JOHNNY GRAY’S American Record of 1:42.60 celebrated its 34th birthday just a few days ago, having been set way back on August 28, 1985, in Koblenz, but there have been some near misses in the last decade. Nick Symmonds, Duane Solomon and Clayton Murphy have all gone sub-1:43 since ’12 and the latest American to do so, getting the closest yet to Gray’s long-standing mark was Donavan Brazier in Zürich on Thursday night. His DL victory in 1:42.70 moved him up to No. 2 on the all-time U.S. list (see box), a big jump from No. 9 with his previous PR of 1:43.55 set in winning the ’16 NCAA as a Texas A&M frosh. That breakthrough Collegiate Record led to a decision to turn pro early.
The Michigan native, still only 22, arrived in the Swiss city fresh and raring to go after not racing since taking the US title in Des Moines a month earlier but he looked slightly jetlagged over the first 400. Behind pacemaker Harun Abda’s super-quick 48.23 first lap, with ’19-list leader Nijel Amos on his shoulder in 48.4, Brazier languished back in 8th, some 20m in arrears despite going through the bell in 50.8. Coming into the final bend, Brazier had edged up to 6th but still hadn’t got any closer to the rampant Amos. The American, however, had judged his race far more astutely than any of the men in front and picked them off one by one. He started to go through the gears and went past three men including his old SEC rival Brandon McBride coming into the home straight. Brazier then opened the throttle fully and overtook Emmanuel Korir with 40 to go before catching Amos—who looked like he was treading water—8m before the line. (Continued below)
Said Brazier, who had a 25.7 last furlong and 12.7 final 100, “I didn’t want to go out at that fast pace but luckily, I had a lot preserved for the last 300m and once I made a move I just had to keep it going and bring it all the way home. I think it was a bit deceptive, it was a bit me speeding up and a bit him slowing down, but I’ve got to give him credit that he went out hard. I think he wanted to do something special today and if he wanted to do it, he had to go out as fast as he did. The only time I thought I could catch him was when I caught him! Once I hit the straight I thought I might get 2nd, and I was thinking that would be good for my first Diamond League Final but my goals were changing every 5 steps, I was thinking, ‘I can get him,’ and then ‘I can get him,’ and after last year, when things didn’t go right I just wanted it a bit more this year.” Brazier missed the entire ’18 outdoor season with an Achilles problem.
He continued, “I haven’t PRed in 3 years so it feels good to finally get one; that’s due to building a bit more strength. I’m training more consistently now that I’m with a different program. I’m with the Oregon Project as opposed to my college training group but I think it’s been working great for me.” Brazier joined the NOP with Pete Julian as his mentor last fall, after previously working with his Texas A&M coach Alleyne Francique, and also briefly with Gray himself in ’16, as a part of Duane Solomon’s training group. “It’s been a good transition for me, from the resources, to the coaches and the facilities but it’s also been a big adjustment for me. Last year, I was looking at other groups including the Oregon Track Club but the Oregon Project seemed like the right fit for me with its middle distance group.”
Post-meet, Brazier was understandably delighted at the outcome of the race but there was just a tinge of reflective disappointment that Gray’s AR had survived another assault: “Realistically, this might have been the meet to do it for this year. I might have just missed it, but it is what it is. We’ve got the World Champs coming up, but we all know what the World Champs mean, it might be a more tactical race.
“I’ve never really done too many workouts with the Oregon Project that indicated my shape as far as times were concerned so I was going into this race kind of blind; but after the U.S. Champs just over a month ago I think I knew that I could put myself into a fast race and turn out a good result or put myself in a slow race and have a good result.”
The question now is, can Brazier become the first ever American world 800 champ and the first global outdoor gold medalist over 2 laps of the track since Dave Wottle’s triumph at the ’72 Olympics (which Brazier’s thrilling dash in Zürich drew immediate comparisons with for those in the audience with long memories or a sense of history)?
Whatever the result in Doha, Brazier is looking beyond to this fall and some down time, thanks to his biggest-ever payday: “I like fishing so in October I’m planning to go to Florida and have a few excursions. I don’t know what the Swiss tax laws are but with the $50,000 first-prize here I hope I can hang onto a chunk of that money and get myself a boat of some sort. ◻︎”