Women’s Steeple: Air Force’s Mahala Norris pulls upset, wins in photo finish

by Karl Winter
June 12, 2021

Before 2021, Air Force senior Mahala Norris had never competed at the NCAA Championships in indoor or outdoor track. Before April, the United States Air Force Academy senior had never run a steeplechase race. When four women cracked the NCAA all-time top 10 in Thursday’s semifinals, Norris was not among them.

Clearly Norris did let any of those facts bother her today as the senior upset a deep field in the women’s steeplechase final at the 2021 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, edging past NCAA indoor 5000 champ Joyce Kimeli of Auburn by five-hundredths of a second at the line as she went from third to first in the final 50 meters with an impressive kick. Norris ran a personal best of 9:31.79, the sixth-fastest time in collegiate history, to Kimeli’s 9:31.84. It was Norris’s second straight big personal best as she ran came into NCAAs with a 9:44.10 pb but lowered that by 6.57 seconds on Thursday and then chopped off another 5.74 today.

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Norris ran the entire race in lane 2, running extra distance but staying out of trouble, which she said was the plan after she fell at regionals.

“It’s a new event, racing-wise, so I just like to see myself jump over [each barrier],” Norris said.

BYU senior and NCAA indoor 3k champion Courtney Wayment, the fifth-fastest steepler in NCAA history, stumbled off of the final water jump and could only manage fourth place. 

It was tight at the finish

The Race

Semifinal winners Kimeli and Wayment went to the front immediately, setting a pace similar to the semifinals — quick, but not an attempt at the collegiate record. The women were racing for the win.

While the rest of the field jostled behind them for the first five laps, Norris, who was fourth in March both in the indoor 5000 and the NCAA xc champs, remained on Wayment’s shoulder in lane two. Kimeli upped the pace to 76-second laps with four laps to go, and the lead group was down eight with two laps remaining.

Oregon’s Aneta Konieczek, the No. 7 performer in collegiate history with her mark from Thursday’s semifinals, fell off the pace with less than two laps to run, and by the bell, the lead pack was down to five: Kimeli, Wayment, Norris, Washington’s Katie Rainsberger and New Mexico’s Charlotte Prouse.

Rainsberger made a move to the outside with 250 meters to run, with Wayment back to fourth as Kimeli and Norris held their positions. Wayment, blinded for the first time in the race, stumbled on her landing off of the final water jump and fell five meters back. She was never able to recover and finished fourth.

Kimeli, Rainsberger and Norris entered the final straight side-by-side-by-side, with Kimeli on the inside and Rainsberger in the middle. Norris stuttered her strides into the final barrier and fell two meters back, but charged back on the outside, flying past Rainsberger and leaning at the line to edge Kimeli. All three women closed in 68 seconds on their final lap.

Watch the final race below (it’s cued to start with 200m remaining)

Results
1 Mahala NORRIS SR AIR FORCE 9:31.79 PB
2 Joyce KIMELI JR AUBURN 9:31.84 PB
3 Katie RAINSBERGER SR WASHINGTON 9:32.12 PB
4 Courtney WAYMENT JR BYU 9:32.93
5 Charlotte PROUSE SR NEW MEXICO 9:34.25 PB
6 Ceili MCCABE FR WEST VIRGINIA 9:37.39 PB
7 Gabrielle JENNINGS SR FURMAN 9:38.24 PB
8 Summer ALLEN SR WEBER STATE 9:40.37
9 Aneta KONIECZEK JR OREGON 9:44.67
10 Olivia MARKEZICH FR NOTRE DAME 9:48.73
11 Abby KOHUT-JACKSON SR MINNESOTA 9:50.89
12 Alissa NIGGEMANN SR WISCONSIN 10:12.13

Quick Take: Hometown hero Norris did it the hard way

Norris hails from Roseburg, Oregon, just an hour south of Eugene, but she hadn’t had a chance to compete at Hayward Field in college.

“A win on my home turf is always what I wanted, so it’s great to get it senior year,” Norris said.

Prior to April 27, 2021, she also hadn’t run a steeple in college. Norris said she practiced it her sophomore year but “wasn’t too good,” so she stopped practicing again until her junior year, which was halted by COVID-19 before she could run one. On April 27, she ran 10:03 in her debut and she entered NCAAs with a PR of 9:44.

Norris said her goal was just to hang on to the leaders as she is always confident in her kick.

“If I was still with [Kimeli and Wayment] in the last two laps or three minutes, I just had to focus on the finish and the kick, which I always have,” Norris said.

That kick helped her become the first black woman to win an NCAA steeple, and she is also the shortest NCAA champion of the weekend — Norris stands just 4-feet-11-inches tall.

Norris said she will compete at the Olympic Trials before reporting to Vandenburg Space Force Base in California later in the year.

Quick Take: The all-time collegiate top 10 was rewritten again

On Thursday we said the collegiate all-time list would likely undergo revision again today, and that proved true despite the modest early pace. No one cracked the top five, but Prouse bettered her mark and Norris, Kimeli and Rainsberger all moved up. In total, six of the top seven finishers in the race ran personal bests.

NCAA all-time top 10, women’s steeple

Rank Athlete School Time Date
1 Courtney Frerichs New Mexico 9:24.41 6/11/16
2 Jenny Simpson Colorado 9:25.54 6/12/09
3 Emma Coburn Colorado 9:28.26 4/28/13
4 Colleen Quigley Florida State 9:29.32 6/13/15
5 Courtney Wayment BYU 9:31.37 4/30/21
6 Mahala Norris Air Force 9:31.79 6/12/21
7 Joyce Kimeli Auburn 9:31.84 6/12/21
8 Katie Rainsberger Washington 9:32.12 6/12/21
9 Leah Falland Michigan State 9:33.38 6/13/15
10 Charlotte Prouse New Mexico 9:34.25 6/12/21

Quick Take: The US is rich in women’s steeple talent for years to come

Kimeli, Prouse and Konieczek are not American, but Norris, Rainsberger, and Wayment represent the continued development of American women in this event. 2016 Olympian Colleen Quigley has not raced since February, so the door is open for a newcomer to grab the third spot on the Olympic team behind heavy favorite Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs

Four other Americans have the Olympic standard behind those two, and look for at least one collegian to join that group at the Trials. When healthy, three-time NCAA steeple champ Allie Ostrander would also be in that contending group.

Don’t count out Wayment, who caught a tough break today. She may have won the race if she had pushed the pace from the beginning, but she’ll learn from the race and should have a chance to get the Olympic standard of 9:30 at the Trials, and challenge for a spot on the team. As the NCAA indoor mile and 3k leader in 2021, plus a 15:17 5k woman, Wayment definitely has the talent and flat speed to do it.

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