The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

World Championships Review – US Sprints

Aug 27th, 2009
2:48 pm PDT

Track and Field: 12th IAAF World Championships in Athletics

When the world’s best get together you get to take a real good look at yourself. Big fish in small ponds get to feel what its like to swim with nothing but big fish! In the process some fish find out they aren’t as big as they once thought. And so it was with our sprinters when they hit the track in Berlin as we found out just how many big fish we really have.

Berlin was a Good News, Bad News meet for the US in the sprint realm. The Good News is that we are still the deepest nation on the planet when it comes to the sprints. The Bad News is that the rest of the world has come far enough along that our depth is no longer a major factor when it comes to making championship finals and getting to the medal stand!

Championship sprint finals are no longer an All American affair. And though we are still in contention for gold medals, so is the rest of the world, making multiple medals more difficult to obtain than ever before. As comical as it may sound to some, we need to get back to basics and begin rebuilding our sprint base. If not for a couple of athletes our situation would be dire indeed. Lets take an event by event look at where we stand in the sprints after Berlin.

100 Men – Yes we have Tyson Gay. And he just may be the second best sprinter in all of history – perhaps able to challenge for #1 if we can get him healthy. Unfortunately after Tyson there is a precipitous drop in talent level! So when Tyson is on the blink we are doomed – and that’s just not how we’re suppose to roll here in the US.

Walter Dix has shown top level championship potential. But he’s been missing in 2 of the last 3 Majors with various issues of his own. Behind them we have lots of sprinters slipping into 9.9x territory – but that is no longer good enough. Our sprint crew desperately needs another consistent 9.8x sprinter to go with Tyson if we are to be major contenders going forward. Bronze in Berlin was earned at 9.84. What was a gold medal run just a few short years ago is needed now just to get a medal – and by the next major in 2011 could find you off the podium. Michael Rodgers and Ivory Williams currently appear to be our best hopes to support Gay, and possibly Dix, in the 100 meter wars. If we can continue their development we could be solid come Daegu in 2011.

200 Men – This is perhaps the deepest of our sprint events IF we can get all of our sprinters healthy and on the track. Tyson Gay obviously leads the troops here as well. A group that contains several sub 20 second types in Xavier Carter (19.63), Wallace Spearmon (19.65), Walter Dix (19.69) and Shawn Crawford (19.79). But Crawford is beginning to age – though you couldn’t tell it as he blasted 19.89 in another major. Spearmon has been suffering through injuries the past couple of seasons, and Dix went down to injury this year.

All have been on the podium, and all are competitive against the rest of the world save for Bolt and Gay. If we can get them all healthy we have wonderful potential here as Spearmon, Dix and Carter have the potential to run at least in the 19.5x zone. We’re fine here given good health – for now. At the current rate of improvement of the rest of the world however, we need to be looking NOW to start developing the next generation.

400 Men – Once our deepest event, we’ve slipped dramatically in the past few seasons. Merritt has risen to the top and been quite dominant for two years now. In the process Jeremy Wariner has slipped to #2, but doesn’t seem to inspired in that position. And instead of the two pushing each other into the lower reaches of the 43’s, we ended up with a lot of mediocre runs from two men that should be running in record territory two or three times a year.

The real problem however, is the drop off after these two. Where once we had incredible depth between 44.2x and 44.6x we now have NOTHING. Behind Merritt and Wariner we only had TWO athletes under 45 seconds – unheard of since the late 80’s! It only took 45.02 seconds to win the bronze medal in Berlin – we’ve had high school kids that could run close to that and better! That we could not sweep this event is a shame; that we had an athlete out in the first round a travesty!

Given the level of performance needed to be successful at 200 meters, it might be in the best interests of some of those athletes unable to crack the 20.25 barrier to look to the 400 for success. And even there, with Merritt at 19.98 and Wariner at 20.19, it’s still a tough climb to the top. But youngsters coming up need to take a look at Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt and decide if they have the chops to go against them, or is moving up a spot in distance a smarter move. My guess is that for many the smarter move lies here.

100 Women – A large group of women all stuck somewhere between 11.00 and 11.15. As with the men, the problem is that global expectations have shifted, and that range is no longer good enough. That’s what it takes these days to be assured of getting into a final – and won’t put you in the medal discussion.

Carmelita Jeter appeared ready to emerge out of that group, and ran solid for bronze. She PR’d in the rounds in Berlin in 10.83, but we need to see a bit more patience from her and her race pattern so that we get that 10.7x that she showed capable of earlier in the season. But, as with Tyson Gay and the men’s 100, there is a drop behind Jeter. No one else was under 11.00 this year and that just won’t get it done. Vets Lauryn Williams and Muna Lee are looking to be on the other side of their careers, but there is potential at work. Alexandria Anderson and Marshavet Hooker are at the head of a group of young women fully capable of joining Jeter under 11 seconds on a regular basis. And a very talented cluster from which to develop talent.

200 Women – Allyson Felix is as sold as a rock here, having just won her third World Championship to go with silvers in the last two Olympics. But, in a familiar refrain, there is a big drop off behind her. Luckily there is a big drop off globally after the first two or three athletes. Not to mention that we have a solid group of youngsters in Alexandria Anderson, Marshavet Hooker, Porsha Lucas and Bianca Knight, that I think will be ready in one or two seasons (by Daegu). Of the three women’s sprints I have the most confidence in the ability of our youth to emerge here.

400 Women – This is a very interesting event. Sanya Richards has been #1 for half a decade now, but just won her first global gold medal. Then, repeat after me, there is a huge drop off – sort of. I say sort of because Allyson Felix has shown that when she contests this event, she is as good as anyone in the world. And frankly, scary as it may sound, this may be her best event even though she focuses on the deuce. So she really gives us a strong 1,2 combination as evidenced in the 4×4 where she put the race away on the second leg before Richards closed just as strong to lead us to the 6th best time in history.

Now after these two there IS a big drop, which is surprising given that just a couple of seasons ago the likes of Mary Wineberg, Natasha Hastings and Dee Dee Trotter gave us a very strong contingent of quarter milers. This season Debbie Dunn seemed to begin an emergence and had very strong performances in the relay in Berlin. If she can continue her improvement we will be in pretty good shape here. Likewise if we see further improvement from youngsters Jessica Beard and Joanna Atkins.

The bottom line to all this is just as I said in the beginning. We are still the deepest sprint nation on the planet, but the rest of the world has caught up on the top end rendering our depth moot unless we set about strengthening that depth. We need athletes to step up to assist the Tyson Gay’s, Lashawn Merritt’s, Allyson Felix’s and Sanya Richard’s of the US sprint scene.

There needs to be a shift in thought among those who want to be sprinters at the elite level. If you are a male and were thinking in terms of 9.90/19.80/44.50, think again. The game has changed. Ditto for the women, as 11.00/22.00/50.00 is just not good enough – not if you hope to mount the podium. Coaches need to take note. And USATF needs to find a way to get our best athletes with our best coaches – for the good of everyone concerned including the medal count! I understand the role of shoe companies and agents in coaching selections, but as we saw in the case of Jeremy Wariner in 2008, as well as others, coaching is critical and the shoe companies and agents are fallible as their reasons are not always in tune with the end result required by the National Team – and sometimes the individual.

In order to regain our status as THE premier sprint squad in the world, it will take some sort of collaboration between USATF, our best coaches, the shoe companies and the athlete’s agents. They all need to be on the same page and working towards a common goal. Right now they work as a loose collaboration of groups “attempting” to come together. But the end results say that we are now falling short of that goal, and need to readjust in order to progress.

Those involved need to come to the table to develop a Plan that everyone can sign off on. One that takes into account the needs of all concerned and attempts, as best as possible, to address those needs. If we can come together, the world is in trouble once more.

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