Mary Cain

Can Mary Cain, 17, win a medal at World Championships?

1 Comment

There are six finals at the World Track and Field Championships on Thursday and none bigger than the finale, the women’s 1,500 meters, where a 17-year-old American phenom has already made history.

Bronxville (N.Y.) High senior-to-be Mary Cain will line up at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium as the youngest woman ever to start the World Championship final of the 4-minute race (1:20 p.m. ET, Universal Sports).

Her ascent was the story of the indoor track and field season earlier this year. Cain, who placed 18th in the heats of the 800 meters at the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, broke U.S. high school and junior records from 800 meters up to two miles in the winter and spring. She then became the youngest American to make the World Championship team by placing second in the 1,500 at the National Championships in June.

In Moscow, she placed sixth in her first-round heat Sunday to grab the final automatic qualifying spot for the semifinals Tuesday.

To make the final, Cain, known for her strong kick, executed a smarter race from start to finish than in her previous senior international races (not that she has much experience to draw from). She stayed within striking distance of the leaders and kept from getting boxed in. Then she used that strong finish to hold onto fourth in her semi, booking a spot in the final in 4 minutes, 5.21 seconds.

She’s only run faster once in her life, and the excitement and exhaustion showed in post-race interviews Tuesday.

“That was amazing,” Cain, mixing in heavy breaths, told NBC Sports reporter Lewis Johnson on Universal Sports. “The heats didn’t go really great, but I advanced. We did so much work in between the two (races) in terms of prep, and I felt like I went into (the semifinal) really ready. That was awesome.”

So, what are her chances in the final?

Her lifetime and season’s best is 4:04.62, which ranks 10th in the 12-woman field. Of course, championship finals tend to endure slow early paces (like nationals, where Treniere Moser won in a crawling 4:28.62), so you can’t put all the emphasis into personal bests.

The last three major international championship finals have seen the bronze medal winner run the following times: 4:04.18 (2009 worlds), 4:05.87 (2011 worlds) and 4:10.74 (2012 Olympics, historically slow).

The top four from the 2012 Olympics are not in the final, but the talent is still pretty strong. Abeba Aregawi of Sweden, who competed for Ethiopia at the Olympics, is the clear favorite, having won five Diamond League races this season. American Jenny Simpson and Brit Hannah England are the defending world gold and silver medalists.

It’s hard to predict, but Cain may very well have to repeat her semifinal performance to contend for a medal. That’s a lot to ask of a 17-year-old at the biggest meet of her life, to put together back-to-back near-personal best times. That Cain has already made it this far is certainly accomplishment enough.

But she’s got plenty going for her. Cain is coached by three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar, who also oversees Mo Farah and Galen Rupp. She’s also received a little help from her U.S. teammates. In particular, Nick Symmonds, who is 12 years older than Cain and won silver in the 800 on Tuesday.

“He’s been so kind,” Cain said. “He said that after his (Olympic) semi, he was like, ‘Crap, there’s no way I’m running any faster, and he went out there and did two seconds faster (in the Olympic final).’ I look to him as a role model. So even though I’m exhausted, hopefully that means I’ve got more in the tank.”

Jesse Owens gold medal up for auction

Galen Rupp, Meb Keflezighi lead U.S. Olympic marathon team

Leave a comment

Galen Rupp and Meb Keflezighi shared nothing in marathon running before the U.S. Olympic trials on Saturday, but the two men from vastly different backgrounds were together, alone, leading the race with five miles left.

Rupp, 29, pulled away to win in 2:11:12 on the streets of Los Angeles. The former Oregon Catholic high school prodigy became the first American to make an Olympic marathon team in his 26.2-mile debut since 1968.

Keflezighi, a 40-year-old born in war-torn Eritrea who moved to the U.S. in 1987, crossed the finish line 68 seconds later in second place. He will become the oldest U.S. Olympic runner of all time in Rio in August.

Rupp and Keflezighi, the only U.S. men to make an Olympic podium in distances longer than 1500m since 1984, were so close to each other in their three-mile leading stretch that their Olympic silver medals could have clanked against each other had they been wearing them.

Keflezighi, in his 23rd marathon and in front of Rupp at the time, didn’t take kindly to the six-inches-taller marathon rookie breathing on him. He let Rupp know about it on the streets of LA.

“It’s not a track, the road is open,” Keflezighi recalled in a press conference, shortly before exchanging a laughter-inducing glance with Rupp, who fittingly walked in to sit on a stool to Keflezighi’s immediate right mid-answer. “It was not a very friendly conversation.”

Now Rupp and Keflezighi are U.S. Olympic marathon teammates. Along with Jared Ward, who finished third Saturday, 1:47 behind Rupp, to make his first Olympics.

Full results are here.

In the women’s race, Amy CraggDesi Linden and Shalane Flanagan were the top three, all returning to the Olympics, with Flanagan collapsing at the finish line. Full recap here.

Rupp and Keflezighi broke away on their own around the 20th mile. Rupp then dropped Keflezighi in the 23rd mile. The reigning Olympic 10,000m silver medalist fist pumped crossing the finish line.

“It was a bit of a change running the marathon, but there’s no bigger honor than being able to represent your country at the Olympics,” Rupp then told Lewis Johnson on NBC.

Dathan Ritzenhein, a three-time Olympian and a pre-race favorite with Keflezighi and Rupp, dropped out of the race around mile 20 in the hottest U.S. Olympic marathon trials of all time. The temperature at the men’s start at 10:06 a.m. local time was 66 degrees.

The Rio Olympic men’s marathon will be on Aug. 21, the final day of the Games. Keflezighi’s 2004 silver is the only U.S. men’s marathon medal since Frank Shorter took gold in 1972 and silver in 1976.

Rupp has said he prefers the 10,000m and might not race the marathon at the Olympics. If he doesn’t, the fourth-place trials finisher, Luke Puskedra, will move onto the team.

“I think [Rupp] is a 2:05 [marathon] guy, someday,” Rupp’s coach, three-time New York City Marathon winner Alberto Salazar, told media after Saturday’s race. (The fastest American marathoner of all time, Ryan Hall, clocked a best of 2:04:58 at the 2011 Boston Marathon.)

Rupp could contest two races in Rio, the 10,000m (Aug. 13 final) and the marathon, or the 10,000m and the 5000m (Aug. 20). Rupp finished seventh in the 5000m in London.

“I would say that the 10k is still my primary focus,” said Rupp, who would have to make the Olympic track team at those trials in Eugene, Ore., from July 1-10, in a USATF interview published Jan. 28. “Really, it just comes down to what I think I have a better chance in as a second event, whether that’s the 5k or the marathon.”

VIDEO: NBC to air ‘More Than Gold’ film on Jesse Owens on Sunday

Amy Cragg wins marathon trials; Shalane Flanagan collapses at finish

Leave a comment

No doubt Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan bonded as training partners en route to the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, escaping a black bear the clearest example.

They couldn’t have been closer after finishing first and third to make the Olympic team Saturday.

Flanagan collapsed in Cragg’s arms two strides after the finish line at the hottest U.S. Olympic marathon trials ever in Los Angeles. She was then helped into a wheelchair.

Cragg won the race in 2:28:20, redeeming after she finished fourth to miss the team by one spot at the 2012 trials. Flanagan came in third Saturday to make her fourth Olympic team, 25 seconds behind second-place Desi Linden and 58 seconds behind Cragg.

Full results are here.

Cragg, 32, waited for Flanagan at the finish line, holding an American flag, hugging Flanagan and then, suddenly, keeping the 2008 Olympic 10,000m bronze medalist from falling onto the pavement.

Flanagan, the 2012 trials winner and a pre-race favorite, said there was a point in the 26.2 miles where she thought she was “done.”

Cragg talked her through it. They spent most of the final half of the race alone in the lead.

“Sweet baby Jesus, I’m so thankful for [Cragg],” Flanagan, the second-fastest U.S. female marathoner ever, said minutes after finishing, with an ice pack over her shoulders, clutching a water bottle in her right hand and holding onto Cragg’s right shoulder with her left hand.

Cragg held up Flanagan during the interview and then helped her back into the wheelchair.

The temperature at the start of the men’s race at 10:06 a.m. local time was 66 degrees, hottest ever at a marathon trials (the first trials were in 1968). The women began 16 minutes later.

Cragg finished fourth at the 2012 marathon trials, then made that Olympic team in the 10,000m on the track and finished 11th in London in her Olympic debut. She moved from Providence, R.I., to Portland, Ore., in the fall to join Flanagan’s training group.

“Finishing fourth, looking back on it now, was so good for me,” Cragg told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “It made me more determined than ever as an athlete. I’ve worked really hard the last four years, basically, to move up one spot.

“I just knew, training with Shalane, would give me all the confidence I need.”

Cragg dropped Flanagan in the final two miles. Before that, she said she asked Flanagan if she was OK. Flanagan replied, no, I’m not.

“She seemed like she was even struggling a little bit just to say that,” Cragg said. “Before the last water stop, I kind of looked at her, and she was turning bright red. I knew the heat was getting to her. I told her, I’m going to get you a water bottle, dump the whole thing on your head.”

Linden, arguably the pre-race co-favorite with Flanagan, repeated her 2012 trials finish of second place, surging in the final mile past Flanagan.

At the London Olympics, Linden pulled out 2.2 miles into the race with right hip pain, what would later be diagnosed as a femoral stress fracture.

“It’s been this Sisyphean task where I get to the top, and then the rock crumbles down,” Linden said Saturday. “I want to do it better this time.”

Two-time Olympian Kara Goucher was fourth. She plans to compete at the track trials in July in Eugene, Ore., to go for Rio.

Goucher finished 65 seconds behind Flanagan, her former training partner, and said she missed workouts last week while sick. The 37-year-old said she may have picked up an illness from her 5-year-old son, Colt.

“I kept asking myself if I was doing all that I could, and I was,” Goucher told media, in tears. “They were just better. … I didn’t fight this hard to just fold right now, so yeah, I’ll be trying to make the 10k team [at track trials in July].”

VIDEO: NBC to air ‘More Than Gold’ film on Jesse Owens on Sunday