AFTER BEING SHUT OUT of the Olympic medals in Rio—something that had happened at no previous Games—and then not making the WC podium the next year in London (also a first), American hurdlers seem to be making their way back to the top of an event they have historically dominated.
The top 2 performers on last year’s world list were Grant Holloway (12.98) and Daniel Roberts (13.00). Holloway’s gold medal flight in Doha served added notice that when the Olympics finally convene in Tokyo, the U.S. should again be a major factor.
No. 2 World Ranker Holloway will go into the next season—whenever it starts—with a target on his back. Now training without the long jump as part of his repertoire—and without having to compete in heavy-load collegiate meets—look for the 22-year-old Virginia native to be more focused than ever at reaching his potential in the highs.
One would be cautioned not to forget Roberts. The USATF champion actually had a 3–2 record over Holloway in ’19, and ranked No. 4 in the world despite being disqualified in the first round at Doha. The two are close friends and never miss an opportunity to sing each other’s praises. On the track, though, they are fierce competitors who never hold back.
Both Roberts and Holloway are aggressive starters. “That’s how we run our race,” explains Roberts. “The start to the first hurdle is one of the most important things in the world. When you get out like that—I’m not going to say it intimidates the other people—but it kind of throws them off a little bit because they can see you ahead of them already.”
As for lane draw, Roberts says he prefers to be right next to Holloway, saying, “Sometimes we knock each other—hit each other—over the hurdles. It’s just funny to me. We always do that to the first hurdle.”
Says Holloway, “I feel like me and him can do some big damage coming forward these next couple of years. I can’t wait to get back on the track with him because he brings out the best in me and I bring out the best in him.”
Close Behind The Big 2
As much as the two former SEC rivals played the collegiate hurdle scene like a 2-man show last year, it’s fair to assume that the event’s other top performers aren’t ceding a Team USA spot to either.
Among their challengers is last year’s No. 3 American, Freddie Crittenden, who got down to 13.17 and earned his second World Ranking. Roberts is big on the 25-year-old Syracuse alum’s chances: “I think he’s very underrated. He’s aggressive, he’s smooth. Certain things just have to come together.”
No. 4 last year, former Duck Devon Allen, 25, has shown repeatedly that he can’t be counted out in the big meets. The shutdown of the sport gives the 2-time U.S. No. 1 more time to bring his Achilles along to full strength, while the return to his former college coach, Jamie Cook, also bodes well for his confidence.
5-time U.S. Ranker Jarret Eaton, last year’s No. 8, is now training with Crittenden, a partnership that the two Syracuse grads believe will lead to fast times. Says Crittenden, “We’ve been competing with each other for years, but this is our first time training together. Hopefully both of us can sharpen each other and become the best versions of ourselves.”
Meanwhile, no one is ruling out veteran Aries Merritt (see sidebar). Says Crittenden, “I’ve been seeing a little bit of his training this year. Maybe just because I have him on a pedestal anyway. He’s the World Record holder so I can’t tear that down. No matter what happens, I don’t care how many bad years—quote, unquote—he has, another Olympics is coming up and I always have high expectations for Aries.” (Continued below)
Last Year’s Other U.S. Rankers
No. 5: Isaiah Moore, 23. From the start of his outdoor season to July last year the South Carolina senior’s only losses were to Holloway and Roberts. His PR 13.37 came in the Collegiate Record race at the NCAAs.
No. 6: Dashaun Jackson, 22. Only a 14.02 hurdler when ’19 began, Jackson surprised many with his emergence. The St. Francis senior knocked his best down to 13.37 in the NCAA semis, then ran 13.38 for 4th in the final.
No. 7: Michael Dickson, 23. The North Carolina A&T senior ran a PR 13.45 for 5th at the USATF meet. “Michael has had the potential all along to be one of the best,” says his coach, ’99 WC bronze medalist Duane Ross.
No. 9: Aaron Mallett, 25. The Iowa alum (and former high school teammate of Crittenden’s) won the USATF Indoor this winter and has a 13.37 best outdoors.
No. 10: Caleb Parker, 22. The multi-talented senior, also a 7-3 (2.21) high jumper, blistered a 13.50 at the NCAA and took 5th in the final for Southern Mississippi. Now he has transferred to Florida State where he trains with Trey Cunningham.
Other Potential Players
Tai Brown, 20. The Kentucky soph trained with Roberts last year, producing a 13.57 best and finishing 4th in the SEC. “He’s definitely on the younger side,” says Roberts, “but I could see him being one of the top people in two or three years also.”
Trey Cunningham, 21. The Florida State junior made finals at the NCAA and USATF meets as a frosh in ’18 and boasts a best of 13.47.
Robert Dunning, 22. Now a senior at Alabama, he ran 13.60 last year coming back from injury.
Aleec Harris, 29. The winner of the ’17 U.S. title, a 13.15 performer at his best, lost much of last season to injury but looked healthy in his 3-meet indoor campaign this winter.
David Kendziera, 25. The Illinois alum has a best of 13.39 from ’17 and finished 3rd in the NCAA that year. Last season he focused on the 400H, where he ranked No. 3 in the U.S.
The Rest Of The Picture
In an event that is notable in that the big stars rarely duck each other, the high level of competition in the U.S. will inevitably make the hurdle crew stronger. Says Allen, “There are no easy wins, so you gotta work for it. As hurdlers, we like that.”
With the Olympic Trials still more than a year off, the depth of the competition here virtually guarantees that anyone hoping to make that final will need to produce a world-class performance. Still, it’s hard to speculate on what the sport’s temporary shutdown might mean for the athletes in one of its most technical events. Most don’t have access to tracks or—especially—hurdles, but are still in a position where they can do basework. One would think they could regain sharpness relatively quickly after the quarantines end.
In addition, we’ve had more than a few athletes confess to us—almost sheepishly, some of them—that the Olympic postponement may work to their advantage as they recover from various physical setbacks. That extra time also means that the motivated up-and-comer may be able to take a quantum leap in a year devoted to training, which gives us yet another reason not to commit to anything looking like a formchart yet.
In any case, hurdle fans have plenty of great flights to look forward to. Notes Roberts, “I’m glad the U.S. is getting back ’cause this is how I remember the years when I was growing up: Aries Merritt, Jason Richardson, Terrence Trammell, Jeff Porter. You saw people all over the place and our hurdlers were always in the championships. That’s how we want it to be, that’s how we like it. We like the competition, that’s what makes us the best.”