AS THE ’23 SEASON RAMPS UP, Bryce Hoppel is looking to pace himself. That by no stretch means the halfmiler who claimed the last three USATF 800 titles — ’22 indoors & out plus a repeat undercover win in February — plans to slow his roll around the track.
Hoppel and Michael Whittlesey, his college coach who still guides him, are more determined than ever to outdo his ’19 World Champs 4th-place finish. That auspicious performance came back when Hoppel was a Kansas junior who had also raced to NCAA titles in and out during a long season.
You see, Hoppel is a consummate competitor. Even in the lost-for-many pandemic season of ’20 he kept the accelerator down and came away with a shining 1:43.23 PR at the Monaco DL that August. That race was the fastest 800 of the year, as Brazier’s 1:43.15 prevailed.
Hoppel smiled as he rushed into the homestraight and left Canadian Marco Arop 0.91 behind in 3rd. The time moved Hoppel to No. 7 on the all-time U.S. list. As of this writing, only three men worldwide have run faster since. Arop, one might note, earned the World Champs bronze medal in Eugene last summer.
Hoppel, a ’22 bronze medalist himself at the World Indoor, knows on the right day he can run with anybody in the world. Competition lifts his spirits. Even away from the track.
“I’m a really big recreational sports guy,” the 25-year-old Texas native says. “I grew up around a baseball stadium and my dad is a general manager for a minor league baseball team, the Midland RockHounds. They’re the double-A team for the Oakland A’s so I grew up around that. Loved baseball, loved soccer. I played football; wasn’t the biggest fan. I loved basketball. And so anytime that I can get, when I still have the energy, I love to get my friends together, go play racquetball, go play spikeball. Anything that I can get my hands on of any competitiveness is what I love to do.”
Thus when he talks about pacing himself this season, Hoppel only means he is spreading his efforts out carefully seeking to ensure he’ll be at his sharpest for the momentous races this summer.
In his three previous pro seasons (counting the anomalous ’20 year), Hoppel explains, “I think I’ve definitely learned a lot. One thing that’s been tough is to pace it out. I mean, it makes it a really long season when you come into that championship season and making it all the way to the World Championships.
“You want to win the U.S. Championships. And I’m not gonna say that works against you, but the U.S. team is a really hard team to make. So being ready for the U.S. Championships and then keeping that readiness through the World Championships is quite the challenge. Especially because you want to run well throughout the year as well.”
Last summer, coming off his victory at the USA Trials in Eugene, Hoppel returned to Hayward Field for the World Champs well prepared — he believed. But 800 racing is a contact sport. He was shoved near the 600 mark in his heat, lost momentum and finished a non-advancing 5th.
“I felt like I was ready for the World Championships,” Hoppel says. “I did everything I can and I thought we were checking off all the boxes to where we’re ready to run this.
“I can’t say if I wasn’t in the right, like mental space or something. I think just going into that first round I was like, ‘Alright, let’s do as minimal an effort [as needed] to make sure we’re ready for these next rounds.’
“And I think I did just let a little bit of it slip, and the whole kind of mishap of pushing and shoving and the little falls threw me even more off my game. So when it came to the time of ‘I need to finish this,’ it wasn’t there. And I think those hesitations within a race when you’re running against other world-class athletes like that, you don’t have the affordability of a hesitation.
“And I think I learned that the hard way and it has kind of been sticking in my mind ever since then.”
In retrospect, Hoppel believes the ’22 cycle with two World Championships — bronze performance at the first one all to the good — may not have been ideal for his chances of fully capitalizing on his season.
“There’s always the physical side and there’s always the mental and emotional side,” he says. “It can be very taxing to have that pressure of big moments like [Belgrade] and then recover from it and then get the mind reset and then go after another one.
“Your body almost wants like, ‘Oh, we just did this. Can we relax now?’ It’s like, ‘Nope. Now we have to get ready for outdoor and then go after an even bigger goal.’ So it’s always tough to kind of mentally reset. I think you just get a little like, ‘When do I get time to breathe?’
“But it does get more exciting as you get closer [to the next big race]. But yeah, last year didn’t go quite as well as I wanted it to and that’s also something tough to deal with.”
Preserving his mental and physical powder for the summer this time around, Hoppel has strategically spaced out his spring races: first a no-pressure opener in front of Texas family and friends at the Texas Relays followed by a novel road course 600 at the Atlanta City Games, which he won. Next up was a tilt against a quality domestic 800 field at the Track Night NYC meet in the Big Apple which produced a 1:46.07 win under chilly conditions.
“One of the tough things is for me to not get too excited early in the season,” Hoppel says, “cuz indoors, it’s a fun time. I get excited for that. And I think just getting excited for each race is not a bad thing, but I want to give it my all every time that I get out there on the track. And sometimes my coach has to hold me back a little bit: ‘Alright, this is the plan. Let’s stick to it and then we can make it work when it really counts.’”
So that’s Hoppel’s road map. “I’m definitely excited,” he says, “just to have — it feels like it came around again so quickly — another shot at a World Championships.
“Knock on wood, stay healthy, I think we can put together something really special if it all comes together how I envision it.”