This was going to be a down year at the USA Indoor Championships, but as David Hunter writes, many came to the top, both stars that are old and new to the sport. From Keni Harrison to Eric Sowinski, from Sandi Morris to Aries Merritt, the 2017 USA Indoor Champs shows the strength once again, for the sport in the U.S.A.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
March 5th, 2017
Day Three of these championships had a tough act to follow. With two world records - Gwen Berry's terrific 84 foot heave in the weight throw and Noah Lyles' stunning 31.87 in the 300 meter dash - a national high school record of 2:43.18 in the women's 1000 meter run by Samantha Watson in the preliminary rounds, and pentathlon winner Erica Bougard's last-jump win in the women's long jump adding spice to Day Two, Day Three athletes would need exceptional performances to top Saturday's show. Sunday produced no additional world records, but the depth and breadth of the final edition of this national gathering was stunning as the 2017 indoor championships concluded with 8 meet records either tied or broken.
The final day got off to a good start with the preliminary round of the women's 60m hurdles. At Friday's press conference, Keni Harrison - coming into this meet with the American and world leader at 7.75 - explained that her participation at this indoor gathering was important to give her yet additional experience in championship racing. She was a speedy and cool customer as she displayed cat-like quickness over the barriers to win her heat in 7.74 - a new world leader and the fastest clocking in the women's 60m hurdles in nearly 5 years. Harrison's splashy preliminary time prompted speculation that Lola Jones' American record [7.72] and maybe even Susanna Kallur's world record [7.68] could be threatened in the final. In the other heat, a terrific run-in over the last hurdle allowed Christina Manning [7.87] to nip Sharika Nelvis [7.87] by .005 seconds. The final produced no records, but Harrison showed she could handle the championship pressure as she captured the crown in 7.81 to nip Jasmin Stowers [7.82] with Christina Manning grabbing third [8.02]. While Harrison noted several technical aspects of her race that still need work, the champion was most pleased with this national title win. "This is my first U.S. title so I am just happy to run across the line first. Everybody knows that the hurdles is one of the best events," notes the 2016 Diamond League champion. "To go from 6th (at the 2016 Olympic Trials) to first, I'm pleased with that."
In the heats of the men's 60m hurdles, Aleec Harris - the American leader at 7.57 - looked sharp winning his heat. Even with a slight stumble over the final hurdle, 110H world record holder Aries Merritt clocked 7.60 to finish second. The former Olympic hurdle champion is still polishing his fitness and technique after undergoing a kidney transplant about 18 months ago. Spencer Harris [7.66] captured the win in the other heat. In the men's hurdles final, Merritt got to the opening hurdle first and never looked back. Building his lead over the barriers, Merritt - who won this championship race in 2012 - crossed the line in 7.51 - fastest time by an American this year. Harris grabbed second [7.54] with Jaret Eaton, the 2016 titlist, finishing third [7.59]. "To be honest, I came into this meet with a lot of uncertainty," revealed Merritt in the mixed zone. "I haven't done any speed work yet - which is unsettling. I was hoping there would be 3 rounds so I could kind of run myself into shape through the rounds." Merritt was candid when asked about his miraculous comeback from the kidney transplant and whether his win here completes his great story. "Of course it does. It was really hard for me the last couple of years. I just want to be that person that inspires people - no matter what the case may be - to always stay positive and fight on," said Merritt to a group of hushed journalists. "They told me I'd never run again, and I'm back running. They told me I'd never have my career back, and I do. They told me that I would be on dialysis all my life and I'm not. And I'm back doing what I love."
Pre-event melodrama swirled around the women's pole vault when former Olympic champion Jenn Suhr - a scheduled entrant in the championships - pulled out of the meet citing unspecified hassles with the governing body, thereby side-stepping an opportunity to compete against last year's #1 world-ranked vaulter Sandi Morris in the building where Suhr set the current world indoor vault record of 5.02m/16'5½. By the time the bar in the competition was raised to 4.65m/15'3", the 13 athlete field had been trimmed to three: Mary Saxer in 3rd, and tied for the lead with clean cards: Katie Nageotte and Morris. After first and second attempt misses all around, Morris sealed the win when neither Nageotte nor Saxer could match the Olympic silver medalist's third attempt clearance. Three failed attempts at 4.80m/15" couldn't dampen the spirits of the champion. Afterwards, the winner reflected on her winning 3rd attempt clearance at 15'3". "I had been struggling a little bit at that height. I just kind of said to myself, 'What the heck are you doing? You jump this all the time in practice! Just get yourself together and put together a decent jump and you'll be over it." And with a smile, she added, "That's what I did."
In the men's 600 meters, could anyone challenge Casimir Loxsom, the new world record holder in this event? At the crack of the starter's pistol, Chris Giesting charged into the early lead while Loxsom - hampered by his lane 1 assignment - was back in the pack. When the former Notre Dame star split 400 in 48.19, he was followed closely by Donovan Brazier, Erik Sowinski with Loxsom still in 5th. On the final backstretch, Sowinski stormed into the lead and was in full flight with 100 meters to go. A homestretch rush by Loxsom was too little too late as Sowinski crossed the line in 1:15.07 - a clocking ranked #4 on the all-time world list. The former Iowa star was followed by Loxsom [1:15.18] and then Shaquille Walker [1:15.39]. The winner explained his big move with 150 meters to go. "This is what we train for - to be there with 100-150 meters to go. I just put my head done and went to the finish. And it paid off," flashed an ebullient Sowinski in the mixed zone. Reflecting on the national 800 meter titles he won in the Albuquerque Convention Center in 2013 and 2014, Sowinski laughed and added, "I am undefeated in championship racing in this building,"
The final of the men's 1000 promised to be a battle among Clayton Murphy, Andrew Wheating, Robby Andrews - three middle distance Olympians with great kicks - and Brandon Kidder who came into these championships with the American leader of 2:19.92. In the final - after the initial 2 turn stagger - Wheating grabbed the pole with Murphy on his shoulder. Wheating split 400 in 55.32 followed by Murphy [55.41] and Brandon Lasater [55.59]. With 350 to go, Murphy crept closer and ultimately made his move on the penultimate homestretch taking the bell in 1:52.97 and building a 7 meter lead on the backstretch. Kidder attempted valiantly to close the gap, but Murphy's extra gear sealed the deal on his perfect tactical race. The Olympic 800 meter bronze medalist broke the banner in 2:18.60 - the fastest time in the world this year. Kidder finished 2nd in 2:19.10 followed by Wheating in 3rd in 2:20.39. "I thought Wheating would go to the front and try to control it. I just got up next to him and just kind of feed off them. I had the plan to try to move at 200 meters to go and see what happens. It all worked out."
In the women's shot put, Olympic gold medalist Michelle Carter didn't need to rely on her patented, dramatic, winning 6th round put to snatch the national title. Her 2nd round heave of 19.03m/62'5¼ - a new American leader - did the trick. Brittany Smith [18.29m/60'¼] took 2nd with Felisha Johnson [18.23m/59'9¾"] rounding out the top three.
In the men's triple jump, Chris Carter's winning hop, skip, and jump of 17.10m/56'1¼" was yet another American leader while Donald Scott [16.99m/55'9"] and Joshua Honeycutt finished 2nd and 3rd, respectively.
Heading into these championships, there was some quiet disappointment being expressed about the absence of more than a few of the sport's marquee performers. But for the athletes who made this meet a priority, elected to come, and competed with gusto in their pursuit of a national championship, this annual indoor gathering has aided them on many levels. Not only did several up-and-coming athletes leave The Land Of Enchantment with championship gold medals, more will head home with the multi-faceted benefits of a complete championship experience: advancing through the rounds, making the final, competing for a spot on the podium. This weekend's experience will raise their comfort level and make them more formidable competitors in their next championship competition - even against many of the headliner performers who bypassed this championship meet. Dave Hunter