So, this is one of my favorite columns each year by David Hunter. David opines on who should be the best male and female track athletes of the year! Tell us what you think!
Male Athlete Of The Year: Who Is He?
October 22, 2015
Now that the curtain has come down on the 2015 outdoor track & field season and cross country is in full flight, it is a good time to look back and identify the performer most deserving of Athlete of the Year honors. While this is a subjective process where reasonable minds can come to differing conclusions, it is nonetheless important to be reminded of the three guiding principles of evaluation: progression of marks; head-to-head competition; and - most importantly - honors won.
Let's warm up with a nod to several outstanding performers who - while not making my Final Five - had outstanding years and are worthy of an honorable mention: Derek Drouin [Pan Am Games And World Champion in the high jump; his 2.37m is T#3 on the WL]; Asbel Kiprop [1500m world champion and Diamond League winner; his 3:26.69 is WL#1 and makes him the #3 all-time performer in the metric mile]; Wayde van Niekerk [400m world champion; his 43.48 is #1 on the WL and makes him the #4 all-time performer]; and Greg Rutherford [world champion and Diamond League winner in the long jump; his 8.41m [27'7¼"] ranks him T#2 on the WL].
In my view, there are five athletes who belong in the AOY conversation. They are all world champions who had outstanding years. For some, 2015 will ultimately stand as their best year ever. In ascending order as I see it, they are:
#5: Shawn Barber. At the beginning of the year, many track & field aficionados knew very little or nothing about Shawn Barber. Now, after his break-out year in 2015, everybody knows him. Consider his accomplishments this year: the University of Akron junior - the all-time high school pole vault record holder - went undefeated indoors; shattered the collegiate indoor vault record on four separate occasions; broke the Armory's pole vault facilities record held by Renaud Lavillenie; successfully defended his NCAA indoor vault crown while later moving outdoors to also capture his first NCAA outdoor pole vault title; was honored as a Sullivan Award finalist; defeated LaVillenie head-to-head at the Drake Relays to snap the world record-holder's 13 meet win streak; captured pole vault gold at the Pan American Games; and set a new Canadian outdoor vault record to bookend with the Canadian indoor vault record he already held. But the zenith of his storybook year was the World Championships. In Beijing, while battle-tested veterans struggled, Barber - the youngest of the 14 finalists - was unflappable as he jumped cleanly from the opening height through 5.90m [19'4¼"] to strike world championship gold. This year the red-headed 21 year old improved his PR by over 7 inches to 5.93m [19'5½] and made more 19 foot clearances in 2015 than the all-time total of all of the other 19 foot collegiate clearances combined. While only #3 - behind Lavillenie and Germany's Raphael Holzdeppe - on this year's world list, Barber was at his best when it mattered most. In addition to winning the global vault title in Beijing, the Texas native split 4 head-to-head showdowns with LaVillenie - the world record holder and reigning Olympic champion. Barber is deserving of the #1 world ranking. And with all due respect to his fellow finalists Marquis Dendy and Edward Cheserek, there should a Grand Jury investigation if Barber is not awarded this year's Bowerman Trophy.
#4: Christian Taylor. The reigning Olympic champion gave us a stunning year in 2015. Taylor produced three jumps over 18 meters, including his well-timed final round monster leap of 18.21m [59'9"] - the world leader and #2 on the all-time list - to capture his 2nd world championship crown. His other 18+ meter efforts [18.06m = T5th; 18.04m = T7th] also made the top 10 all-time list. In addition to regaining the world title [Taylor won the WC TJ in '11, but was 4th in '13], the 25 year-old also claimed the Diamond League trophy. In head-to-head competition, Taylor lost once to Pedro Pichardo early in the season in Doha, but came back to defeat the Cuban in Laussane, Rome, Monaco, Brussels, and - when it counted the most - in Beijing. The next frontier for the former University of Florida star is to eclipse Jonathan Edwards's 20 year old world TJ record of 18.29m [60'¼"]. Had his 6th round attempt in Beijing been just over 3 inches farther, his 2015 body of work would have almost mandated he be crowned AOY. Taylor's 2015 performances suggest that 2016 could be his year.
#3: Mo Farah. When you think of a "triple double," you naturally think of basketball. But Mo Farah's distance exploits over the past three years should cause us to adopt that term for track & field as well. By capturing world championship victories this year in both the 5000m and 10,000m, the gritty Brit replicated the distance double feat he also performed in the London Olympic Games and the Moscow World Championships to produce- quite simply - a triple double. Farah's kick remains invincible as the man who now has 7 global gold medals added his most recent pair with withering long finishing drives in China: 3:00.6 over the final 1200 to win the 10,000m and a truly unbelievable 2:19.20 last kilometer to take the 5000m title. The two-time Olympic gold medalist also posted the year's fastest 10,000m clocking of 26:50.97 at the Pre Classic. While Farah was forced to deal with media distractions and raced only sparingly in 2015, his impressive dual victories in the Bird's Nest against the best in the world when it was all on the line make his case for AOY consideration a compelling one.
#2: Usain Bolt. You know, maybe Usain Bolt can add to track & field's lexicon as well. Perhaps a phrase like "triple triple" could serve as the tag line in describing Bolt's 100m/200m/4x100 gold medal performances this year in Beijing - the same athletic accomplishment he produced in both the 2012 Olympic Games and the 2013 World Championships. Coming to China in the unfamiliar role of underdog in the wake of Justin Gatlin's superior marks and the American's nearly two-year undefeated streak, Bolt was Bolt - keeping his cool and occasionally mugging for the fans. The favored Gatlin looked unbeatable after the 100m semi. But the Greatest Sprinter Of All Time was all business in the final, overcoming an early deficit to pass the stumbling American in the final meters to win in 9.79. Just days later in the 200m final, Bolt's world-leading 19.55 - only 3 others have ever run faster - produced another decisive victory. Aided by a now-customary USA baton bobble, the multiple-time global champion capped off his triple with an unthreatened anchor leg in the 4x1 to give him and his Jamaican teammates yet another gold with the world-leading winning time of 37.36 - a clocking which is #5 on the all-time list and superior to every other nation's all-time best mark except his own homeland. It is a testimony to Bolt's greatness that his triple gold performance in the year's global gathering is seen as ordinary for him. But his three Beijing victories - unexpected by many - should be seen as AOY-worthy.
#1: Ashton Eaton. As has been the case with all Olympic decathlon champions, Ashton Eaton has been traditionally dubbed during his reign as the World's Greatest Athlete. And while pre-2015 performances should not be relevant in determining this year's top male athlete, Eaton's performances this year not only affirm that he is, indeed, the best athlete in the world, but also make a compelling case for his 2015 AOY candidacy. In some respects, evaluating Eaton's year is not easy. Decathletes - like marathoners and increasingly like 10,000m specialists - have few opportunities to shine in their specialty. And while Eaton competed sparingly in 2015 - he competed in only one decathlon and in only a few other individual events - he made sure his limited performances were of high quality. Guided by his coach Harry Marra, Eaton entered 2015 with what seemed like renewed energy and enthusiasm after taking a decathlon sabbatical in 2014 to explore how proficient he could become in the 400m hurdles - where he achieved a #6 world ranking. His regained vigor resonated throughout his performances this year. Heading toward his targeted goal of successfully defending his world championship decathlon title, the former Oregon athlete rang up a pair of personal bests in deca events: 5.40m [17'8½"] in the pole vault and a stunning decathlon world record clocking of 45.00 in the 400m. Clearly a goal-oriented, driven athlete, Eaton has demonstrated his ability to compete against himself when, at present, there really is no other multi-event athlete on the planet who can give him a game. This was never more evident than in the decathlon's concluding 1500m in Beijing where Eaton - with a nearly-insurmountable 260 point lead - nonetheless dug deep and ran the final 300 meters at sub-4:00 mile pace to just better his world record decathlon total by 6 points. As a male athlete who won a world title and also set a world record this year, the multiple time global decathlon titlist is in a class by himself. For these reasons, Ashton Easton is track & field's Male Athlete of the Year. And it should be added that until some other decathlete scores more than 9045 points in the 10-event competition, he will also remain as the World's Greatest Athlete of all time.