LANE ONE: How the NCAA Championships turned the track & field world around in one weekend

Sha'Carri Richardson's World Junior Record 10.75 in the 2019 NCAA omen's 100 m final

To most of the world, the kind of performances seen at last weekend’s NCAA Track & Field Championships seem unimaginable.

A meet of college athletes producing nine world-leading marks and completely re-shuffling the possible participants and medalists at the 2019 World Championships and possibly the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo?

It happened and this purely American phenomenon has been like this since the NCAA meet started for men in 1921 and for women in 1982. Just to recap, there is a new world order in nine events after Austin:

Men/100 m:

Texas Tech junior Divine Oduduru (NGR) came in as the favorite, having run 9.94 and 19.76 in April. He erased any doubts about his ability to run against the best, winning the 100 m in a lifetime best of 9.86 (wind +0.8 m/s), tying him for the 2019 world lead with Americans Christian Coleman and Noah Lyles.

Behind him came almost-unknown Oregon senior Cravon Gillespie, who ran a PR 9.93 for second and Japan’s Abdul Hakim Sani Brown – running for Florida – who set a national record of 9.97.

Certainly Oduduru and Sani Brown will be at the World Championships, but the expected trio of Coleman, Lyles and Justin Gatlin for the U.S. will have to consider Gillespie as a contender at the USATF Championships in Des Moines next month.

Men/200 m:

Oduduru was even better in the 200 m, with a win in 19.73, third on the world list behind Americans Michael Norman (19.70) and Lyles (19.72). That’s also faster than Turkey’s reigning World Champion, Ramil Guliyev has ever run (19.76 ‘18). The Nigerian has to figure as a medal contender at the Worlds now.

Gillespie was second again, again with a lifetime best of 19.93, no. 5 on the world list and fourth among Americans. He has a chance to win a Worlds place for the U.S. in this event too.

Men/400 m:

In the spring of 2017, the U.S. 400 m corps was LaShawn Merritt and that was about it. Then came Fred Kerley (43.70) and in 2018, USC teammates Michael Norman and Rai Benjamin.

Now the party has really started, with Kahmari Montgomery – who won the 2018 USATF title vs. a weak field – won in 44.23, no. 2 on the season to Norman’s sensational 43.45, and North Carolina A&T’s Trevor Stewart ran 44.25 for second. Add in Kerley’s 44.49 win in Kingston (JAM) on Saturday night and the U.S. is suddenly going to have to leave somebody very good sitting at home during the Worlds. This is really quite amazing.

Men/800 m:

The U.S. now has four men in the 1:44s or faster after Donavan Brazier set the world-leading mark at 1:43.63 in Rome, then seeing Kansas junior Bryce Hoppel run 1:44.41 in front of Texas A&M star Devin Dixon’s 1:44.84 in Austin … and both are juniors. The U.S. team suddenly got a lot harder to make in 2019.

Men/110 m hurdles:

The two best high hurdlers in the world in 2019 put on a show in Austin, with Kentucky’s Daniel Roberts running a world-leading 13.06 in the semis and then Grant Holloway breaking Renaldo Nehemiah’s 40-year-old collegiate record, running 12.98 in the final (with Roberts tying the old record at 13.00).

Between them, the pair own the six fastest times of the year and nine of the top 10. Right now, they are medal favorites for Doha … but they have to make the U.S. team first.

Men/Pole Vault:

Everyone expected LSU’s Mondo Duplantis (SWE) to win the NCAA outdoor title as he’s the world leader at 6.00 m (19-8 1/4). But he didn’t win; South Dakota State junior Chris Nilsen did, clearing 5.95 m (19-6 1/4), moving to no. 9 on the all-time U.S. list. Nilsen will be welcome company at the Worlds for Sam Kendricks, who lost to Nilsen at the Drake Relays in April!

Women/100 m:

It was clear that LSU frosh Sha’Carri Richardson was special. But 10.75 special?

She was superb, racing to her world-leading mark (and World Junior Record) while celebrating during the last five meters and leading Kayla White (North Carolina A&T/10.95) and Twanisha Terry (USC/10.98) to the finish. Where the U.S. sprint corps looked thin with Tori Bowie in undetermined shape, it now has new life.

It will need it too, as Jamaica got back both of its horses last week, with Elaine Thompson running a then-world-leading 10.89 in Rome and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce running 10.88 at the Racers Grand Prix in Kingston (JAM) on Saturday evening.

Women/200 m:

Everyone expected Richardson to do something special and she ran a brilliant 22.17, a World Junior Record, but USC’s Angie Annelus, who had a best of 23.22 two years ago, got to the line first in a world-leading 22.16.

Again, the U.S. situation looked fairly modest in this event. It looks a lot brighter now.

Women/100 m hurdles:

The U.S. has dominated this event for several years, but Jamaica’s Janeek Brown – running for Arkansas – grabbed the world lead at 12.40 from world-record holder Keni Harrison of the U.S. (12.47 in 2019). Not too far behind was USC’s Chanel Brissett (12.52), who is now also a contender for the U.S. team.

A normal NCAA meet? No, this one was special and the hot weather in Austin contributed to excellent conditions for sprinting. And there are caveats about the future.

First is the timing. The NCAA meet came at the end of a lengthy collegiate season that began in January for many athletes, but included strong support from the schools for coaching, athletic training and scholarships for these stars. That’s going away now for the summer and the athletes are on their own in many cases.

That’s an issue because, for American athletes, the selection meet for the World Championships isn’t until 25-28 July in Iowa instead of the normal two weeks later. If some or all of these collegians can make it that far and qualify for the U.S. team, the Worlds in Qatar isn’t until 28 September. For those still in school, that’s going to be a conflict.

There are many instances of stars in the NCAA meet fading quickly. Zimbabwe’s Ngoni Makusha looked like a world beater at Florida State during the 2011 NCAAs, winning the 100 m in 9.89 and the long jump at 8.40 m (27-6 3/4). But he could only manage 10.27 in the 100 and 8.29 m (27-2 1/2) at the Worlds, winning a long jump bronze. He didn’t make it the London Olympic Games in 2012.

Hurdlers Holloway and Roberts confirmed that they will skip their senior seasons and become professionals immediately, which should make their USATF preparations easier. But what about the rest?

This is the great thing about track & field, to see the emergence of new stars, sometimes from nowhere and sometimes – like Richardson – perhaps faster than anticipated. One wild weekend in Austin has made for a much more entertaining summer of track & field ahead.

Rich Perelman