Focus On The U.S. Women’s 100 Hurdles Scene

The U.S. women—(l-r): Kristi Castlin, Brianna McNeal & Nia Ali—swept the Rio medals in ’16 and Team USA looks ready for another big haul. (VICTOR SAILER/PHOTO RUN)

WE HEAR THE PHRASE all the time: the toughest team to make. Perhaps the U.S. women’s 100 hurdlers should copyright the line.

Consider this: American timber-toppers have grabbed an astounding 30 of the 50 World Rankings spots open in the last 5 years (see sidebar). They swept the medals at the Rio Olympics and at the two Worlds since then have taken half the podium spots. Of the 25 fastest in world history, 12 are now Americans.

How does a podium hopeful deal with the lining up week in and week out against the world’s best? Says Keni Harrison, “You can’t think too much about your competitors and what they’re doing. All you can do is worry about yourself.”

The WR holder adds that the intense competition could bring fans some very special moments in the coming year. Whether it’s her or someone else, she doesn’t think her 12.20 is long for this world.

“I think that you guys will see a faster time,” she says of the mark she set in the last Olympic year. “There are still small things that can make somebody go faster. 12.20 can definitely be broken. Not sure how fast, but I think it can be broken.”

The World Rankers

The ones to watch closely in the coming battle for Team USA spots are the proven quantities, the active Americans who have already notched World Rankings in the event. Eight women make that grade, enough to fill the lanes on a typical track. Let’s look at them in PR order:

Keni Harrison, 12.20
The World Record holder has been ranked No. 1 in the world for four years straight. Fired up by her silver in Doha—her first ever international outdoor podium, the ’15 NCAA champ for Kentucky is more confident than ever in her mental game at age 28.

Brianna McNeal, 12.26
The reigning Olympic champion set an American Record with her best, back in ’13, but she remains a potent force. Now 29, the Clemson alum has World Ranked 6 times, and as recently as ’18 earned the No. 2 global spot.

Nia Ali, 12.34
The Rio silver medalist, Ali would seem primed to go after another Olympic bauble at age 32. After winning in Doha with her PR, she told us, “You know, it could be the last time I ever have a big performance like this, so I have to make sure that I’m doing everything I can in my power to be able to get on that team for Tokyo.”

Sharika Nelvis, 12.34
A WC finalist in ’15—she set her PR in the first round at USATF that year—Nelvis has made the Rankings top 5 in 4 of the last 5 years. In ’19, the now-30-year-old Nevis took some knocks but closed with a win at the Europe vs USA match.

Dawn Harper-Nelson 12.37
The ’08 Olympic gold medalist retired to have a child in ’18 but couldn’t stay away from the sport. “I knew she was going to come back,” says friend Nelvis. She will be 37 at the Trials, but absolutely no one is counting her out, even if her best came in the ’12 Olympic final, where she earned silver.

Queen Claye, 12.43
Formerly Harrison, the 7-time World Ranker is 32 now and her best of 12.43 came in ’13, but she showed up big at USATF in ’19, placing 5th. Like many, she did not race at all in ’20 but she is training hard to improve on her 4th-place finish at the last Trials.

Kristi Castlin, 12.50
The ’16 bronze medalist, Castlin has World Ranked 4 times, but not since ’17. The 32-year-old is not out of the game, though. A low-key ’18 led to a ’19 campaign that ended with her 7th-place finish at USATF in a season’s best 12.86. Her success in the last Trials—2nd with her PR—solidly confirmed her big-meet peaking ability.

Christina Clemons, 12.54
The Ohio State alum—a brightly shining prospect in ’12 when she won the NCAA and placed 5th at the Trials—suffered a devasting injury the following year. Years went into her rebuild and she has now made the Rankings three years straight. At 30 she says she is more than hungry after the deferment of much of her career.

The Next Tier

In the last 6 years, two other Americans have made the World Rankings, but Jasmin Stowers is recently retired and Lolo Jones is back to concentrating on the bobsled.

Tiffani McReynolds
The Baylor veteran, now 29, hit a PR 12.72 in ’19 and may be ready to finally bust into the U.S. Rankings. She finished 3rd in the USATF Indoor in ’20.

Amber Hughes
The 26-year-old Tennessee State alum made a big jump in ’19, taking her PR from 13.12 to 12.74. Can she do it again? No races in ’20, but she told a reporter, “My coach and I, we’re on a mission. We have a few things to fix, and we’re just going to go at it.”

Payton Chadwick
The former Arkansas heptathlete, 25, is focusing on the hurdles as a pro. Her best is 12.70 from her runner-up finish at the ’19 SEC meet. Last summer she dodged COVID to go after an international campaign. She came away with 2 wins and a U.S.-leading 12.78 on the season.

Taliyah Brooks
Chadwick’s former Razorback teammate also seems to have left the heptathlon behind (her PR is 6099). In September she hit a 12.86 PR in Doha.

Gabriele Cunningham
The ’20 USATF Indoor champion, now 22, had barely gotten started on her pro career when the shutdown came. At NC State, she did double duty in the sprints and hurdles and ran bests of 11.21, 23.04 and 12.99.

Anna Cockrell
All though her eventual meal ticket may well be the 400H, where she has won NCAA and World Junior titles, Cockrell has already run 12.69 and placed 5th in the NCAA. At 23, she has one outdoor season left at USC.

The Youth Movement

The technical demands of the event reward experience. As Harper Nelson says, “The huge blessing of the hurdles is that often it is a maturing event. You don’t see a lot of people coming out of high school saying, ‘Oh I ran 12.3 in the hurdles.’ There’s always something to learn.”

Still, there are some quick studies coming up on the horizon. With hardly any domestic racing opportunities in the event during ’20, a fan can’t see who has been making progress. A number come to mind—some of them already very accomplished, while others are new to the big stage.

Chanel Brissett
The NCAA champion indoors and out in ’19 for USC, Brissett, 21, blistered a 12.52 in taking the outdoor title. The time makes her No. 6 all-time among collegians. She graduated in three years and is now an MBA student at Texas, where she has two more seasons of outdoor eligibility. She is working with hurdle guru Edrick Floréal, who coaches WR holder Harrison among others.

Tonea Marshall
LSU’s Marshall, 22, still has one outdoor season of NCAA eligibility and is looking like she could make a dent on the pro scene when she debuts there. In ’19, she tied her best NCAA finish ever at 6th, but along the way she ran the 7 fastest races of her career, topped by a 12.57 at altitude.

Cortney Jones
Another 3-year graduate, Jones will spend her last season of eligibility at Arizona State after winning the ACC and placing 6th at NCAAs for Florida State in ’19. At 21, her best of 12.72 puts her in good company.

Tia Jones
Now 20, the former Georgia prep star set national class records as a frosh, soph and junior. Heavily recruited by colleges (the 12.84 PR and the World Junior gold helped), she instead turned pro. Some solid performances have followed (12.86 in ’19), but at nationals that year she got stuck in the heats.

Alexis Duncan
Tennessee’s Duncan, 22, has two more seasons of outdoor eligibility. She ran 12.79 as a frosh for the Vols and 12.79 in ’19, but has yet to make an NCAA final.

Grace Stark
Florida’s Stark, 19, hasn’t run an outdoor race since high school, where she clocked 13.16 and won the Youth Olympics gold in ’18. She made headlines indoors for the Gators in ’20 by breaking the World Junior Record for the 60H twice at the SEC.

Fans in other countries might look at the U.S. hurdle scene and see an embarrassment of riches. One suspects American hurdlers are fine with that. In our conversations, not one complained about the toughness of the competition.

Harper Nelson, the most experienced of all, mentions her thoughts went she went off to college at UCLA 18 years ago and realized the competition she would be facing: “I wanted to be the greatest hurdler to ever live. That meant trying to win everything in sight and getting a World Record. I realized even more that, ‘Oh, this is going to be a fight that I never imagined.’ I still want the same things, but to get them, there are so many good hurdlers. Oh my god, I have to go through all of them, you know?”

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