2020 Olympic Trials W800 Preview: Will Ajee’ Wilson Still Rule the 800? Or Is It Athing Mu’s Time?

By Jonathan Gault
June 24, 2021. Published June 25, 2021

(Editor’s note: This was written before the action started but not published until after the first round was in the books. For a recap of the first round, go here).

Of all the women’s distance events at the Olympic Trials, the 800 is the hardest team to make. It features the silver and bronze medalist from the most recent World Championships in Raevyn Rogers and Ajee’ Wilson and a 19-year-old by the name of Athing Mu, whose 1:57.73 is over a second faster than any other American has run in 2021. Whichever three athletes the US ends up sending to Tokyo will have a good shot to be in the medal mix — and that includes the gold, which an American hasn’t won since Madeline Manning Mims in 1968.

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The 800 meters always delivers at the Olympic Trials (remember the madness of 2016?). Here’s what you need to know about this year’s race.

Schedule/entries * TV/streaming information * LRC Trials coverage hub

Notable entrants *Full entries

Athletes with 1:59.50 Olympic standard in bold *Athletes who would get in to the Olympics via World Rankings quota in italics

 

Name Affiliation SB Note
Athing Mu Texas A&M 1:57.73 19-year-old 400/800 collegiate record holder
Sabrina Southerland Nike OTCE 1:58.82 2018 NCAA indoor champ ran near 2 second pb on May 29
Ajee’ Wilson adidas 1:58.93 2-time World outdoor medallist is ranked #1 in the world
Kate Grace NIKE 1:59.04
2016 Olympic finalist left Bowerman TC after 2020 and has broken 2:00 twice this year
Chanelle Price Nike OTCE 1:59.12 2014 World indoor champ broke 2 this year for the first time since 2015
Raevyn Rogers NIKE 1:59.66
Reigning World silver medallist hasn’t been better than third in an 800 this year
Allie Wilson Atlanta Track Club 1:59.68 Broke 2 for the first two times this season, both in the last month
Hanna Green Nike OTCE 1:59.88
Made the Worlds team and won a Diamond League in 2019 but has broken 2 just once in 2021
Michaela Meyer Virginia 2:00.28 NCAA champ
Nia Akins Brooks Beasts 2:00.31 ’19 NCAA runner-up has run back-to-back PBs

Records will be harder to break as a pro, but Mu is ready for the next level (Photo via @aggietfxc)

Two years ago, Athing Mu sent a warning shot to the US middle distance community. As a 16-year-old high school junior, she stunned Raevyn Rogers to win the US indoor 600-meter title, setting an American record (and nearly a world record) in the process. Rogers had the last laugh (she earned a silver at Worlds; Mu was an impressive 5th at USAs), but Mu had proven herself as someone to watch moving forward.

If you have followed track at all in 2021, it has been impossible to avoid Mu. Every week at Texas A&M, she was breaking another collegiate record in what ranks among the greatest freshman campaigns by any collegiate athlete. With nothing left to prove in college (her NCAA 400/800 records of 49.57 and 1:57.73 should stand for many years), she signed a deal with Nike on Wednesday and enters her first Olympic Trials in terrific form.

Is Mu, who turned 19 on June 8, the favorite in the women’s 800? Based on 2021 form, absolutely. Not only is she the only American under 1:58 this year, but she possesses 400 speed that the rest of this field can only dream of. She may be the most talented American 800-meter runner ever.

But if you’re ready to hand the title to Mu, you probably only started watching track & field this year. If you throw out Caster Semenya and Francine Niyonsaba (who are intersex and not allowed to compete in the 800 anymore without lowering their testosterone levels), do you know who ranked #1 in the world every year from 2017-19? Who has lost precisely two of her last 39 800m races dating back to 2016 (again, disregarding non-XX women)? Who hasn’t lost at USAs (indoors or outdoors) since 2016? It’s Ajee’ Wilson.

Of course, one of those defeats was super important — Wilson was only third in the 2019 World Championship final in Doha. But Wilson has been insanely dominant over the last five years and is undefeated in 2021 over 800m. So why isn’t she the obvious favorite at the Trials?

Well, take a look at Wilson’s 2021 race results:

Date Location Event Time Place
February 13 Staten Island 800m (indoor) 2:01.79 1st
February 27 Austin 800m 1:58.93 1st
April 10 Miramar 800m 2:00.57 1st
May 23 Boston 600m (road) 1:26 2nd
June 5 Miramar 800m 2:01.50 1st

Wilson hasn’t lost at USAs since the last Olympic Trials (Phil Bond photo)

Not super convincing, right? Yes, Wilson is winning races, and her 1:58 in Austin in February is #3 on this year’s US list. But she has avoided the main Trials tuneups (USATF Grand Prix, Mt. SAC, Portland Track Festival) in favor of staying on the East Coast. Maybe Wilson and coach Derek Thompson figure that she’s been through this so many times, she doesn’t need big-time races to get ready for the Trials. But the result is that we don’t really know how Wilson stacks up against the best in the country right now.

We do know how Raevyn Rogers stacks up against the best in the US at the moment, and it’s not particularly good news: Rogers was only 6th at the Portland Track Festival, losing to four Americans (Sabrina SoutherlandKate GraceChanelle PriceCory McGee).

“She’s by no means a lock,” said her coach Pete Julian, whom she began working with in 2020 after leaving Derek Thompson. “She’s one of, I think, six women who have a really legitimate shot to make that team. She understands that…she’s gonna have to rely on some of that old Hayward magic. But we do know that Raevyn’s a great racer and she’s better with races with rounds.”

We just got a lesson from Clayton Murphy in the men’s 800 about how we shouldn’t count out big-time talents in this event. Rogers is a stud and her last 100 is as good as anyone in the world’s when she’s on her game.

There are a number of other women in the mix. Sabrina Southerland and Chanelle Price of the Oregon Track Club have been in great form this year, Southerland dropping a two-second pb to finish as the top American at the Portland Track Festival and Price staging an unlikely late-career resurgence at age 30.

Price won World Indoors in 2014 but hasn’t been in a US final since 2015

Price’s story is pretty remarkable. She ran her first USAs at age 16 in 2007 and finished 7th in the final; the next year, she ran a pb of 2:01.61 at the Olympic Trials. It took until her final race of college, the 2012 NCAA final, for her to better that mark as she ran 2:01.49 for 3rd. Two years later, she won World Indoors as an unsponsored athlete. But she didn’t make it to the final of the Olympic Trials in 2016, didn’t make USAs at all in 2017, and spent most of 2019 as a pacemaker on the European circuit.

Price has been revitalized in 2021, however, and her 1:59.12 at the Portland Track Festival was just .02 off her lifetime best. Cory McGee made the US 1500 team in her first US final appearance since 2015. Could Price replicate the feat in the 800?

Speaking of 30-somethings, reigning Trials champ Kate Grace, 32, has returned to the 800 after a dalliance with the 1500. After a rocky start in 2021 (2:02 and 2:04), Grace has gone sub-2:00 in her last two races; her 1:59.04 in Portland on May 29 was her fastest time since September 2016.

On the other end of the age spectrum, this field contains not one, but three high school athletes: Juliette Whittaker of Maryland (2:01.34 sb), Roisin Willis of Wisconsin (2:00.78 sb), and Sophia Gorriaran of Rhode Island (2:02.93 sb). And not just high schoolers, but underclassmen: Whittaker and Willis just wrapped up their junior year, while Gorriaran will be a junior in the fall. None have a realistic shot at the team but both Whittaker and Willis made it to the semifinals, which is impressive in its own right.

A few other women worth mentioning:

  • Hanna Green (1:59.88 sb): Green was the US runner-up in 2019 and ran 1:58 that year to win the Paris Diamond League. But she has run 2:02 in two of her last three races heading into the Trials and does not seem like the same runner as two years ago.
  • Michaela Meyer (2:00.28 sb): The NCAA champ at Virginia still needs the 1:59.50 Olympic standard if she is to make the team.
  • Ce’Aira Brown (2:02.15 sb): She did not enter the Trials, but her absence is worth noting given she was the third-placer in 2018 and a World Championship finalist in 2019.

JG predictions: 1. Wilson 2. Mu 3. Rogers

Wilson hasn’t exactly been convincing this year, but she also hasn’t lost. I’m banking on her experience and talent holding off Mu for this meet at least, but Mu is too good not to make the team. As for third, I thought long and hard about whether to include Rogers. Initially I had Kate Grace for third, but the more I think about it, Rogers isn’t running that poorly. When she ran 2:03.89 in Eugene on April 24, the winning time in that race was 2:03.25. And she’s broken 2:00 in her last two races. Rogers has a history of rising to the occasion (see: 2017 NCAAs, 2019 Worlds) and her face is on the freakin’ tower at the new Hayward Field, which has to count for something, right? Sorry, Kate. Rogers to the Olympics.

(Editor’s note: The first round has happened. For a recap of the first round, go here).

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