Well, David Hunter and Elliott Denman is covering the USATF indoors for us in great style. This is his third column in three days! A fine one on Day two! Watch for Elliott Denman's right after this!
Albuquerque, New Mexico
March 4th, 2017
The pursuit of national indoor track & field indoor championships here in the high plains began in earnest with a full slate of Day Two events on the track and in the field. While impressive performances were expected, the day became special very quickly.
Early in the afternoon, in the women's weight throw, Gwen Berry electrified the crowd when her first attempt - only the second throw of the competition - sailed 25.22m/82'9", a throw that set a new indoor national championship and Albuquerque Convention Center record, a new world leader, and ranked #3 on the all-time world list. But Berry - coming off an injury and undecided about her championship participation as recently as Monday - was far from done. Not letting her monster opener break her concentration, Berry went on a tear, throwing 24.45m/80'2¾ and 25.21m/82'8½ on her second and third attempts. After two successive fouls, the Olympian saved her best for last. On her final attempt, Berry let it all go with a tremendous, arcing throw that measured 25.60m/84'0" to set a new world record and take down the previous global best of 25.56m/83'10¼ set in 2007 by American Brittany Riley. "I honestly didn't know what I had in store for me today," admits the new champion. "I was injured four weeks ago. I worked my butt off. I didn't think I had world record potential in me. I thought I could win with a good 80 foot throw, but a world record was not in my sights." With no fair throws less than 80 feet, Berry - now a three-time national weight throw champion - completed a sensational series that in addition to her world record throw also included the 4th and 5th weight best weight throws of all time.
At the beginning of Day Two, the action began with the 60 meter hurdles, the first of the 3 concluding events of the men's heptathlon - or what first day leader Japeth Cato might whimsically refer to as "the back nine" - of this two-day combined event.. In the barrier-laden sprint, Cato got out quickly, raced cleanly, and posted the fastest time of the day - an 8.04, good for 972 points. Thomas Hopkins finished 2nd in 8.07 [964 points] while Day One runner-up Austin ran a personal best of 8.31 [905 points]. At 4161 aggregate points after 5 events, Cato pushed his Day One lead out to 107 points over Bahner as the heptathletes headed to the pole vault runway. In the heptathlon vault, Cato was the last to enter the competition at 4.95m/16'2¾" when only two other competitors remained. His first attempt clearance at his opening height dismissed the notion that he felt any pressure due to his late entrance. When the former Wisconsin star cleared 5.05m/16'6¾" and his primary opponent Bahner couldn't, Cato had his 3rd consecutive event win and a 138 point lead heading to the final event. With a commanding lead, Cato - knowing what he needed to do - cooled it in the 1000 and cruised in with a clocking of 3:01.40 to secure the overall heptathlon title with an accumulated point total of 5738. "Hole in one," exclaimed the winner in reverting to the prior day's golf lingo to grade his hurdle performance. "I couldn't be happier." On the pole vault, he was a tougher grader. "I'd say my vault performance was a par. I didn't do as well as I hoped." And the final1000 was merely a stroll up the 18th fairway. Cato knows this win will provide a terrific lift as he heads outdoors. "It's a huge springboard to go into the outdoor season and give me that boost of confidence. I've still got it - whatever 'it' is."
In the women's 300 meters, Phyliss Francis looked the sharpest in the preliminary round advancing to the final with a clocking of 36.49 - a personal best, the fastest of the first round, and a new meet record, eclipsing the 2015 mark of 36.52 set by Natasha Hastings. In the two section final, Candace Hill went wire-to-wire for the victory in section one, setting a personal best of 36.56 and making her the leader in the clubhouse. In the seeded, faster second section, Joanna Atkins went out with a vengeance, but a furious surge by a focused Phyliss Francis down the homestretch allowed the former Oregon star [36.15] to catch Atkins [36.18] at the line for the victory. Francis' winning time is #2 on the American leader board and #2 on the American all-time list.
In the men's 2 mile, a very fit, altitude raised and trained Paul Chelimo tolerated only one lap of cautious pacing before setting sail on a truly impressive solo effort to capture the national 2-mile crown. Splitting laps with utmost precision, the reigning Olympic silver medalist at 5000m had a 7 meter lead at 880 yards [2:07.6], a 35 meter advantage at the mile [5:15.5], a 60 meter margin at 1.5 miles [6:24] and ran the final half mile in 2:04 for a negative split victory by nearly 80 meters, stopping the clock at 8:28.53. The rest of field learned early on that the race would be for 2nd. Hillary Bor, Ryan Hill, Ben Blankenship battled for the runner-up spot, but Woody Kincaid's [8:38.66] final circuit in 26.1 lifted him to the runner-up spot with his Bowerman teammate Ryan Hill [8:38.81] close behind in 3rd. The mild-mannered Chelimo was gracious afterwards. "I train at altitude and am in very good shape," offered Chelimo in explaining his lopsided win. "This suggests more good performances could well be possible when we go outdoors," said the winner who plans to sprinkle in some outdoor mile races as part of his buildup for outdoor nationals and his quest for a spot on the USA world championship team. Kincaid was unsurprised by his 2nd place finish and credited stiff training with Hill as a contributing factor for his recent improved performances. "I keyed off Ryan. The pace felt like hard practices with Ryan so I was comfortable." Hill - the reigning indoor world championship silver medalist at 3000 meters - was candid about the championship race in Albuquerque's rarified air. "The altitude wiped me out. We all struggled." All except Chelimo.
Friday's Pentathlon champion Erica Bougard showed she has plenty in the tank for her busy weekend. Competing in the women's long jump - an event she won during the pentathlon competition - Bougard uncorked a 6th round buzzer beater leap of 6.44m/21'1½. She broke the heart of Jesse Gaines [6.42m/21'¾" ] who finished 2nd while Kenyattia Hackworth [6.38/20'11¼"] grabbed 3rd. Bougard is the first athlete since 1986 [Mike Conley] to win two national championship field events in the same championship. And she is the first athlete ever to win the pentathlon and a field event at the same national championship. Is Bougard done? Hardly. Sunday she competes in the high jump - another event she won in the Friday's pentathlon.
Preliminary rounds of events that feature Sunday finals provided a glimpse of the exciting competitions that await. In the women's 1000 meter run, Charlene Lipsey looked controlled and well within herself in winning her heat in 2:41.86. In the second heat, high school phenom Samantha Watson moved with ease over the final 350 meters to win in 2:43.18 - a new national high school record to add to the top American prep marks she already holds at 600 and 800 meters. Look for these two to do battle in Sunday's 1000 meter final. In the first round of the men's 1000, Brian Kidder took control and authored a wire-to-wire, workmanlike win in 2:22.13. In the second heat, the big Q's went to the Olympians as Andrew Wheating [2:21.56] and Clayton Murphy [2:21.57] crossed in a virtual tie with Robby Andrews finishing 3rd. An epic race featuring furious kickers could well unfold in the Sunday final. In the heats of the women's 600m, impressive performers advancing to the final include McKayla Fricker, Cecelia Barowski, Courtney Okolo, and Ajee' Wilson, the finalist with the top qualifying time of 1:26.57. In the men's 600m heats, Russell Dinkins, Chris Geisting and Shaquille Walker will join the more notable first-round performers Erik Sowinski [who ran a lifetime best of 1:15.51], Donovan Brazier, and the holder of the 600 meter meet, American, and world best mark, Casimir Loxsom in Sunday's 600m final.
These first-round teasers should be more than enough to inspire fans to once again fill the Albuquerque Convention Center for the concluding day of these indoor national track & field championships. Dave Hunter