Emma Coburn, Heather MacLean, and…Jordan Mann? How USATF’s World XC Relay Team Came Together

By Jonathan Gault
February 15, 2023

The United States team for the mixed-gender 4 x 2k relay team at Saturday’s World Athletics Cross Country Championships in Bathurst, Australia, is a study in opposites. Each team must enter two men and two women, and the US women are two of the America’s best-known runners: Heather MacLean, the US leader in the women’s 1500 last year (3:58.76) and the reigning US indoor champion at that distance, and Emma Coburn, the most decorated US steepler of all time, who last year won her 10th US steeple title.

The two men on the team are a little different: Alec Basten, who finished 7th in the steeplechase at last year’s NCAA championships for the University of Minnesota, and Jordan Mann, an unsponsored 30-year-old who finished 19th at the USA cross country championships last month.

Article continues below player
Like this article? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on social media
The latest running news, sent to your inbox weekly or when urgent news breaks.

You have been subscribed.

The one thing all four have in common: they all wanted to fly to Australia to represent their country this weekend.

USATF published the selection criteria for the relay on December 29, 2022. It’s a little complicated. The policy reads: athletes under consideration will be selected on the basis of performances at 1500-meters, Mile, 3000-meters, 3000-meters Steeplechase, or Two-Miles earned between March 1, 2022 and January 14, 2023.

Any single performance by a US athlete during that window is converted to a point score based on the World Athletics scoring tables. Those performances are ranked, and the top two performers on the list get to go. Oh, one more thing: in order to be considered, an athlete must have applied by emailing USATF associate director of international teams Kimberly Sims by January 15.

USATF did not have to go far down the list to pick its two women. Coburn was unaware of the selection procedure until she saw a tweet by Kyle Merber on January 4 that said Coburn had the top performance during the qualifying period by virtue of her 9:07.93 steeple in Monaco last year. At the time, Coburn’s mother, Annie, was in hospice care and Coburn thought a trip to Australia would be something positive to look forward to. Annie Coburn died on January 7; Emma’s father will accompany to her to Australia.

MacLean was told about the opportunity by her coach, Mark Coogan, and was immediately interested. MacLean was not even sure exactly where she ranked on the performance list but Coogan said she would have a good shot to be selected. Like Coburn, she will extend her trip Down Under by racing the 1500 at the Maurie Plant Meet in Melbourne on February 23.

“I just thought it was a really good opportunity to represent the United States,” MacLean said. “I’ve never done a cross relay before so it really looked like a fun race that will be enjoyable. I’ve also never been to Australia…Your options to represent Team USA, you never know if you’re going to get selected or not. So I want to take as many opportunities as I can.”

Among women’s performances, MacLean was #5, thanks to her 3:58.67 in Brussels last year. The three athletes between Coburn and MacLean who passed? Alicia Monson (8:26.81 3k in Lausanne), Courtney Wayment (9:09.91 steeple in Monaco), and Courtney Frerichs (9:10.59 steeple at Worlds).

The two men’s selections were much farther down the list. Basten’s 8:23.86 steeple at NCAAs put him 51st, while Mann’s 7:49.57 3k put him 62nd.

(World Athletics has separate scoring tables for indoor and outdoor events. Mann’s ranking is based on the outdoor tables; if USATF used his indoor score, he would rank higher as indoor performances award more points. Mann told LetsRun he didn’t know which scoring table USATF used. Update — USATF told LetsRun it awarded him points based on the indoor scoring table, so he would have ranked higher than 62nd.)

Knowingly or not, at least 50 Americans passed on the opportunity to be part of the men’s relay at World XC. A few, such as Grant Fisher (#1) and Yared Nuguse (#3) were racing indoor track. Atlanta Track Club coach Andrew Begley told LetsRun Jonathan Davis (#4) did not have a passport. Drew Hunter (#10) told LetsRun he did not want to make the trip as his back locks up on long flights.

Others simply were not aware of the selection policy. Josh Thompson (#21), a World Championship finalist in the 1500 last year, said he would have been interested in applying to be on the team (but was not 100% sure he would go) but did not learn about the opportunity until it was too late.

2016 Olympic 1500 champion Matthew Centrowitz is currently training in Australia, and said recently in an Instagram story that he had been asked by fans whether he was running the relay at World XC. Centrowitz noted Mann and Basten had been selected, and after wishing them luck, wrote, “What I’m finding difficult to understand is the criteria that USATF used for this selection. One thing for sure is I’m extremely happy USATF does not leave Olympic team spots and World Championship spots up to selection after going through this process.”

Centrowitz, who ran 1:56.01 for 800 in his outdoor opener in Adelaide last week, was rehabbing from knee surgery in 2022 and did not run one of the eligible events within the qualification window. Mann knows Centrowitz, with his 100,000 Instagram followers, is a much bigger name in the running world and said he received a lot of messages (mostly positive) after Centrowitz’s post. But he also thinks Centrowitz has a point.

“Obviously I’m pleased with how it worked out, but I think it would be cool if they had a trial at the US cross country nationals, like a 2k trial,” Mann said (this is how Kenya picked its team). “It’s a different kind of race than a lot of track races.”

USATF did send emails with a link to the selection criteria to a number of athletes, though it’s unclear how many received them (Update: When asked who, specifically, received the link, USATF said “Athletes, coaches, and authorized athlete representatives were notified of its posting”). USATF could have been more proactive in recruiting athletes to field a team that would be stronger on paper — a couple of top athletes like Thompson said they may have received an email about the selection procedure but were not actively recruited to run by USATF and didn’t realize they were in a position to go. But a number of athletes were aware of the possibility and simply passed. Mann told LetsRun that Olympic steeplers Hillary Bor (#2) and Benard Keter (#18) both turned down their spot.

Mann, who ran as part of the relay at 2019 World XC in Denmark, was well aware of what it took to make the team. One of his goals for 2023 was to make the team again, though that proved difficult as USATF didn’t publish its selection criteria until late December.

“We were basically refreshing the page all through the fall,” Mann said. “I don’t know when it came up, I just know that I was very aware of it when it came up, because I had been looking for it for months.”

Once Mann saw the criteria, he realized he needed to race, quickly. Mann figured his competition for the team would mostly consist of steeplers — he believed most of the 1500/3000 guys on the list would focus on indoor track instead of World XC. Mann ran 8:31 last spring in the steeplechase (despite falling) at the Penn Relays but wanted to improve his qualifying mark.

“We figured that 7:47, about, would at least put me ahead of everyone who had run like 8:22 or so in the steeple,” Mann said. (7:47 is worth 8:27 in the steeple in the outdoor scoring tables; converting across the indoor and outdoor tables, an indoor 7:47 would indeed be worth 8:22).

There weren’t many fast 3ks around before the end of the window on January 15, so Mann decided to make his own. He and Julius Diehr, his training partner at Ocean State Athletic Club entered a DIII meet, the Suffolk Ice Breaker a Invitational at the TRACK at New Balance on January 14. With Diehr pacing for the first 2200m, Mann ran 7:49.57 to win the race by 25 seconds. He was pleased with the personal best but figured it wouldn’t be good enough to run at World XC.

“I really didn’t think I was going to get selected,” Mann said.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and Mann was on the phone with a friend at his mother’s house in Hickory, N.C. An email from USATF addressed to someone named “Vince” hit Mann’s inbox, informing him he’d been selected for the World XC relay team. Mann quickly wrote back, and his confusion turned to elation.

“I said, was this meant for me or someone named Vince?” Mann said. “I presume it was Vincent Ciattei (3:35 in the 1500 in 2022) but I’m not sure. And they said it was [meant for me].”

Ciattei’s agent Stephen Haas confirmed to LetsRun that he was indeed the mystery Vince — Ciattei had initially applied to run and was selected but turned it down as he was still coming back from a minor knee injury.


This is the third time the 4 x 2k relay has been contested at World XC, and the US has yet to win a medal. Kenya won the inaugural edition in 2017, with the US squad of Cory LeslieEleanor FultonMarisa Howard, and Paul Chelimo finishing 6th, 91 seconds out of the medals. Two years later in Aarhus, Ethiopia took gold with Morocco and Kenya 2nd and 3rd. The US team — Kirubel ErassaShannon Osika, Mann, and Fulton — was a lot closer to the medals this time but still 32 seconds behind 3rd.

The competition is strong again in 2023. Australia’s team is loaded, with Stewart McSweynOllie HoareJessica Hull, and Abbey Caldwell. Ethiopia’s team features steeple aces Getnet Wale and Mekides Abebe plus Birke Haylom, the women’s 1500 champ at last year’s World U20 championship. Kenya is running the silver medalist in that race (Brenda Chebet) along with steeple world record holder Beatrice Chepkoech and 1:43 800 man Emmanuel Wanyonyi.

Though MacLean and Coburn haven’t run cross country races since college (2017 for MacLean, 2011 for Coburn), they figure to give the US a good shot to be competitive on the women’s legs. America’s medal chances will likely come down to whether Basten and Mann can hang with their more-credentialed foes.

MacLean is optimistic, noting Basten, who joined the UA Mission Run Baltimore Distance team after graduating from Minnesota last year, just ran a 3k pb of 7:46 at Boston University on Saturday.

“Even if me and Emma have stronger world rankings compared to the other two athletes, I think anything goes with cross country,” MacLean said. “They might just crush it on grass. Some people don’t crush it on grass. I think we still have a really good chance to have a really strong team. and who knows, maybe a stronger 1500 runner or steeplechaser who declined the position isn’t as great at cross country. I have hope in our team.”

Mann has not had the smoothest last few years. He felt he had a good chance to make the US steeple team in 2019 but wound up 10th after not running for two and a half weeks ahead of USAs due to injury. He suffered a bone bruise last winter, and after rebounding from that, he was en route to a PR at Penn Relays before falling in that race. The fall left mental scars, then he got COVID around the time of USAs and failed to make the final. His 7:49 pb in Boston, Mann said, felt like a monkey off his back. Now, he’s back in position to do what he loves to do: “enjoying my life and trying to be fast, man.”

It’s also a big deal for Mann, who lives in Providence and works for the Jewish Liberation Fund, a progressive nonprofit, to represent the US — no one was more pumped to go to NACACs in 2018.

“Getting my third US cap, it’s an honor every time,” Mann said.

On paper, Australia, Kenya, and Ethiopia all have stronger teams, and the 90+ degree heat (the relay is the first race of the day, at 3:30 p.m.) will make for a challenging event. We’ll never know what would have happened if one of the dozens of athletes ahead of him on the list had decided to email USATF and accept their spot. But Mann will do his best to make his country proud on Saturday.

“[In 2019] I ran the third-fastest time on my leg and beat [Abdelaati] Iguider, the guy from Morocco,” Mann said. “We’re on the same leg, and I ran two seconds faster than him and he ran 3:31 later that year…I feel like I didn’t let the team down in 2019. I’m here because I think I’m in good form.”

Correction: The initial version of this article said USATF posted its selection criteria on its website on December 21. It was actually posted December 29.

More: The World’s Greatest Footrace Is (Finally!) Back. Here’s What to Look For At 2023 World XC. The men’s race should be an all-time classic as it is totally stacked with Joshua Cheptegei, Geoffrey Kamworor, Selemon Barega, Jacob Kiplimo, & more. Letesenbet Gidey leads the women’s race while host Australia is favored in the 4x2k relay.

Want more 2023 World XC Coverage? We are doing a live preview show from Australia at 11 pm ET on Thursday night:

Like this article? Subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on social media

The latest running news, sent to your inbox weekly or when urgent news breaks.

You have been subscribed.