2020 Olympic Trials M800 Preview: Will Brazier and Hoppel Get the Job Done? Who Will Take the Third Spot?
By Karl Winter, with additional reporting by Robert Johnson and Jonathan Gault
June 16, 2021
With a lot of talk surrounding the men’s 1500 (fast collegians), women’s 1500 (a certain star being banned for four years), and women’s 800 (another fast collegian) in 2021, many seem to have forgotten about the only middle-distance /distance event in which the United States has the reigning world champion: the men’s 800. We still haven’t seen 2019 World champion Donavan Brazier and World fourth-placer Bryce Hoppel race each other over 800 meters since August 14, 2020, an epic race in Monaco in which Brazier ran 1:43.15 to hold off Hoppel, who ran a big PR of 1:43.23. Since then, they’ve dodged each other at every turn. That will change in Eugene. Though neither man has shown fitness like they had in 2019 and 2020 yet in 2021, they’ll be the bona fide favorites in this event.
With studs in their prime (Brazier and Hoppel), wily veterans, collegians who are fit, and an event that lends itself to chaos, buckle up.
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Notable entrants *Full entries
Athletes with 1:45.20 Olympic standard in bold *Athletes who would get into the Olympics via World Rankings quota in italics
|Donavan Brazier||NIKE||1:45.09||World champion and AR holder. Could he be vulnerable?|
|Bryce Hoppel||adidas||1:44.94||4th at Worlds|
|Clayton Murphy||NIKE||1:45.31||Olympic bronze medallist is looking to regain 2016 form|
|Isaiah Harris||NIKE||1:45.50||2018 NCAA champ has 1:44.42 pb|
|Isaiah Jewett||USC||1:44.68||NCAA champion struggled in prelims but got it done in final|
|Brandon Miller||Texas A&M||1:44.97||NCAA runner-up and teen phenom|
|Michael Rhoads||US Air Force||1:45.22||Can he become a sub 1:45 guy?|
|Kameron Jones||Clemson||1:45.47||Did not make final at NCAAs|
|Erik Sowinski||1:46.53||Super veteran likely at last Trials|
|Brannon Kidder||Brooks Beasts||1:46.83||Made Worlds team in 2019 but hasn’t been running nearly as well this year|
|Abraham Alvarado||Atlanta Track Club||1:46.11||Has run 1:47 or faster every year since 2015, but never faster than 1:46|
|Jonah Koech||US Army||1:46.19||Kenyan-born athlete and former UTEP runner just became eligible to compete for USA|
Brazier and Hoppel certainly haven’t run as fast as they did in 2020, when they were the best two 800 runners in the world, but we have no reason to believe they won’t make this team if they are close to fully healthy. There is some question, however, if that is the case.
Brazier won his only indoor race of the year in an American indoor record at the New Balance Grand Prix, and he won his only outdoor 800 of the year three weeks ago at the Portland Track Festival on May 29th where he was challenged in Portland, holding off Jesus Tonatiu Lopez of Mexico 1:45.09 to 1:45.14. In between, on May 9th, he scratched from Mt. Sac but after his narrow win in Portland, Brazier, who has not lost an 800 race in over two years, did not seem overly concerned, saying, “I’ve had a rough last month, last six weeks, so this was kind of a good confidence booster.”
Now an 800 runner having only two races (he also ran a 3:37 1500 in April) under their belt before USAs isn’t normal, but in 2019, when Brazier won the world title, USAs were held at end of July. Guess how many outdoor races he’d run before USAs then? Three.
When LetsRun.com caught up with Brazier’s coach Pete Julian on Monday, he sounded confident. “He’s ready to go. Training has gone great the last five weeks and he’s ready to race,” said Julian.
Julian then elaborated on Brazier’s race at the Portland Track Festival and his mindset in general.
“Even though it was the little Portland Track Festival, you might have had the hottest guy in the world in [Tonatiu] Lopez and you had [Emmanuel] Korir. You might look at the time and say, okay well, and maybe Donavan didn’t look great, but what people need to understand is that’s a darn-near world-class field, a Diamond League-type event. Certainly Lopez is an incredible runner and Korir is an incredible runner and Korir had just run [45.29 in the 400 at Mt. SAC], so it’s not as if Korir is out of shape. So [Donavan] beat a really good field there. And I think what people need to understand is, if you’re Donavan Brazier, you’re training for the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games. Your target isn’t the Portland Track Festival or to impress people at the Portland Track Festival. It just isn’t. This man has been training incredibly hard. He wants to do some special things. And that means that we’ve gotta put some work in. But I was really happy with that performance. One, he was healthy, and he came off of it healthy. We could have tried to squeeze another performance in there, but where and when, how to do that, I don’t know. We just needed to wait until this coming Friday.”
Hoppel also is lightly raced heading into USAs and that is a little more concerning. Remember, this is a guy who pre-COVID raced a lot. Admittedly he was still in the NCAA system but when he got 4th at Worlds in 2019, it was (counting relays) his 39th or 40th race of the year. Hoppel has run just two outdoor 800s this year, one in April and one in May. But in the latter, he beat contenders Clayton Murphy and Isaiah Harris convincingly at the USATF Golden Games at Mt. SAC. He also ran PRs this year at 400 (47.68) and 1500 (3:42.62). He raced against Brazier in the 1500 at the USATF Grand Prix at Hayward and Brazier beat him by five seconds, but Hoppel went out very hard in that race and PR’d by 5+ seconds anyway.
The concern with Hoppel is he was injured enough on May 23 that he missed the flagship track event put on by his sponsor, the adidas Boost Boston Games, where he was scheduled to run a 600. That is more concerning that Brazier’s DNS because 1) it came two weeks later 2) he hasn’t raced since then to prove he’s fit and 3) he’s got less room for error — he’s not the reigning world champion and needs to be closer to his peak to make the team than Brazier.
Hoppel’s agent Mark Wetmore, however, texted us the following on Monday when we asked him about the Boston DNS. “Bryce is doing well and on his way to Eugene today. We kept him out of the Boston 600m as a precaution and he’s been able to make final preparations in training.”
If Brazier and Hoppel are indeed close to healthy, saving their best for USAs and Tokyo, then they are making this team, and that leaves only one spot open to six guys who have gone 1:45 or faster this year.
Murphy and Harris would both be good bets for third because they have plenty of experience racing on this stage. Both were in the final of the 800 at USA Outdoors in 2016, 2018, and 2019. Murphy won the Trials and Olympic bronze in 2016, they went 1-2 in 2018, and they went 2-4 in 2019. Murphy wasn’t in the final in 2017 because he attempted an audacious 800/1500 double, but Harris finished 2nd that year, making the Worlds team.
However, neither has been stellar this year either. Murphy was only 7th in his most recent 800 at the Trials of Miles NYC Qualifier, and he was outkicked by Eric Avila at the USATF 1 Mile Road Championships. Harris was beaten by Michael Saruni at the USATF Grand Prix in April and by three men (Hoppel, Saruni, and Murphy) at the USATF Golden Games in May.
That brings us to the rest of the field, headlined by the 2021 NCAA champion and runner-up.
USC redshirt senior Isaiah Jewett, the NCAA champ who is older than Hoppel and the same age as Brazier, and Texas A&M freshman Brandon Miller both dipped into the 1:44s for the first time at NCAAs, breaking the field in the process.
Jewett has been in a US final before (5th in 2019 after not even making the NCAA final) and he has very good 400 speed (45.96 this year) but not nearly as good 1500 strength (3:57 pb). Miller, who entering this year had been stuck at 1:49 since the age of 14, has dropped his pb from 1:49.35 to 1:44.97 in a matter of months. However, both struggled in slower races in the prelims at NCAAs, needing time qualifiers just to make the final.
Another guy who has improved a lot this year, from 1:49 to 1:45, is Clemson redshirt senior Kameron Jones. Jones also struggled at the prelims at NCAAs last week, running 1:48.14 and missing the finals after failing to get under 1:47 at regionals.
2020 Air Force Academy graduate Michael Rhoads ripped a big pb of 1:45.22 at the Trials of Miles Kansas City Qualifier on May 1, just. 02 short of the Olympic standard but he’s going to have to run the race of his life to beat four of the six men seeded above him.
Brooks Beast Brannon Kidder has only managed 1:46.83 and 3:47.55 this year after running 1:45.42 and 3:35.27 in 2019. Kidder has improved in each of his 800s this year, but nothing he’s done before has indicated he can compete with the likes of Murphy and Harris. Veteran Erik Sowinski has finished in the top three at USA Outdoors three times in his career but hasn’t broken 1:46 since 2018. Both are capable of navigating rounds and making the final, but making the team is a different animal.
One final name to watch is Jonah Koech, the former UTEP standout who made multiple NCAA finals. Koech just became eligible to compete for the US this month. He has raced sparingly since graduating from UTEP in 2019, but he is certainly talented. In the Portland Track Festival race on May 29, he ran 1:46.19, beating both Kidder and Matthew Centrowitz and finishing 1.10 seconds behind Brazier. If he’s 1.10 seconds behind Brazier in Eugene, he may be punching his ticket to Tokyo as Brazier won the world title by 1.13 in 2019 (3rd at USAs in 2019 was .69 behind Brazier).
KW Prediction: 1) Hoppel 2) Brazier 3) Harris
Why Hoppel over Brazier?
Brazier and Hoppel showed in 2019 that they’ve developed savvy tactics, so I expect both to be where they need to be with 100 meters to go and finish 1-2. I’m taking Hoppel to win the battle in the final straight because his final 100 in his previous race (Golden Games at Mt. SAC) was terrific, while Brazier’s was marginal at best in Portland. Based on what he said after the PTF race, Brazier seems to be getting back in shape from a minor injury of some sort, so Hoppel may be more fit. It will light a fire under Brazier and he will be ready to go for Tokyo. Whatever the order, these two guys will make the team.
Why Harris over Murphy?
Similar to the Hoppel over Brazier pick, this is less about Harris than it is about Murphy. We haven’t seen that 1:43 speed and 3:51 mile strength from Murphy in awhile. The consistency has been missing. Also, this is the 800. Murphy making the team would be too predictable. Maybe I’ll kick myself for picking against the Olympic bronze medalist, but it might be Harris’ time to shine. He’s finished just behind Murphy one too many times.
Why pick against the talented collegians?
For one, I think Jones is burned out. As for Jewett and Miller … well, because both are front runners. Their best races (NCAA final and NCAA West Regional final) came when they crushed the field from the front. That won’t work against the country’s best. Just look at the history of guys, especially young guys, who tried to front-run the final at the Olympic Trials.
In the 2012 Trials final, collegian Charles Jock faded to last place after leading the first lap. The 2012 team consisted of Nick Symmonds, Khadevis Robinson, and Duane Solomon — all veterans. Symmonds won by closing hard from behind, as was his style throughout his career. Robinson, a former front-runner, also closed hard in that race.
Jock would make the Olympic team in 2016 by running more conservatively in the final. That year, collegian Clayton Murphy closed hard from behind to win, while the leader for the first 350 meters, Brandon Johnson, faded to eighth.
Going back to 2008, the pre-race favorite and leader after the first lap was Robinson. He faded to fourth, beaten by three men who came from behind in the final 200 meters: Symmonds, Christian Smith, and collegian Andrew Wheating.
The only person capable of winning this Olympic Trials or making a team going from the front would be a 100% fit Donavan Brazier, and that version of Brazier may not even be in this race.
Then again, this is the 800, and I did say it lends itself to chaos.
Rojo’s Prediction: Karl wrote a great preview but he’s crazy to pick Hoppel over Brazier. Brazier was 1.13 seconds better than everyone in the world in 2019 and we know he’s healthy. Hoppel just missed a key event that his sponsor puts on — one that they made someone like Marcin Lewandowski fly over from Poland to attend.
Also, while Murphy has bombed two 800s this year (one indoors, one outdoors) he’s been pretty ok at 1500 (undefeated with a win in 3:39 and 3:38, but 3:38 isn’t what it used to be). That strength will pay dividends at the Trials where there are three rounds (assuming he can get into the final). He’s also got a great pedigree, having run 1:43 or faster in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019,.
- Brazier (very confident in this) 2) Hoppel 3) Murphy
Note: The quotes in the article were obtained by Jonathan Gault but added in by Robert Johnson, who added in some additional injury on the injury concerns about Brazier/Hoppel.