Des Moines, Iowa, June 21-24—For a USATF Championships in the quadrennial “off-year” you have to throw out the formchart. Without Olympic or World Champs team berths on the line, T&FN declines to even play the predictions game in what is often a reset season for veteran athletes.
What we did instead at Drake was expect surprises and the athletes supplied them along with a loaded quiver of tantalizing clues as to who the headliners could be in the 3 international championship seasons ahead. In this category put Noah Lyles and Ronnie Baker, new worthy rivals to absent Justin Gatlin and Christian Coleman in the men’s 100, and Aleia Hobbs, whose winning smile bespoke eager anticipation of soon challenging Tori Bowie in the women’s century.
In the women’s 400, with Allyson Felix not in town and world champ Phyllis Francis contesting the 200, first-year post-collegian Shakima Wimbley dropped a revelatory lap. The 110 hurdles, while the times into a headwind for the final were unremarkable, suggested Devon Allen isn’t ceding anything to Florida super-frosh Grant Holloway, and a rivalry may be rising up.
These Nationals also capped a spring and early summer of promise in a couple of events where U.S. athletes historically have never been at the forefront. When was the last time the USATF Championships arrived with a U.S. woman triple jumper and hammer thrower leading the world lists? Never in the era of their being WR events. And this time the TJ was a firecracker of a duel ending in a third title for Keturah Orji, and in the hammer DeAnna Price lofted the ball to a new American Record.
In the men’s throws (with all the long ones contested outside the stadium) the shot upset the formchart if there had been one as Darrell Hill aced out Ryan Crouser, and the discus result, a PR improvement of close to 10 feet by lefty Reggie Jagers, opened some eyes.
13 athletes defended titles successfully: Ameer Webb, Evan Jager, Paul Chelimo, Sam Kendricks, Ajee’ Wilson, Emma Coburn, Shelby Houlihan, Molly Huddle, Keni Harrison, Maria Michta-Coffey, Vashti Cunningham, Sandi Morris, Kara Winger.
And in the men’s middle distance races returns to the fore were the rule: Clayton Murphy bouncing back from injury at last year’s meet in a sizzling negative-split 800 and Olympic 1500 champ Matthew Centrowitz once more the master tactician after a slip to 2nd in ’17.
For Iowa locals, the biggest draw looked to be the women’s 1500 pitting native daughters Jenny Simpson and Houlihan, whose win last year was in the 5000. Their war on the final lap was fierce until Houlihan, an erstwhile Iowa prep 400 champ, found another gear in the final stretch and snipped Simpson’s string of consecutive titles at 5.
The largest crowd of the four days showed for Houlihan–Simpson. How large? Who knows? No attendance figures were released and the entire backstretch was mostly empty all meet long. Weather on the last day—a possible thunderstorm forecast that did materialize and delayed the meet’s conclusion for 3 hours—was likely a factor. Minimal signage for the meet around town could not have assisted. An informal poll of hotel shuttle and Uber drivers by this writer showed most either had no idea a meet was being held or thought this might be the Drake Relays.
In promotional terms, the off-year nationals is the membership fee for the club of sites who’d like to host in a Worlds or Olympic Trials year. Des Moines earned that honor for next year—and will run off the show in late July, to jibe better with Doha’s late September/early October World Champs hosting. Expect weather somewhere on the steambath/inferno spectrum, not an inappropriate test kitchen before Doha.
Minor complaint—no, not really, it’s a detail worth getting right: there were extended periods of time when absolutely nothing was happening on the track and the scoreboard just displayed the event logo, rather than field event updates. In-progress updates appeared on the board once or twice but mostly not at all. Why not fix that?
All in all, though, well done, Des Moines. See you next July.