Grading the American Mid-Distance/Distance Runners at Tokyo 2020

By Jonathan Gault
August 17, 2021

On Thursday, we published a story about my final thoughts from Tokyo. While it covered a great many topics, I didn’t do a deep dive into the performance of Team USA’s distance runners. And considering we spent the better part of the last five years on this website speculating which Americans would make the 2020 Olympic team and how they would perform in Tokyo, that seems a little odd.

So to remedy that, here is one final final article on the Olympics, looking specifically on how the American athletes from the 800 through marathon fared. In all, the US sent 33 athletes in those events (Woody KincaidGrant Fisher, and Karissa Schweizer all competed in two events) and earned five medals. Here’s how that compares with the last 10 Olympics/World Championships.

Event Site Men’s medals Women’s medals Total medals Medalists
2021 Olympics Tokyo 1 4 5 Chelimo, Frerichs, Mu, Rogers, Seidel
2019 Worlds Doha 1 3 4 Brazier, Rogers, Wilson, Coburn
2017 Worlds London 2 5 7
Chelimo, Jager, Wilson, Simpson, Coburn, Frerichs, Cragg
2016 Olympics Rio de Janeiro 5 2 7
Chelimo, Rupp, Jager, Centrowitz, Murphy, Simpson, Coburn
2015 Worlds Beijing 0 1 1 Infeld
2013 Worlds Moscow 2 3 5
Centrowitz, Symmonds, Montano, Martinez, Simpson
2012 Olympics London 2 0 2 Rupp, Manzano
2011 Worlds Daegu 2 2 4 Centrowitz, Lagat, Montano, Simpson
2009 Worlds Berlin 2 1 3 Lagat x2, Rowbury
2008 Olympics Beijing 0 1 1 Flanagan
Average 1.7 2.2 3.9

Five medals is a solid haul, and it was more than any other country won in Tokyo outside of Kenya.

Countries with multiple distance medals in Tokyo
Kenya 10
Uganda 4
Ethiopia 4
Netherlands 4
Great Britain 3

And for the third consecutive championships, Team USA was led by the women as women won four of the US’s five distance medals in Tokyo (including the only gold by Athing Mu) after winning three of four in Doha and five of seven in London. Of the US’s 39 medals across the last 10 global championships, 23 have come from the last four championships alone (an average of 5.8 per meet across those four). The US has come a long way since the dark days of the ’90s or early ’00s, where just getting a finalist in some events was considered a success.

Looking at the medalists from Tokyo, Mu was expected to win gold and did so. Chelimo, Frerichs, and Rogers were all previous medalists. And Seidel’s medal was a total shock.

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Final grades

The Olympics is the final test that athletes spent the last two years studying for. Now that the results are in, let’s hand out grades to all 32 American distance runners who competed in Tokyo/Sapporo (Yared Nuguse withrdrew from the men’s 1500 due to injury). And we’re grading on a scale. Someone who barely made it onto the team and finished 5th in Tokyo will receive a better grade than someone who was expected to win and finished 5th.

So here are my grades. While editing this piece, co-founder Robert Johnson had a few passionate responses to some of my grades which he has added in as well.

Men’s 800

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Clayton Murphy (9th in final): C+ Murphy deserves credit for being one of just two men to make the final in both 2016 and 2021 (Ferguson Rotich was the other); global 800 finals are hard to make. But Murphy didn’t come to Tokyo to make the final; he came to win, not finish last, just as he did in Doha in 2019. The 800 can be cruel that way. Clearly Murphy was fit, and had the race gone out faster or had he been able to find a better position, he could have medalled. Alas.

Robert Johnson’s response: C+? No. Come on.

Murphy medalled in 2016. After he dominated the US Trials, it was clear a gold medal was a possibility. And that supreme form was there in the first two rounds of Tokyo. So to get it so wrong tactically in the final and finish last was a major disappointment and disappointment = D.

Bryce Hoppel (5th in semifinal): C+ Hoppel had battled injuries for a good chunk of 2021 but said he was feeling great by the time the Olympics rolled around and looked good in his prelim. He didn’t run poorly in his semi — he still ran 1:44.91 — but after finishing 4th at Worlds in 2019, not making the final is a step back.

Isaiah Jewett (7th in semifinal): Incomplete We don’t know for sure whether Jewett would have made the final as he was clipped from behind by Nijel Amos on the final turn of his semi, killing his Olympics in an instant. Why Amos was advanced and Jewett was not still has not been adequately explained to us.

Women’s 800

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Athing Mu (1st in final): A+ You win the Olympics, that’s automatically an A+. If there were a higher grade, I’d give it to Mu, because she also went wire-to-wire and set an American record of 1:55.21 in the process.

Robert Johnson’s response: There is as higher grade. It’s called A++++++++. 100. The thing you didn’t even mention is how she came in with a lot of pressure – as the Olympic favorite at 19 in her international senior debut – and was totally unfazed by it. And then in the final she was a maestro, controlling things like David Rudisha did in London in 2012. Unreal.

Raevyn Rogers (3rd in final): A Rogers ran a personal best of 1:56.81 to earn a bronze medal. Hard to do better than that.

Ajee’ Wilson (4th in semifinal): C+ Tough to give Wilson a grade on this one as clearly something has been up with her in 2021, but she has chosen not to go into details. She medalled in ’17 and ’19 but failed to even make the final in Tokyo.

Men’s 1500

Cole Hocker (6th in final): A Hocker entered the Olympics as a 3:35 guy, then ran 3:33 in his semi and 3:31 in the final to take sixth. Had the final been a slower race, a medal would not have been a shock. And all of this at 20 years old.

Matthew Centrowitz (9th in semifinal): D This was a surprise. Centro said he felt close to career-best shape and entered the Olympics on the strength of a 3:49 mile pb. For a guy who had made the final in six of his seven previous World/Olympic appearances — and medalled in three of them — bombing out in the semis is unacceptable.

Women’s 1500

Elle Purrier (10th in final): B- Purrier looked terrific in front-running a 3:58 to win the Trials, so one would have expected a fast, time-trial-type race like the one we saw in the final to favor her. Instead, she was never in it, running 4:01.75 for 10th.

Rojo’s Response: B-? No. Come on. I don’t want to sound like an old guy who complains about grade inflation and participation trophies but you are forcing me to play that role. This is how grades are supposed to work. A is for excellence, B is for good, C is for fair, D is for disappointment and an F is for failure.

We were expecting Purrier to contend for a medal. Many were wondering if she was the equivalent of Shelby Houlihan.  When you solo a 3:58.03 at the US Trials but can only run 4:01 .75 in the Olympic final, that’s not good. The way Purrier ran in the Olympics in both the semi and final was a major disappointment for US fans and disappointment has to be met with a D grade of some sort. D+ is the grade. John Kellogg says I’m being too harsh. He thinks she’s deserving of a C+ as 4:01 is something a 3:58 runner runs when they get in over their head, but my reply to that is she shouldn’t be losing to the likes of Linden Hall and Nozomi Tanaka.

Cory McGee (12th in final): B It’s kind of hard to grade McGee. She made the final, but only because she was advanced after getting caught up in a fall. And you can hardly criticize her for getting 12th in the final — even if McGee had run her pb of 4:00.67, that would only have placed her 10th.

Rojo: Again this is too high. When you get into the Olympic final on a gift and don’t do anything in the final, it’s not a good showing. It’s fair. C+.

Heather MacLean (12th in semifinal): B MacLean did well to make the semis and it would have been a surprise to see her make the final.

Men’s steeple

Benard Keter (11th in final): A- Keter ran a pb of 8:17.31 to make the final and then 8:22.12 to finish 11th. A very solid Olympic debut.

Hillary Bor (6th in semifinal): D Bor was outkicked for the final auto qualifier in his heat and pulled no punches after the race, saying “I choked, man.” The US has come far enough in the steeple that it should be considered a major disappointment when the US champ does not qualify for the Olympic final.

Mason Ferlic (8th in semifinal): C+ Ferlic’s pb is 8:18.49. It took 8:17.31 to make the final, and Ferlic ran 8:20.23. Not a bad run, but slightly disappointing considering Ferlic said he believed he was in 8:10 shape.

Women’s steeple

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Courtney Frerichs (2nd in final): A+ Frerichs finished a well-beaten second behind Emma Coburn at the Trials and was only 6th at the last Worlds. Her gutsy 9:04.79 was one of the finest steeples ever run by an American, and she did it on the biggest stage possible.

Emma Coburn (DQ in final): F It’s somewhat cruel to give Coburn an F after so many clutch performances in global championships. But Coburn herself admitted her race was a “total failure” and it’s impossible to argue otherwise. The gold medal was there for the taking and the super consistent Coburn ran the worst race of her pro career.

Val Constien (12th in final): B+ Just making the Olympics is a win for Constien, so making it one step further to the final is a definite success, even if her performance there (9:31.61, 13 seconds off her pb) was not quite what she would have wanted.

Men’s 5,000

Paul Chelimo (3rd in final): A Chelimo’s third-place finish in Tokyo means he has joined an exclusive club of Americans to have earned three or more World/Olympic medals. The others? Bernard Lagat (five), Jenny Simpson (four), Matthew Centrowitz (three), and Emma Coburn (three).

Rojo’s response: When I was a kid there were some lines below the grade where the teacher could write some comments. Chelimo needs that here. Chelimo is a warrior and his performance was great and certainly worthy of an A grade, but sometimes there are things more important than the actual grade.

Paul’s strength – the fact that he is a warrior and super competitive – is also a liability as sometimes he takes it too far. Something needs to be said about his bush-league tactics. After the stunt he pulled at USAs, where he finished in lane 4 I thought to myself, “Someone really needs to sit him down and tell him to cut that crap out or he’s going to get DQd in the Olympics.”

He was very lucky not to get DQd in Tokyo. Stop drifting out. Hold your line and run as hard as you can. If you get beat, you get beat.

Grant Fisher (9th in final): B Fisher ran six seconds off his pb to finish 9th; the eight men who beat him all have faster personal bests. About what you would expect.

Rojo’s response: Yes the guys who beat him are all better than him but when you finish 5th in the 10,000, 9th in the 5000 isn’t a good showing. It’s fair. C.

Woody Kincaid (14th in final): C+ Kincaid wasn’t expected to contend for a medal, but he has run 12:58 and after running Chelimo and Fisher close at the US Trials, 14th is probably a bit lower than he was shooting for.

Rojo’s response: Kincaid really needs two grades here. Making the final was an accomplishment but the way he ran in the final wasn’t good. I’d give him a B for the prelim and D for the final. Losing by 7+ seconds to Luis Grijalva? C or C – is the grade.

Women’s 5,000

Karissa Schweizer (11th in final): B- Schweizer was 9th at the 2019 Worlds, but the field in Doha was not as tough as the one she faced in Tokyo. After her 14:26 in 2020, many expected Schweizer to finish higher and perhaps even push for a medal, but based on her 2021 form, 11th isn’t a bad result.

Rojo’s response: There was nothing good about this run so it’s not worthy of a B. To be honest, I’d say 11th in the final is a disappointment and disappointment requires a D grade according to my scale but I’ll be nice and go with C-. The four women who finished directly in front of her in Tokyo have 5000 pbs of 14:53, 14:52, 14:36, and 14:46. She’s run 14:26. Yes, I know she hasn’t shown that form this year but I’m still holding her to that standard.

Elise Cranny (13th in final): C+ Even if Cranny had run her personal best of 14:48, she would only have finished 9th. But considering she beat Schweizer at the Trials, finishing 13th — two spots behind Schweizer — is a minor disappointment.

Rachel Schneider (7th in semifinal): B- Schneider didn’t make the final in 2019, and while she is a better runner now, it was still going to be tough to do it against a deeper field. To come half a second short of qualifying is heartbreaking, but nothing to be ashamed of.

Men’s 10,000

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Grant Fisher (5th in final): A Six months ago, Fisher had never run a 10,000 race in his life. He didn’t even win the US Trials. To finish 5th in the world and beat guys like Moh AhmedRodgers KwemoiYomif Kejelcha, and Rhonex Kipruto is as good an outcome as he could have hoped for.

Woody Kincaid (15th in final): B- Kincaid won the US title with a big kick, so a slow pace in the 10,000 final (by global 10,000 final standards) would seem to benefit him. But the heat and humidity took their toll on Kincaid in the longest track race.

Joe Klecker (16th in final): B Expectations for Klecker were slightly lower than for Kincaid and Fisher considering he was only third at USAs. I liked what he had to say about his mindset after the race.

“I cared about every single person I passed. I cared about every place today. There was never a point in the race where I just threw in the towel — that would just be kind of disrespectful to the athletes you know who were so close to making this team so I felt a lot of motivation to keep pushing just to represent my country the best I can.”

Women’s 10,000

Emily Sisson (10th in final): B The fast pace in tough conditions would seem to benefit Sisson, who ground the rest of the US into a pulp with her 31:03 solo run in the heat of Eugene in June. It didn’t quite play out that way, but 10th in 31:09 is solid and most of the women who beat her in Tokyo are studs.

Karissa Schweizer (12th in final): B+ Schweizer is a better 5,000 runner than 10,000 runner, so to come back from two rounds of the 5,000 and finish 12th in her weaker event is a good run, all things considered.

Alicia Monson (13th in final): B+ Monson ran 31:18 to finish 3rd at the Trials in Eugene and had to be taken to the hospital after the race due to the heat. For her to run 31:21 in Tokyo and finish 13th is quite good.

Men’s marathon

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Galen Rupp (8th): B+ Rupp’s 2:11:41 left him 1:41 shy of a medal. Not a disastrous result by any means, but Rupp holds himself to a higher standard than other US marathoners. A medal was the goal in Tokyo and he fell short.

Jake Riley (29th): B Riley only had the 65th-fastest pb on the start line and finished 29th. A solid run in the heat of Sapporo.

Abdi Abdirahman (41st): B- Expectations weren’t particularly high for Abdi, but the 44-year-old still managed to “shoot his age” and finish 41st.

Women’s marathon

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Molly Seidel (3rd): A+ Top 10 would have been an incredible day for Seidel. The only people who beat her in Sapporo are the world half marathon champion and the world record holder. She beat everyone else. What a run.

Rojo: Since I’ve been harsh on some of the runners, it’s time to give myself an F here for not even believing in the possibility of Seidel getting a medal. Ever since the Trials, I thought there was only one American with the talent level required to medal in the women’s Olympic marathon – Sally Kipyego. Seidel proved me wrong.

Sally Kipyego (17th): B Kipyego had barely raced since the Olympic Trials last year, and after she finished just 13th at the US 15K champs in March, expectations were fairly low for the Olympics. But in the five months since then, Kipyego worked her way into good shape. 17th is a long way off her silver medal from the 10,000 in 2012, but considering where she is at at this point in her career, it was a solid day.

Aliphine Tuliamuk (DNF): Incomplete That Tuliamuk even made it to the start line less than seven months after giving birth to daughter Zoe in January is impressive and inspirational in and of itself. Tuliamuk’s Olympics didn’t go as planned — she wound up dropping out just before halfway due to a hip injury — but she’ll always have her moment of glory at the Trials in Atlanta.

What do you think of our grades. Talk about them on our world famous fan forum / messageboard. MB: From A+++ to F, we hand out grades to all 32 US distance runners who ran in Tokyo .

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