More Californians Punch Tickets to Rio on Last Day of U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials

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Muhammad_Dalilah-OlyTr16.JPGDalilah Mohammed, photo by PhotoRun.net

This is the tenth article from Mark Winitz on the athletic performances of the athletes from California. This is Mark's articles on day Ten!

More Californians Punch Tickets to Rio on

Last Day of U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials

By Mark Winitz

The final day of the 10-day U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore. on July 10 ended with five additional California athletes qualifying for team spots on the U.S. Olympic team headed for the games in Rio. A Hayward Field record crowd of 22,944 were wowed and entertained by nine finals.

Dalilah Muhammad (Glendale, Calif./Nike) dominated the women's 400m hurdles final in 52.88, securing her pass to her first Olympic Games. Her time is a U.S. Trials record and the fastest time in the world since the 2013 IAAF World Championships. The former All-American for the USC Trojans earned the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships but said she had personal problems in 2014 and was injured in 2015.

"I don't think it's sunk in yet," Muhammed said after her victory. "You hope for this since you were a little girl. I've been running since I was seven years old. So, this moment is finally here. I feel that I'm in great hands with my coach. Now, I'm looking forward to the Olympics."

Muhammed trains at California State University Northridge where she is coached by CSUN Assistant Track and Field Coach Lawrence Johnson, the 2013 USA Track & Field Nike Coach of the Year.

Another USC Trojan, Jaide Stepter (Santa Ana, Calif./Southern California) placed 7th in 54.95, a personal best. Stepter completed her eligibility for USC with All-American honors this year.

Barbara Nwaba (Santa Barbara, Calif., ABEO/Santa Barbara TC) concluded the second day of the heptathlon on top, clinching her Trials victory while earning a coveted spot on her first Olympic Games team. Her 6,494 points was just shy of her PR of 6,500 which she scored as the victor at last year's USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and ranked her #6 in the world last year, and #1 in the U.S. 2008 and 2012 Olympian and former Cal Poly San Luis Obispo All-American Sharon Day-Monroe (Los Angeles, Calif./ASICS) finished just out of the medals in fourth place with a score of 6,385. Lindsay Lettow (ABEO/Santa Barbara TC), the NCAA Division II heptathlon and pentathlon champion in 2011 and 2012, finished 10th with 5,960 points.

Nwaba gave all the credit for her development into a first-time Olympian to the Santa Barbara Track Club and its coach, Josh Priester. Nwaba was coached by Priester at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she graduated in 2012 as a 4-time NCAA Division I All-American, and then joined the SBTC which Priester founded in the summer of 2012.

"Josh Priester has made this whole thing happen--his big belief in me and knowing that I could make the Olympic team one day," Nwaba said after securing her Trials victory. "When I was a college senior I was freaking out, like where was I going to go (after college)? Without him there might have been opportunities but I'm not sure how far I would have gone with them--as opposed to having a training group, funding for housing, and a job. I'm one of the coaches for the Santa Barbara Youth Track Club, so they've provided everything for me."

Last May, Nwaba placed fifth and top American with a 6,360-point heptathlon at the international Hypo Meeting in Götzis, Austria which is billed as the most prestigious meet for multi-event athletes outside of the Olympic Games.

Looking ahead, Nwaba said, "It's going to be amazing competition at the Games. I'll compete against some of the girls that I've competed against at the Götzis Hypo Meeting. So, I know these girls and I know what their talents are. So, for me, the focus is going to be on myself. If I can do that, and not get distracted about how other girls are doing, I'll be okay. If I can just keep the focus on myself and my abilities, and compete my hardest, I'll do just fine."

In a very competitive women's 5,000-meter final, during which rain fell, Kim Conley (West Sacramento, Calif./New Balance) captured third place in 15:10.62 to secure her ticket to her second Olympic Games. U.S. record holder Molly Huddle (R.I., Saucony) won in 15:05.01. Shelby Houlihan (Ariz., Nike/Bowerman TC) placed second in 15:06.14. Huddle holds the U.S. 5,000m record of 14:42.64. Houlihan was the 2014 NCAA Champion in the 1,500 meters at Arizona State University.

Conley ran conservatively on the outside of the front pack, avoiding trouble, for the majority of the race. She moved into third with two laps to go and closed strongly. On the second day of the Trials, Conley competed in the women's 10,000m final during which contact by another competitor slashed her right shoe partially off, after which she decided to retire from the race with about a mile to go.

"Obviously, the 10,000 was disappointing," Conley said. "I made a decision that the right call was to save myself for the 5,000. I got really excited about running the 5,000 here, and even the prospect of running the 5,000 in Rio. So, I've been totally forward focused and I'm so excited and relieved to make the team. I'm looking forward to what's ahead.

"My strategy was to stay out of trouble and I was trusting that Molly (Huddle) would keep the race really honest because she's such a strong runner. I knew there were several strong runners in the field like Shelby (Houlihan) that come from a really good 1,500 background so I didn't want it to be a 400-meter race. I was trusting that I could run a good last 1,000 meters. And, on the last lap, even knowing that Molly probably wasn't going to keep the 5,000 (Olympic team berth), I really wanted to be in the top three and be able to go on the victory lap. So, I was really tracking for that third place finish."

Following her 10,000m victory, Huddle waived her 10,000m spot on the Olympic team in favor of the 5,000m.

In the women's 200-meter final, former Clovis (California) High School standout Jenna Prandini (Puma, Eugene, Ore.) placed third in 22.53 literally falling across the finish line just in front of 2012 Olympic Games 200m gold medalist Allyson Felix (Nike) who was fourth in 22.54. Tori Bowie won in 22.25. Oregon's Deajah Stevens was second in 22.30.

"I was going all out. I just wanted to make sure that I got on this team," said Prandini who was the 2015 NCAA Division I Champion at 100m for the Oregon Ducks, and in the long jump the previous year. She was also the U.S. 200m Champion last year.

"The Olympics have been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl. I'm so honored to be on this team. I don't know if I can remember what happened the last few meters. I was just really focused on my lane, I knew that Allyson was coming so I just wanted to get to that finish line and do whatever it took to get on this team. I'm happy that (the sprawling finish) happened because it got me third place. I was hoping that it was enough to get me on the team. When they posted the spots on the board I was just overwhelmed with excitement. I have some little scrapes but I can't feel it. It doesn't matter right now."

For Felix, who won the women's 400m final earlier in the Trials, earning a berth on her fourth Olympic team in the 200m final was a partial letdown. Felix came into the Trials with an ankle injury that has cut significantly into her Trials' preparations.

"All year I planned for this race, and for it to end here, it's disappointing," Felix commented. "But when I look back and see everything that happened, I still think it's quite amazing that I was able to make this team (in the 400m). I feel like everything was against me."

Looking forward, Felix said: "I don't think I need races at this point. I think I need some work, some rest and recovery, and to take the time that we have left (before the Oly Games) just to get back and try to perfect the 400."

In the women's 1,500m final, Brenda Martinez (Rancho Cucacomga, Calif., New Balance) qualified for her first Olympic team by placing third in 4:06.39. 2008 and 2012 Olympian Jenny Simpson (Fla., New Balance) grabbed first in 4:04.74. Native San Franciscan Shannon Rowbury who now trains in Oregon with the Nike Oregon Project--also a 2008 and 2012 Olympian--was second in 4:05.39.

Back on Day 4 of the Trials, Martinez was relegated to a 7th place finish in the 800m final after being bumped and thrown off stride rounding the last turn, cutting short a potential trip to Rio in that event. After falling to the track at the finish line in exultation after grabbing third in the 1,500m, Martinez appeared in a post-race press conference where she expressed her unfailing belief in herself and an Olympic team berth.

"I just kept telling myself not to give up," Martinez told reporters. "I got so many e-mails, Instagram and Facebook messages, it made me feel so much support."

Click here for a USATF press release announcing the full list of U.S. track and field athletes, including Californians, who will be nominated to the U.S. Olympic Committee for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team headed to Rio.

Mark Winitz has written about running and track and field, organized programs for runners, and served as a consultant and publicist for road races for almost 40 year95s. He is a longtime activist within USA Track & Field and is a certified USATF Master Level Official/Referee. He also assists road racing events through his company, Win It!z Sports Public Relations and Promotions in Los Altos, CA.

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