetermined, Richardson has earned must-watch status after her stunning 10.72 season opener in Miramar on April 10. She’s still just 21 years old, which means anything is possible when she steps on the track. One thing worth tracking: could Richardson run faster than DK Metcalf? Sprint guru Ato Boldon told us a time around 10.5 would be a good race for Metcalf, but if Metcalf is a little slower…
Also, did you realize Veronica Campbell-Brown is still around? The 2004 Olympic 200m champ from Jamaica turns 39 next week and is lined up here. 2016 Olympic Trials champ English Gardner is also slated to make her season debut in this race.
Men’s 100 (prelims 3:32 p.m. ET, final 5:03 p.m. ET): DK Metcalf vs. the pros
If you want the full scoop on how DK Metcalf will fare, check out our interview with Ato Boldon, who explains the biggest challenges the Seahawks wideout will face in taking on the pros on Sunday: LRC “10.5ish If He Has a Good Race” — Ato Boldon Assesses DK Metcalf’s 100-Meter Chances at the USATF Golden Games. If you want to watch Metcalf live, be sure to check out the prelims on USATF.TV/Peacock as it’s highly unlikely he advances to the final (though NBC will also show Metcalf’s prelim tape-delayed on the main broadcast).
As for the rest of this field, it lost some star power with the withdrawal of Ronnie Baker (it’s worrying that Baker, who ran 9.94 at the Texas Relays, hasn’t raced since March and has scratched from his last two races). Kyree King (9.97) is the fastest guy in the field based on season’s best.
Women’s 1500 (4:40 p.m. ET): Purrier vs. DeBues-Stafford for continental supremacy
Elle Purrier and Gabriela DeBues-Stafford have both looked really good so far in 2021. Purrier ran an American record of 9:10 for 2 miles indoors with a big negative split and followed that up with a comfortable 15:08 5k win at the Texas Qualifier. DeBues-Stafford won a stacked 3k at the Prickly Pear Invite and, like Purrier, prevailed at the Texas Qualifier in a tactical 1500. Sunday’s race offers the pair two things: a chance to run fast in their best event and the opportunity to test themselves against a worthy rival.
You may remember what happened the last time these two met, at Millrose in 2020: Purrier delivered a shocking 4:16 American record in the mile, with GDS following behind with a Canadian record of 4:19. Thanks to COVID, Purrier hasn’t had an opportunity to bring her 1500 pb in line with where it should be — it’s still her 4:00.20 split from that mile at Millrose — but if she’s fit, she could very well become the ninth American member of the sub-4:00 club.
The US Women’s Sub-4:00 1500 Club
|5||Suzy Favor Hamilton||3:57.40||Oslo||7/28/00|
Helen Schlachtenhaufen, who ran 4:04 to finish as the top American at the USATF Grand Prix two weeks ago, is running here as well. If Purrier and GDS force the pace up front, Schlachtenhaufen could be in line to lower her 4:03 pb.
(Editor’s note: Full disclosure, Schlachtenhaufen went to Dartmouth like Jonathan Gault but she came in the year after he left.)
Men’s 800 (4:50 p.m. ET): Brazier vs. Hoppel vs. Murphy
Three months ago, when Donavan Brazier and Bryce Hoppel managed to avoid racing each other indoors, I clamored for a matchup between the US 800m stars. Two weeks ago, we got it in Eugene over 1500m, and on Sunday, we get it again at 800m and it’s even better than I could have hoped for. Not only do we have Brazier and Hoppel, each of whom set Americans this year indoors (800m for Brazier, 1000m for Hoppel), but Olympic bronze medalist Clayton Murphy and Canadian star Marco Arop. That’s half of the 2019 World Championship final right there.
Add in Isaiah Harris (4th at 2019 USAs) and Brannon Kidder (6th at 2019 USAs) and former NCAA champs Michael Saruni and Josh Kerr and you’ve got almost every relevant US 800 runner and some serious international talent. This race is loaded.
Brazier will be favored, of course. It’s been over two years since he has lost an 800m race, racking up nine straight victories in that time. The more interesting questions to be answered: What does the US pecking order look like just six weeks out from the Trials? And where does Kenya’s Saruni fit in — ahead or behind the likes of Murphy/Hoppel? All will be revealed shortly…
Men’s 1500 (5:18 p.m. ET): Will any Americans step up?
Who is the US outdoor leader at 1500 meters in 2021?
Come on, take a guess.
If you said Ole Miss’s Waleed Suliman (3:36.53), congratulations.
3:36 is a terrific time for a collegian, but the fact that Suliman, who was 3rd in the NCAA indoor mile in March, is currently the US leader is reflective of an event brimming with uncertainty. Matthew Centrowitz has lorded over the US 1500 ranks for the past decade, but Centro and his Bowerman TC teammate, Josh Thompson, the 2020 US champ, have run precisely one 1500 each this year: Centro was 8th in his in 3:40, and Thompson was 15th in his in 3:44 (neither is entered here, though both are slated to run at next week’s Sound Running Track Meet). Craig Engels ran 3:36 indoors, but he was not the top American in that race (that would be Sam Prakel) and has yet to run a 1500 outdoors. NCAA mile champ Cole Hocker has been the biggest force in the event so far in 2021, but he’s 19 years old and hasn’t raced the pros yet.
Which means Sunday is a big opportunity for the likes of Engels, Prakel, Johnny Gregorek, and US road mile champ Eric Avila to step forward and make a statement. If they don’t, they will once again find themselves left behind by an international field that includes Ollie Hoare and Justyn Knight (whom we know are in great shape) and Moh Ahmed (who ran 3:34/12:47 last summer).
The race-within-a-race between Canadians Knight and Ahmed will be worth tracking. Ahmed is the better runner over 5k and 10k, and owns the faster pb at 1500, but Knight figures to be closer to his rival at the shorter distance. A win would be a nice confidence boost for Knight, who is 0-7 lifetime against his fellow maple leafer.
Women’s 800 (5:28 p.m. ET): Rogers tries to hold off British invasion and…Brenda Martinez?
This race features many of the same athletes as the 800 at the USATF Grand Prix two weeks ago at Hayward Field, where Brit Adelle Tracey shocked Jemma Reekie, Raevyn Rogers, and Melissa Bishop-Nriagu to win in a surprisingly slow 2:03.25. All four women are back at Mt. SAC, with another British star, Laura Muir, added to the mix along with promising American miler Sinclaire Johnson. If Tracey can manage to beat this field again, she’ll go from curiosity to genuine contender in the 800.
Brenda Martinez, the 2013 World Championship silver medalist, is also entered for her season opener. Martinez has barely raced since 2018 — she ran one race in 2019 and two in 2020 — and is now 33 years old. Given her lack of recent performances, it’s possible she runs in the B heat (4:08 p.m. ET), which won’t be in the NBC broadcast window.
Men’s 400 hurdles (5:42 p.m. ET): Rai Benjamin returns
After Karsten Warholm‘s back-to-back world titles and historic 2020 season, it’s easy to forget just how close Rai Benjamin was to him in 2019; Benjamin was just .06 behind Warholm in their epic showdown at the Diamond League final in Zurich, running 46.98 (#3 all-time) to Warholm’s 46.92 (#2 all-time). But while Warholm lowered his pb to 46.87 in 2020, Benjamin chose not to race in the hurdles. On Sunday, he will return to his favored event for the first time in 587 days.
How fast will he go? Well, Benjamin has yet to run slower than 47 seconds in his professional 400m hurdle career (five races, excluding prelims). Considering he ran 44.97 for the flat 400 two weeks ago in Eugene, look for that streak to continue.
Women’s 200 (5:49 p.m. ET): Felix vs. Miller-Uibo
Shaunae Miller-Uibo will be favored to win pretty much any race she runs, as long as Salwa Eid Naser isn’t in it. Well I just checked the start list, and guess what: no Naser. Considering Miller-Uibo was just about the only athlete to run fast in Eugene on an otherwise slow day at the USATF Grand Prix — she ran 49.08 for 400 — she could be in shape to rip a quick time in this one. Other entrants here include World Championship silver medalist Brittany Brown and one Allyson Felix, who hasn’t run a 200 outdoors in four years but plans on running both the 200 and 400 at next month’s Olympic Trials.
Men’s 200 (5:56 p.m. ET): Lyles vs. Bednarek vs. Knighton as present and future collide
DK Metcalf may grab the headlines, but the 200m is where the true sprint talent resides in this meet. I’d bet money Noah Lyles and Kenny Bednarek both end the year as Olympic medalists, and they’ll face each other here, along with 17-year-old Erriyon Knighton (we’ll get to him in a minute).
Bednarek and Lyles have raced a few times, but never when both men were at their best. In the 2019 US final, Lyles won in 19.78 as Bednarek pulled up injured; Bednarek wasn’t recovered by Worlds and went out in the first round. Last year, Lyles handily beat Bednarek on July 25 in Clermont, 19.94 to 20.19, but by the time Bednarek reached top form (he ran 19.80 in Montverde on August 10), Lyles had headed off to race in Europe. They’ve raced once already this year, over 100m, and Bednarek came out on top there, 10.03 to 10.08.
Which makes Sunday’s encounter that much more compelling. Lyles has seemed destined to be the next Olympic champion ever since he won the Diamond League final as a 20-year-old in 2017. But here comes Bednarek, who is a year younger and has flashed tremendous potential (though nothing close to Lyles’ 19.50 pb yet). Is a changing of the guard in order, or will Lyles put his foot down?
And then there’s Knighton, who ran 20.31 on April 4 and 9.99 (+2.7 wind) last week in Clermont. How close can he get to Lyles’ 20.09 high school record…with Lyles himself in the race for Knighton to chase? It could be a race to remember.
Men’s steeple (10:17 p.m. ET): Jager returns as McGorty debuts
This race could have huge implications for the composition of the US Olympic steeple squad. First of all, there is the return of Evan Jager — the greatest American steepler of all time. Jager has not raced a steeple since August 30, 2018, as he missed all of 2019 with a foot injury and didn’t have any opportunities to race a steeple in 2020 (he did run 3:36/7:38/13:12 last year though). Now 32, this year is likely Jager’s last shot at an Olympic title, but before we start talking about that, Jager has to prove that he is still the man to beat in the US. If he’s healthy — still a concern, as Jager had to scratch from the Sound Running Invite in March with an Achilles injury — no American is better. But it’s been a while.
It is fitting Jager makes his return at Mt. SAC, as that was the site of his first-ever steeple back in 2012. Which also makes it an appropriate venue for his Bowerman TC teammate Sean McGorty to debut. The BTC logjam at 5,000 meters had been a looming issue for a while — as even in a best-case scenario, McGorty, Grant Fisher, Lopez Lomong, and Woody Kincaid weren’t all going to be able to make the US Olympic team at that distance. The solution: give McGorty a shot in the steeple.
Jager debuted with an 8:26 in his first time out in 2012, following with an 8:20 (with a fall) in race #2 and 8:17 in race #3 at the Trials. It’s a lot to ask McGorty to replicate that, but frankly, he needs to if he wants to make the Olympics this year: the Olympic standard is 8:22, and it will likely take sub-8:20 fitness to make the team in June. That sort of progression is not inconceivable, however. McGorty was an NCAA 5k champ in college and his pbs (3:37/7:37/13:06) are better than Jager’s (3:38/7:41/13:22) when the latter adopted the steeple.
Women’s steeple (10:31 p.m. ET): Courtney Frerichs is back
We’ve got an American record holder returning in the men’s steeple and an American record holder returning in the women’s steeple as Courtney Frerichs will run her first race over barriers since finishing 6th in the 2019 World Championship final. Anything other than a commanding Frerichs victory would come as a surprise here, though we’ll see how close Leah Falland (9:32 win at Drake) and Marisa Howard (9:32 win at Kansas City Qualifier) can come.
Women’s 5,000 (10:45 p.m. ET): Can Molly Huddle show something?
The distance races — which are smartly being scheduled for the evening when it’s cooler — don’t quite pack the star power of the main program, but the women’s 5,000 is worth turning on to check in on Molly Huddle. The two-time Olympian and five-time defending US 10k champion is 36 now, and in March seemed to be struggling to transition back to the track after her failed bid at the Olympic marathon team last year, dropping out of the 5k at the Sound Running Invite. Huddle has her Olympic standard in the 10k, but with so many other American women running well recently, needs to show something here in the 5k as she is running out of time to get in shape for the Trials.