Focus On The U.S. Men’s 800 Scene

The last time the U.S. staged an outdoor nationals the 800 podium was filled by Clayton Murphy, Donavan Brazier & Bryce Hoppel. (JEFF COHEN)

HIGH POINTS & BIG VALLEYS: That’s what a history of U.S. men running the 800 internationally looks like. A good number of heroes, including 8 Olympic golds (see chart). But not since Dave Wottle’s memorable come-from-behind run in Munich has the United States captured Olympic gold in the men’s 2-lapper — a drought going on 50 years. Now, things may be looking up. (Continued below)

With ’19 and the emergence of Donavan Brazier, the U.S. won its initial 2-lap gold at the Worlds. His subsequent No. 1 was the first in the World Rankings for an American 800 man since Don Paige 39 years earlier.

The ascendance of Brazier is the most obvious marker of a resurgent corps of American two lappers. Several others have made it clear that they’re already forces to be reckoned with at the international level, or may be soon.

The Lead Pack

Brazier is currently on top of the heap. With his 1:42.34 win at Doha and his 1:43.15 list leader last season, the 23-year-old Michigander is the most confident man in the event. He’s won his last 7 finals, his most recent loss coming in — ironically — Doha, where he placed 3rd in the DL race in May ’19. In terms of obvious potential, he is arguably the most promising practitioner of the event since World Record holder David Rudisha.

Clayton Murphy, 25, cannot be overlooked. The Rio bronze medalist with his best of 1:42.93, he still holds down the No. 4 spot on the U.S. all-time list. He earned the No. 6 global ranking that year. His upward trajectory has hit some bumps since then, though he pulled down a pair of No. 8s in ’18 & ’19 after failing to make the USATF final in ’17. In ’18 he bounced back with the USATF win and his No. 2 time ever, 1:43.12. In ’19 he lost at USATF to Brazier and finished 8th in the Doha final. Since the breakup of Nike Oregon in the fall of ‘19, Murphy has been training in Akron with his college coach Lee LaBadie. We were unable to reach Murphy for an interview.

Bryce Hoppel is the new kid on the scene. Only 23, his breakthrough in ’19 came within the fabric of a long collegiate season; he closed the year by kicking to a stunning 4th at the World Championships. Last season, he improved his best to 1:43.23 in finishing a close 2nd to Brazier in Monaco. A skilled and passionate racer, he has already marked himself as a podium threat internationally.

At 23 Devin Dixon still has an outdoor season remaining at Texas A&M, where he was the NCAA runner-up in ’19 to Hoppel. He has speed to burn, backed up by a pair of NCAA relay titles and history’s fastest-ever indoor split, 44.24. Given his proclivity to race from the front, he is likely to fare best in a fast race and as likely as anyone to be in the lead of the Trials at halfway.

The ’18 NCAA title went to Penn State’s Isaiah Harris. The next year he just missed the Doha team, finishing 4th at the USATF meet. Well-noted for his range, he was a prep state champion at 200 and has run 4:00.10 for the mile. Now 24, he continues to be coached by Nittany Lion coach John Gondak.

In a career of conspicuous consistency, ’16 World Indoor bronze medalist Erik Sowinski has U.S.-Ranked every year from 2012–19, 4 times at No. 3 or higher. His PR of 1:44.58 came in ’14. The 31-year-old Brooks Beast is now assistant coaching at Iowa. Though he hasn’t raced in a year, a 1:15.8 time trial over 600 last July says much for his ’20 fitness. Through sheer dint of experience, he can’t be counted out of any team qualifying situation.

The Chasers

Isaiah Jewett, 23, started out as a 400 man at UC Irvine. Now a Pac-12 champion for USC, he still has one season to go for the Trojans. In his last full campaign, after winning Mt SAC in a PR 1:46.11 he failed to make the NCAA final but placed 5th at USATF.

The OTC Elite’s Harun Abda has broken into the U.S. Rankings twice. The 31-year-old’s best of 1:45.55 dates from ’14. He hasn’t been under 1:46 since ’16, when he placed 7th in the Trials finals.

Brandon Lasater, 28, is now running for the Atlanta TC after a collegiate career at Georgia Tech. He ran his PR of 1:45.85 in 2018, the year he ranked No. 6 among Americans and placed 4th at USATF. Competing in the 1500 is also on the table, should he qualify (his PR is 3:41.13 from ’17).

Drew Piazza, 25, ran his PR 1:45.69 in placing 5th at the ’17 USATF. He placed 5th again the next year, but in ’19 failed to make the finals. The Virginia Tech alum is now running for New Balance Boston after training with the Oregon Track Club into ’20.

A Pac-12 runner-up for USC, Rob Ford also placed 7th in the NCAA in ’18. That same year he ran his best of 1:46.43 in the heats at USATF before making 6th in the final. Now 24, he trains with Isaiah Harris and represents Hoka One One.

Jesse Garn, 27, hit his PR of 1:45.04 in ’17 a few weeks after missing out on the finals of the USATF Championships. Coached by the legendary Frank Gagliano, the Binghamton alum is a self-described “injury-prone runner”, but if he is healthy, he could factor.

Talk about a meteoric rise and fall. Boris Berian stunned in ’15 by lowering his PR from 1:48.89 to 1:43.34. The next year he captured World Indoor gold and made the Rio final. Then Achilles problems cropped up and it has been nearly three years since he raced, but at 28 he reportedly is back healthy and training in Colorado with coach Joe Bosshard.

Drew Windle, 28, ran his best of 1:44.63 in ’17 and the next year won silver at the World Indoor. He said last summer on Instagram, “It’s no secret I’ve struggled since I earned the silver medal at World indoors in 2018. I’ve spent the last two years trying to figure out how to return to that form.” He reports that training is going well now.

Joe White, 25, ran to 3rd in the NCAA for Georgetown with his 1:45.73 PR in ’17. He won more All-America honors as a senior in ’19. Now training with Harris and coach Gondak, White is hoping to make the next big jump.

Anyone else?

On the Trials schedule, the 800 comes before the 1500, so that means candidates like Brannon Kidder, 27, might do both. Among U.S. 800 men he ranked No. 6 in ’19, but with a 3:35.27 PR that year, his credentials are equally solid for the longer race.

In contrast, it would be a major news item if Craig Engels decided to try the 800 (he has a 1:44.68 PR); most would expect him to laser-focus on the 1500 where he has a solid shot.

Intriguing news from the early indoor season is that Ryan Martin is back racing. The UCSB alum opened eyes in ’12 when he won the Big West with his PR 1:44.77. He placed 4th in the Trials that year. After a 6-year pro career during which he made the USATF final twice — finishing 5th each time — he retired in ’18. Now 31, he may have decided he has more in the tank.

Up-and-comers? This is a category that’s been thwarted badly by the pandemic. With the virtual elimination of every opportunity to emerge, we haven’t seen much in the way of emerging talent that could challenge the big names. It takes serious development to go from 1:46/1:47 to Trials finalist — which is not to say it can’t happen, but if it is happening, we haven’t had the chance to see it, not being privy to every athlete’s training sessions.

That being said, racers like Texas A&M’s Carlton Orange (1:46.40 ’19) and Indiana’s Cooper Williams (1:46.06 ’18) bear watching, along with Vincent Crisp (1:46.29 ’20) and Sam Ellison (1:46.10 ’19).

As for the battle for team spots, Harris summed it up well: “The U.S. is deep. We have a good field. There’s a bunch of good guys out there. I think it’s just going to be who runs the smartest race.

“Obviously, Donavan’s the guy to beat and Hoppel looked amazing last year and the year before. Murphy, there’s another guy you can’t sleep on. He’s got the experience.”

He adds, “You know what? We’re all young and we’re all just getting better every year. I think that Brazier is definitely going to have some company, and hey, that’s not a bad thing for him. If anything, that’s going to push him to be even better too, so we can all make each other great.”