LAST LAP — June

Here’s this month’s collection of generally off-track activities that have gone a long way towards shaping the way the sport is headed:

Edrick Floréal is moving his coaching operation from Kentucky to Texas. Superstar pupils like Kendra Harrison are expected to join him.  (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

CR-Setting Quartet Turns Pro Early

Tis the season for college tracksters to turn pro early. And whether the financial dynamics have changed to encourage more athletes to go pro, or whether we simply have a bumper crop of world-class talent that is ready to battle at the pro level, it’s clear that college track next year will look very different.

Sydney McLaughlin made perhaps the biggest—albeit not totally unexpected—headlines by announcing at the NCAA that her year in Kentucky colors would be a one-and-done. “That was my last college meet,” she said in the post-race interview zone. Turning pro “is definitely the next step and we’ll see where it goes from there.” Reportedly, she intends to move to Austin to continue working with Edrick Floréal, now the head coach at Texas.

Michael Norman made his pro announcement as well, indicating that he will continue working with USC coaches Caryl Smith Gilbert and Quincy Watts as he finishes his degree. The Trojan soph said, “I want to thank USC, my coaches, and the support staff for giving me the opportunity to represent the shield and for helping me to this point in my track career.”

Also staying in school is Norman teammate Rai Benjamin, who said he too is going pro and intends to keep working with Smith Gilbert, Watts and Trojan hurdles coach Joanna Hayes. “I decided it’s time to take it to the next stage,” the No. 2 400 hurdler of all time said. “It’s weird… Everything I ever talked about has become a reality.”

Josh Kerr, the CR holder in the 1500 for New Mexico, has signed with the Brooks Beasts. The Scot said on Instagram, “I will be staying in Albuquerque for the next two years before going to Seattle.” He will be coached by Danny Mackey.

The last big announcement to hit the news cycle came from Kentucky’s Jasmine Camacho-Quinn, who had just missed the CR in the 100H with her 12.40 this spring. “I have made the decision to forego my final year of eligibility and I will be turning pro,” she said on Twitter.


Holloway Not Joining The Pro Ranks

With so many if his peers announcing early pro signings, Grant Holloway got people wondering early the next week with a cryptic tweet: “It’s been real. No cap.”

A selection of some high-end Twitter followers—Mikiah Brisco, Keturah Orji, Ashley Spencer—all prodded him for details, asking “Pro?”

To which Florida’s super-soph kept repeating, “Pro?”

Asked for clarification, he told us, “It can be on the record, nothing is happening. Outside sources keep saying I’m going pro. ‘It’s been real’ bc I just finished my interview to release that I am staying another year. It should be released in a couple days.”

Subsequently, Ed Miller of the Virginian-Pilot reported that Holloway laughed at “sources” that said he’ll show up in Iowa in colors other than Florida orange and blue. “I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m coming back for another year,” said the Gator star.


Coaching Surprise: Floréal Leaves Kentucky, Goes To Texas

Edrick Floréal has been named the head coach at Texas, leaving Kentucky after a 6-year stint that made the Wildcats a national powerhouse.

Rumors had been flying at the NCAA that the Texas program was looking for a big name to replaced fired coach Mario Sategna and was willing to pay big bucks. Floréal’s name wasn’t the only one on the speculation list.

In an announcement the week after the NCAA, Texas AD Chris Del Conte said, “I am excited about what he’ll bring to our program and how he’ll build on the proud tradition of Texas track & field.”

The year before Floréal left Stanford and took over in Lexington, the Wildcats were just 8th in the SEC men’s standings and 12th on the women’s side. Both sides of the program improved dramatically, most notably the women, who have earned three top-4 finishes at the NCAA in the last 4 years.

Said Floréal, 51, “I am driven to succeed and come to work every day with the burning desire to make everybody on the team better. I am going to bring that same focus, passion and drive to Texas. I am so excited to get there, meet the team and become a part of the Longhorn community.”

There have been no announcements yet of other staff changes in Austin, except that interim Texas head Tonja Buford-Bailey told the Austin American-Statesman that she will not be returning next year.

Already, most of Floréal’s auspicious roster of professionals—including Kori Carter, Kendra Harrison, Sydney McLaughlin & Omar McLeod—have announced plans to move to Austin to keep training with him.


Oregon Loses Top Assistants

Another big coaching move has shaken up the college world. The wife/husband duo of Maurica and Andy Powell, the duo behind the distance coaching at Oregon, have been hired by Pac-12 rival Washington, which released Greg Metcalf in May (“On Your Marks,” May).

Maurica has been named the Huskies’ first-ever director of track & field, while Andy will be the head coach, focusing on day-to-day operations.

The Powells worked with Vin Lananna at Stanford before he brought them to Eugene in ’05. They had a part in 19 national titles in cross country and track for the Ducks since then. In ’16, Maurica was named Div. I cross country coach of the year after Oregon’s win.

Said Washington AD Jennifer Cohen, “Maurica and Andy carry a deep passion for developing student-athletes to be their best both in and outside of competition and I am extremely excited for them to lead our program.”

The Powells, in a joint statement, said, “we are honored and humbled by the chance to build the next chapter of success on Montlake.”



Kirani James Diagnosed With Graves’ Disease

When last seen racing, Kirani James produced a subpar 46.21 to finish a lackluster 6th in the 400 at the ’17 Drake Relays. The ’12 Olympic champion emerged 13 months later in Kingston, winning in a 44.35 that looked more like his old world-beating self.

“It’s been a hard road back,” said coach Harvey Glance, who revealed that James has been battling Graves’ Disease, a thyroid disorder that causes, among other things, muscle weakness, weight loss and erratic heartbeat.

“It brought tears to my eyes. It was really rewarding for us to get back to where we are now,” said Glance, in an interview with SportsMax.tv.

Glance said that after that Drake race, James, 15 pounds under racing weight, lay on the wet track for 45 minutes. It had been his slowest outdoor final since he was 16. “We were not going to put him back on the track until we knew what was going on,” said Glance.

Now with a treatment and training plan in place, the 25-year-old Grenadan will not be competing unless he is in top health. Said Glance, “We will monitor his energy levels, breathing, muscle strength, and if he feels good, then we make the commitment.”

They are also planning to connect with 2-time Olympic gold medalist Gail Devers, who also suffers from Grave’s, to get her input on balancing world-class performance with the malady.


van Niekerk Probably Out For Whole Year

Kirani James isn’t the only previous No. 1 Ranker from the 400 sitting on the sidelines: if you’re hoping to see Wayde van Niekerk on the track this season, don’t hold your breath. The World Record holder is still recovering from the knee injury he incurred in a celebrity rugby match last October.

“Wayde will probably not compete at all this year,” manager Peet van Zyl told the Daily Mail. “When he comes back he wants to be ready and that means we are not running anywhere this year now. It will probably be 2019.”

The 25-year-old van Niekerk said, “I’ve got time to do it right, I don’t have to rush any process, I don’t have to try and put me through any different strain than what it’s already going through so I can basically be patient and allow my body to heal on its own.”

He added, “Once the body’s healed I can come back a stronger athlete. I’m not totally pain-free yet, so until I’m pain-free that’s when I’ll start taking massive steps towards getting back to competition again.”


NCAA Taking 2-Year Break From Hayward Field

If there’s an annual hot-button issue at the NCAA, it’s whether or not the sport is well served by Oregon’s being such a frequent host. For at least the next 2 years, while the new Hayward Field is being built, the meet will be elsewhere. Some will miss Eugene while the meet spends a couple of years in Austin.

Georgia head Petros Kyprianou, speaking at a premeet press conference, said, “Coming from Europe, growing up in a place where track & field is very high, I can confidently say that this place is the heartbeat of our sport in this country. A lot of people can sit and argue about how we’re far away and all that, but at the end of the day, there’s no other place in this country that does as good a job of putting on these championships.”

Wes Kittley of Texas Tech said, “Who can argue with Hayward Field and being here? I like it to move around a little bit, but I don’t know that you’re going to gain the same atmosphere anywhere else that you do here.”

Columnist Austin Meek of the Eugene Register-Guard opined, “It’s true that the loudest criticisms have tended to come from coaches who felt the location of the meet hindered their chances of winning a team title.”

Oregon head Robert Johnson put a fine point on it by noting, “For those competing for a championship, they hate it. For those who put their athletes first, they love it.”

Meek’s conclusion: “If the new Hayward Field is everything it’s cracked up to be, it will be hard to justify putting the NCAA meet anywhere else. The experience for fans and athletes will be so far above and beyond any alternative that the sport would be penalizing itself by looking elsewhere.”


And The Dismantling Begins…

With a demolition order and a work crew taking apart the East Grandstand board-by-board the Monday after the NCAA concluded, it has begun. Despite opposition from some in the Eugene community—“Stop Phil” shirts were seen throughout the meet, as well as a protester taking a spin around the track during the meet—Hayward Field as we know it is going away. Rather than a wholesale demolition, the initial process is a dismantling, with an eye towards repurposing some of the material.

The coming structure, all $200 million of it, will provide permanent seating for 12,900 and will expand to 30,000, allowing the U.S. to host the World Championships for the first time in ’21. The planning process took years, and involved significant backroom infighting, according to Nike CEO Phil Knight as well as Tinker Hatfield, the original project designer who was pushed off the committee.

Knight, the prime bankroller of the project, admitted in a conversation with the Eugene Register-Guard that the opposition to the project was a problem for him. Members of both the Bowerman and Prefontaine families have publicly registered their opposition to the project. The large tower that looms over the models of the coming stadium was to have been named after Bill Bowerman; now Knight has agreed to take his name off at the request of the family.

Said Knight, “The stadium at first blush would probably be too futuristic, too glitzy, for Bill Bowerman’s personal taste. He was very gruff and very direct, and my entreaties would probably not work. But then Bill Dellinger, Vin Lananna and Robert Johnson would call on him. I can just envision that meeting. They would explain why it’s needed, and I think he would relent, and I think ultimately he would grow to like it.”

Some of the disagreement between Knight and Hatfield revolved around the flashpoint of the East Grandstand. Hatfield advocating saving it and incorporating it in the new design; Knight sent an inspection team out and concluded the Grandstand was too far gone to save. Said Hatfield, “I believe personally that Phil Knight is intentionally misinformed. I feel like that is an injustice to the building and to Hayward Field that someone colored the picture inaccurately. That’s what Phil Knight has chosen to believe.”

Knight, however, harbors no delusions that everyone is going to fall in love with his stadium. “I’m sure of one thing: When those bulldozers in July knock that East Grandstand down, I am the most reviled man in Eugene.”


IAAF Testo Rule Back To CAS

Caster Semenya will not go gentle into that good night, mounting a legal fight against the pending IAAF rule change that would, in effect, end her career as a world-class runner.

Lawyers for Semenya have filed a challenge with CAS. According to the law firm’s release, “Ms. Semenya, like all athletes, is entitled to compete the way she was born without being obliged to alter her body by any medical means.

“She asserts that the regulations are discriminatory, irrational, unjustifiable and in violation of the IAAF Constitution, the Olympic Charter, the laws of Monaco, the laws of jurisdictions in which international competitions are held, and of universally recognized human rights.”

Aside from brief social media postings, Semenya herself has been fairly quiet on the issue, but was quoted in the press release as saying, “I just want to run naturally, the way I was born. It is not fair that I am told I must change. It is not fair that people question who I am. I am Mokgadi Caster Semenya. I am a woman and I am fast.”

The IAAF quickly issued a pointed response to the challenge: “The CAS has informed the IAAF… that it has received a request for arbitration filed by Caster Semenya vs. IAAF. We await further information and stand ready to defend the new regulations.”

The IAAF rule at this point only targets the 400 through the mile, and would require athletes with hyperandrogenism to lower their testosterone levels in order to compete. □

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