As always, there are Olympic champions competing at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships this week. There are world-record holders, too. But the woman with the most buzz this season has neither of those accolades. Or even a single U.S. title.
She is Sydney McLaughlin, an 18-year-old who just turned professional after her freshman season at the University of Kentucky. McLaughlin’s breakout came in 2016, when she became the youngest U.S. track and field athlete to compete at an Olympics in 44 years, making the 400m hurdles semifinals.
McLaughlin dropped to sixth at the 2017 U.S. Championships in perhaps the greatest 400m hurdles race ever. While three women in one race went sub-53 for the first time, McLaughlin lowered her personal best by .21. Her star did not fade as she moved from New Jersey to Lexington.
This year in NCAA competition, McLaughlin lowered her personal bests in the 200m, 400m and 400m hurdles (all by more than a second). The 400m hurdles time, fastest in the world this year by nine tenths, would have won the 2016 Olympics and 2017 World Championships.
She now ranks Nos. 54, 26 and 5 all time in the U.S. in those events. Perhaps the woman who reached anywhere near that versatility was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who ranks No. 37 in the 200m and No. 43 in the 400m hurdles but never ran the 400m at her peak.
McLaughlin had her choice of events this week, and her decision might surprise. Five women’s events to watch in Des Moines:
10,000m (Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold)
American record holder Molly Huddle eyes her fourth straight national title in the 25-lap race, but the more intriguing entrant is Gwen Jorgensen. The Olympic triathlon champion announced in November that she was switching to the marathon with the ultimate goal of gold in Tokyo. Jorgensen, a 32-year-old mom, has yet to announce her first marathon since the switch (though she was 14th in the 2016 NYC Marathon on triathlon training). In her first outdoor track race in eight years, Jorgensen set a personal best in the 10,000m on March 30 in a time that would have ranked eighth among Americans last year. Reason to believe that another strong effort on Thursday could confirm that she is ready for a fall marathon.
1500m (Final — Saturday, 4:46 p.m. ET, NBC)
A strong field is headlined by a rematch between Jenny Simpson and Shelby Houlihan. Simpson, an Olympic medalist and world champion in the 1500m, saw the Olympic 5000m runner Houlihan pass her in the final strides of the Pre Classic 1500m on May 26. Simpson eyes her fifth straight national title in the 1500m. Houlihan is also entered in Sunday’s 5000m. Other contenders include Olympians Brenda Martinez and Kate Grace, Sara Vaughn, the mother of three who made the 2017 Worlds team, and Alexa Efraimson, a former high school phenom who turned pro at age 17 in 2014.
400m (Final — Saturday, 5:08 p.m. ET, NBC)
Sydney McLaughlin chose not to race her trademark 400m hurdles this week. Instead, she takes on a burgeoning crops of one-lap sprinters in her first race since turning pro. There’s Kendall Ellis, who ran that incredible 4x400m anchor leg at the NCAA Championships. Shakima Wimbley, a 23-year-old who took third at the Pre Classic behind the Olympic and world champions. And Courtney Okolo, who entered the 2016 Olympic Trials as the fastest American for the year and NCAA champion (and finished sixth) and won the world indoor title on March 3. The last two world champions, Allyson Felix and Phyllis Francis, are not entered.
100m Hurdles (Final — Saturday, 5:52 p.m. ET, NBC)
The U.S. is so deep in this event that it’s one of the headline acts despite lacking the women who swept the Rio Olympic medals (Brianna McNeal, Nia Ali, Kristi Castlin). This field still has a world-record holder (Kendra Harrison, the favorite), an Olympic champion (Dawn Harper-Nelson from 2008 in her last nationals before retirement) and a world champion (Kori Carter, gold medalist in the 400m hurdles last year).
Pole Vault (Sunday, 2:55 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Gold)
So long an event dominated by one vaulter. Not so much anymore. Olympic champion Stacy Dragila won nine of 10 national titles between 1996 and 2005. Olympic champion Jenn Suhr won 10 of 11 between 2006 and 2016. Sandi Morris since ascended with Olympic and world silver medals, plus her first national title in 2017. Suhr, 36, considered retirement last year but came back and cleared a personal-best outdoor height on April 14 and broke the Pre Classic meet record on May 26. Morris was third at Pre after missing training due to injury, then won the next two Diamond League meets. But Suhr still has the top clearance in the world this season.
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