Recapping the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials

It began with a world record in the men’s shot put and ended with a world record in the women’s 400m hurdles. With those bookends, the U.S. Olympic Track and Field team trials once again made its case as one of the flat-out best Track and Field meets in the world. 

After eight days of competition spread out over two-and-a-half weeks, the U.S. Olympic Trials reached its conclusion late Sunday night in Eugene (and early Monday morning here on the East Coast). What happened on the meet’s final evening? Not much, merely…

  • 21-year-old Sydney McLaughlin set a new world record of 51.90 in the women’s 400m hurdles, defeating reigning world champion and previous record holder Dalilah Mohammed. It’s the third consecutive finals for the two of them that has produced a new world record.
  • 20-year-old Cole Hocker ran a 52-second last lap to win the men’s 1500m, defeating Matt Centrowitz, the defending Olympic gold medalist. 
  • Despite being tripped slightly on the first lap, 19-year-old Athing Mu ran the fastest time in the world this year and the second fastest time ever by an American to win the women’s 800m, defeating Raevyn Rogers and Ajee Wilson, the 2019 World silver and bronze medalists. 
  • 17-year-old Erriyon Knight, who had broken Usain Bolt’s 200m world junior record in the  semi-finals, finished 3rd in the half lap race behind defending world champ Noah Lyles to become the youngest male athlete to make the team since Jim Ryun in 1964.
  • LSUs JuVaughn Harrison accomplished a feat unprecedented in modern times by winning the Men’s Long Jump AND the Men’s High Jump — the first time that has happened since Jim Thorpe did it in 1912.
  • Most of this happened after the final events were postponed for five hours when Taliyah Brooks, a competitor in the Women’s heptathlon, passed out during the competition in the record-breaking heat. 

Oh, and lest I overlook the meet’s final multi-event, the final results of the heptathlon competition were the closest in Trials history, with Annie Kunz (1st), Kendall Williams (2nd), and Erica Bougard (3rd) separated by a mere 36 points after the final event, a barn burner of an 800m. In case you haven’t memorized the IAAF scoring tables, 36 points is roughly equivalent to a difference of a couple of seconds in the 800m, or 3 cm (1¼ inches) in the high jump, or 10 cm (4 inches) in the long jump, or… well, you get the idea. It came down to the wire. 

And this was just one night! 

It seemed that every day and night of competition brought similar highlights — world and national record-setting throws, huge jumps and vaults, upsets of favored former champions, the emergence of new names making their first national team — and drama in almost every round of qualifying.

For example, if you didn’t bother watching the heats of the steeplechase and 5000m, here are some things you missed:

In the first of two women’s 5000m heats, Abbey Cooper (nee D’Agostino) ran an astonishing race, setting out on her own after four laps and driving herself lap after solo lap to win her heat in 15:07 to dip under the Olympic standard by two seconds. To appreciate how astonishing it really was, consider that Cooper’s personal best of 15:03 was run in 2015, and she hadn’t broken 15:14 since the 2016 Olympic Trials (when she made the team for Rio). Since then she had ran perhaps the most famous Olympic 5000m heat in history, suffering a torn ACL and meniscus after a collision, but a) stopping and going back to help fellow competitor New Zealand’s Nikki Hamblin and b) finishing the race despite her injury. After Rio, Cooper didn’t run another track race for over two years, and has had few opportunities since then to show that she was anywhere near Olympic form. But there she was in the heats, running that remarkable 15:07, pushing every step of the last two miles

Surely after such an effort, she would be spent for the final three days later. But no, there she was again in the finals, hanging on until the very end to place fourth, one spot away from another Olympic team. Truly, one of the most amazing athletes on the planet who has found a way to inspire more people while running qualifying heats than most athletes have done winning gold medals.

In the first of two men’s steeplechase heats, someone stepped on Sean McGorty’s heel, giving him a flat tire. After running a lap with his shoe in an awkward position, McGorty decided he had to fix the problem, and he pulled off from the lead pack and let the race continue while he struggled to get his shoe back on. The incident cost him at least ten seconds, and for the rest of the race he fought to get back in contention. As he crossed the line in 9th, it didn’t look great, as the qualifying spots would go to the top five in each heat and the next four fastest. But fortunately for McGorty, the second heat was slow and he got into the final as the slowest time qualifier. One can only speculate what his 8:25 would have been without that mid-race delay while he fixed his shoe.

Courtney Frerichs, the American record-holder in the women’s steeplechase, FELL in her heat, but picked herself up and fairly easily nabbed third place and one of the automatic spots for the final (where she placed second).

I’ve focused on a few events, but I could easily point to half a dozen others where something amazing and unexpected happened. What is it about the Trials that lends such drama to running, jumping, and throwing?

In thinking about it over the weekend, it occurred to me that while most track and field competitions are about who will stand atop the podium and be crowned champion, the Trials are about who will BELONG to the Olympic team. The prize is not a medal, it is membership in the pantheon of those who have earned the right to be called Olympians for the rest of their days. Perhaps that’s why, even this morning with the results of the final events recorded, the drama continues: Will Trials 1500m champ Cole Hocker be allowed to compete in Tokyo without having met the Olympic Standard? Will Grant Fischer or Woody Kincaid opt to run only the 5000m, allowing Ben True — fourth in 10,000m — his first spot on an Olympic team? In the end, there is only a thin tissue of difference between making the team and being left at home, perhaps to try to overcome in a few years, or perhaps to ponder as an aging athlete, knowing that it’s time to leave Olympic dreams behind. 

It’s often said that the U.S. Olympic Trials system is fair but cruel. Most other countries select their Olympic teams using both competitive trials and some form of wildcard system to allow the national federation to award team berths based on other criteria. Kenya, for example, uses trials to award two automatic selections, and then chooses a third athlete based on unspecified criteria, but presumably based on past performance and the chance of earning a medal. The U.S. doesn’t do that, and every quadrennial someone is left off the team who might have contended for Gold. Last Monday, Donovan Brazier, the reigning world champion and heavy favorite to make the team in men’s 800m, had a nightmare race in the final and staggered home last, missing out on Tokyo and the chance to defend his title. Instead, Bryce Hoppel will get a chance to run. No committee can change that.

Maybe the meet was so great because we had to wait an extra year for it, but it wasn’t only that. I think the combination of highly competent and extensive coverage from NBC (especially of typically undercovered heats and field events), and the proximity of the NCAA championships to the trials reminded all of us of how much fun it is to see young and established athletes compete for their places in the Track and Field firmament. 

Can Tokyo top that?

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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