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.”