Olympic Trials Preview — Women’s 800 Dominated By Big 2

World Championships medals helped solidify Ajee’ Wilson & Raevyn Rogers atop the U.S. halfmiling heap. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

WITH A PAIR OF REIGNING World Champs medalists—Ajee’ Wilson and Raevyn Rogers—coming back at the top of their game, one can be forgiven for thinking that qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in the women’s 800 will be daunting.

“There are quite a few women in the 800 who have run fast enough to make the team,” says Hanna Green, last year’s big find (see sidebar). “I think last year it was a little weaker, but I feel like a lot of people are coming back this year and there are other girls who’ve been injured that could also come in strong this year.”

“The 800 is loaded,” agrees veteran Chanelle Price, who trains with Green. “But in a way, it’s wide open. You have Ajee’ and Raevyn, who got those medals, but I think that third spot is up for grabs, I really do.”

Whether one spot is open or all three, the battle to finish in the top 3 on June 28—the final day of the Olympic Trials—could be one for the ages.

The Giants

Any 2-lap specialists with Tokyo aspirations have to reconcile themselves to the fact that two of the best—in terms of freshly-minted bullion—will likely be on the starting line.

The bronze medalist, Ajee’ Wilson, ended the year with a global No. 1 ranking and at age 25 is nowhere near the end of her trajectory. She went undefeated until the World Champs, save for early losses to Caster Semenya and Francine Niyonsaba, both later banned from the event by the testosterone rule.

Wilson employs a standard race strategy that is successful more often than not, leading from the start before summoning her strength to pull away in the last 200. With plenty of endurance background (4:05.18 PR at 1500), she manages the strategy with supreme confidence.

Wilson’s training partner Raevyn Rogers, the surprise Doha silver medalist, has an entirely different set of strengths and an as-yet unpredictable racing style. Her range was best demonstrated at the Worlds, where she led her semi in a blistering 57.88 and then bravely hung on to win. In the final, two days later, she sat so far back that most counted her out after the halfway mark (7th in 59.05), then she stormed to 2nd with a jaw-dropping homestretch dash. The Oregon alum, 23, has speed to burn; her open 400 PR is 52.06, but that’s deceptive. In 2017 she anchored the Ducks to an NCAA win in the 4×4 with a 49.77 closer.

Between those two, there wouldn’t seem to be much room for newcomers. However, Ce’Aira Brown, bouncing back from an injury-slowed ’19 campaign that saw her make the finals in Doha, says for her, the attitude she used successfully in ‘18 is the key to challenging for the podium: “It is just being fearless and giving everything that you have, no matter who you’re racing with. You have the top girls on the line, but when I’m in a race, I like to feel like I belong there as well. That helped me in 2018, not worrying about other people’s stats and what they did because I felt like I worked that hard as well to be where I’m at.”

Nothing epitomizes the depth of the event as well as the members of Derek Thompson’s Philadelphia-based training group. In addition to medalists Rogers and Wilson, other specialists in the group include 1:57.38 performer Charlene Lipsey and former World Junior champion Sammy Watson.

For many, training with their biggest rivals might present serious challenges. Analyzes Wilson, “Whether they’re training with me or not, I’m going to have to line up against them at some point, you know? Everybody has their own different styles, their own strengths. So when Raevyn came, she’s super-fast. I looked at it as this is somebody that I’ll be able to work with and build on that part of my race. I’m going to have to race them eventually. Since everybody’s super talented, it’s just an opportunity to work. Hopefully when we do line up, it’ll work in my favor ‘cause up to that point, we’re teammates, but then we’re competitors and it doesn’t really matter how much I like you. It’s just about getting to that line.”

Rogers calls Wilson “a blessing” in the way she has helped newcomers feel welcome to the training group: “It takes a lot for a person to try to help other people when they’re trying to grow themselves. And she took that challenge just as the genuine person that she is to help me as well as my teammates not only kind of get used to our coach, but to keep reminding us that, ‘You’re fine, you’re good, everything’s going to work out.’” (Continued below)

Stanford alum Olivia Baker, now 23, marked herself as a threat with her 4th-place finish at USATF last summer. With a 2:00.08 PR—not to mention 52.46 speed—the former World Junior 400 medalist has the turnover. She has been training in Texas with coach Darryl Woodson to further build her strength.

The Doublers

The 800/1500 double is easy enough in Eugene, with the 1500 final on the evening of June 22, three days before the first round of the 800. That’s flipped from ’16, when the 800 came first. Who will that affect? Kate Grace is one likely to go for the 1500 and use the 800 as backup. In ’16 she qualified for the team by winning a topsy-turvy 800 final, then took a pass on the 1500. However, in ’17 and ’19, the Bowerman TC veteran, now 31, focused on the 1500. She hasn’t run a PR at 800 since ’16 (1:58.28), but last summer clocked her best 1500 ever (4:02.49). It makes perfect sense for her to go for the 1500 first.

So far, she’s not committing publicly. “Just head down training right now,” she texted T&FN. “800 and double is definitely an option but at this point I’m going to continue to let the training speak for itself and see how things develop.”

Comebacking Brenda Martinez is another veteran doubler. She has been out since early last season with Achilles troubles. In ’16 she was fighting for the lead on the final turn when she tripped and finished a far-back 7th. She came back to grab a team spot in the 1500. The next season she made the 800 squad for the Worlds. Her PRs in both events (1:57.91/4:00.94) date back to ’13, the year she won 800 silver at the WC. Now 32, she hasn’t shared much about her current fitness or training. However Martinez, now 32, is a ferocious competitor, so if she shows signs of health—and gets a qualifying mark—she can’t be discounted.

Another potential doubler, if healthy, is Colorado’s Sage Hurta. She ran a breakthrough 2:00.99 race during a light redshirt campaign last season, which put her on the radar for the 800. A 4:09.37 best at 1500—combined with a solid cross country résumé—indicates she has possibilities in the longer run. In mid-January, however, Hurta announced that several months of shin pain had been diagnosed as a tibial stress fracture. That canceled any indoor plans and left her Trials prospects dependent on how well and quickly the Buff junior can recover.

The Comebackers

Prime among non-Rankers from last year still to be reckoned with is Charlene Lipsey, who bounced back from Olympic-year disappointment in ’16 to run her way to the WC final the next season, burning a string of PRs that got down to 1:57.38. Sidelined by an Achilles injury before the racing started in ’19, she struggled with getting healthy. On Instagram, she said, “This year has been unexpectedly challenging. I’ve been dealing with an injury that has thrown me through a loop. A lot of tears, sleepless nights, isolation, and just flat out pain both physically and mentally. I never knew dealing with an injury would be this difficult.”

However, an excited Wilson says, “Charlene’s back.” The 28-year-old LSU alum has returned to healthy training with the Philly group. No word yet on when we will see her race.

Another who has demonstrated the talent to make the team if she’s healthy is Arkansas alum Chrishuna Williams, who made the Rio team with a PR 1:59.59. She has not been under 2:00 since, however. Last season, with a best of 2:03.03, she missed the U.S. champs.

Chanelle Price, now 29, has a best of 1:59.10 from ’15, the year after she won World Indoor gold. However, in ’17 she developed a pulmonary embolism; in the difficult months of recovery, she injured her foot. She lost all of ’18. “I thought about giving up a lot of times,” she admits. “But when I walk away from the sport, I want it to be on my terms, not a sickness or injury. So I just had to keep digging deep to find that motivation.” Last season, on the advice of her agent, she dabbled in rabbiting to “get into that Diamond League feel again.” She adds, “It was so weird. These are my competitors. But it’s good training.” Now working with Oregon TC Elite and coach Mark Rowland, she is set on making the Trials final that she missed last time.

Laura Roesler finished 2nd at USATF way back in ’14 with her still-standing PR of 1:59.04. Since then, the Oregon alum has been riding the injury roller coaster. Last year she opened up better than ever with an indoor PR of 1:59.80, but was injured again before outdoors. With any luck, at 28 she’ll emerge this spring as another contender.

The Young Ones

Normally we would look to the NCAA ranks to see who else is coming down the pipeline, but this year one of the most intriguing young prospects has already gone pro while another hasn’t even gone to college yet. Sammy Watson won the NCAA title in ’18, her first year with Texas A&M, but the New Yorker surprisingly bailed after her sophomore campaign had started. She turned pro, finished 6th at USATF in 2:01.70 (her PR 2:00.65 is from ’17) and ran a couple of low-level European races. (Continued below)

Now she too has joined up with Derek Thompson’s Philly training group. “It’s been so nice having her here,” says Wilson. “She’s already learning so much and growing so much. I’m excited to see how this year will play out for her.”

Meanwhile, Athing Mu, the precocious youngster from Trenton, New Jersey, is expected by many to make a serious mark. Mu, who recently signed with Texas A&M, ran her PR of 2:01.17 in finishing 5th at the USATF meet last summer. She had captured the imagination of many when she won the USATF Indoor 600 title in an American Record 1:23.57, beating Rogers by more than a second. She dismisses the heavy expectations placed on her, saying, “I’m doing this for fun. I’m young. I’ve got a lot of years to improve.” One place she has already improved this winter is in the 500, lowering the national HS record to 1:10.22.

A number of current and recent NCAA types could also challenge for the final: Penn senior Nia Akins, 21, was the NCAA runner-up last year in a PR 2:01.67. UNLV’s Avi’Tai Wilson-Perteete, 20, finished 3rd in the NCAA after a 2:01.14 in ’18. Monmouth alum Allie Wilson, 23, has a best of just 2:02.56 but is also worth watching.

The Race Itself

No matter who makes the final, the feverish nature of the Trials almost ensures the competition will be largely unpredictable, if not downright wild. In ’16, a controversial crash on the final turn probably had a big effect on the results. That came a year after the ’15 pileup, which cost Allie Wilson a shoe and others a potential spot on the team.

Says Olivia Baker, “If you have a lane in the final, you have a chance. On that given day it could be anybody. I certainly hope there isn’t a fall, but it gets iffy. It’s a fast race where we don’t have our own lanes.”

Wilson adds, “There’s that looming thought in the back of your head, like you know, ‘It might get physical.’ You’re hyper-aware of where you are, what your positioning is, the space of the race and just mindful of, hey, something could go down. But I wouldn’t say it’s something I obsess over, because I’ve not fallen more than I’ve fallen.”

Raevyn Rogers’ biggest strength tactically is her flexibility, something that would come in handy in a crazy race. “However the race goes,” she says, “I plan to be engaged from the start and prepared to react however the race develops.”

Whoever gets those 8 lanes, they will have run their hearts out just to get there. And for the first 3 across the line, it will take everything.

Chanelle Price says it best—and her words speak for others as well: “All the obstacles and trials I’ve faced, that’s what’s going to allow me to dig deep on that final stretch—everything I’ve had to overcome these past few years.”

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