Culture

5 Takeaways: U.S. Olympic Hopefuls Coming in Hot in 2020

At several indoor track meets across the country, the U.S. women started turning up the heat on their Olympic goals.

It was the most action-packed two days of the 2020 indoor track season and some of the biggest stars showed glimpses of what we might expect in the months leading up to the 2020 Olympic Trials in June.

The USA Track & Field Indoor Championships took place on Friday and Saturday in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Because of the postponement of the World Indoor Athletics Championships due to coronavirus, athletes didn’t have as much incentive to compete at the high-altitude location, however the women’s middle distance events offered the most star power, with Shelby Houlihan and Ajee’ Wilson adding a few more national titles to their collections. The Husky Invite in Seattle and the Boston University Valentine Invitational, also on Friday and Saturday, showcased more competition and fast times.

We picked the top takeaways from a big weekend of women’s racing:

Shelby Houlihan is back with double national titles.
Houlihan proved she’s still the woman to beat in the middle distances this year with a dominating two-day performance at the indoor national championships. Her double win in the 3,000 and 1500 meters marks her fifth double title at a single championship—and brings her career national title tally to 13.

In the 3,000 meters on Friday night, the 27-year-old shot straight to the front and won wire-to-wire in 8:52.03. Her Bowerman Track Club teammates Karissa Schweizer and Colleen Quigley, plus newly crowned American record-holder Elle Purrier (of the New Balance Boston group), did their best to keep pace, but there was no stopping Houlihan after the bell lap sounded. She methodically broke down the field over the final half mile, cutting down splits from 34.62, 33.76, 32.40 to 29.89.

After the race, Houlihan said that though she shares a coach—Jerry Schumacher—with Schweizer, 23, and Quigley, 27, as well as Courtney Frerichs and Vanessa Fraser, who were also in the race, each woman gets her individual race plan. This time, Schumacher told her to “do whatever you feel like.”

“He’s always telling me to wait and I like taking the lead and going,” Houlihan said to FloTrack after the race. “I found myself in the lead after the first and didn’t want to give up that spot so I just took it and felt comfortable. The last mile, just tried to squeeze it down every lap.”

The Bowerman Track Club has spent the first part of the year training at altitude in Colorado Springs, at 6,000 feet above sea level, so the altitude in Albuquerque (5,000 feet) did not appear to have much of an effect.

The following day in the 1500 meters, Houlihan also found herself in the pole position—though that wasn’t entirely intentional. She closed with another sub-30 second 200 meters to win in 4:06.41 and hold off Quigley and Schweizer, who reversed their order from the 3,000 meters by finishing second and third in 4:08.30 and 4:08.32, respectively.

“My legs definitely felt it,” Houlihan said on the NBC broadcast immediately following the race. “But I just tried to stay in it and with 800 to go, I switched gears.

“I’ve been running since I was five and ever since then, I wanted to go to the Olympics and set records and [get] medals and these are baby steps along the way.”

Jenny Simpson secures the 5,000-meter Olympic standard, solo.
Simpson ran a world-leading time of 14:58.67 at the BU Valentine Invitational in Boston on Friday to nab the Olympic standard in the 5,000 meters. Simpson, 33, cut three seconds off her 11-year-old indoor personal best, and now ranks as the third-fastest woman in U.S. indoor history behind only Shalane Flanagan, whose 2009 American record is 14:47.62, and Molly Huddle, who ran 14:57.31 in 2016.

Lianne Farber and Siofra Cleirigh Buttner kept pace through 2,000 meters, but then Simpson was on her own to run faster than the 15:10 Olympic standard. She handled the challenge well, clicking off 35- and 36-second laps before closing in 32 seconds to dip under 15 minutes.

“When they stepped off, I felt good,” Simpson told FloTrack, adding, “Tonight was a really controlled effort. I was just happy to tick off that box for the Olympic qualifier. I’m putting in a lot of work and trying to set myself up for a good outdoor season.”

The 5,000 meters might serve as a backup plan for the Olympics for Simpson, who has earned four global medals in the 1500 meters, including the 2011 world gold.

Ajee’ Wilson wins her 11th national title.
Wilson, 25, the queen of U.S. 800-meters put on her crown—and a clinic—in New Mexico, leaving bell lap leader Olivia Baker behind in the final 200 meters to finish in 2:01.98 for her 11th national title.

“I felt good,” Wilson said on FloTrack. “Coach just told me to get out, run my race. With 200 to go, there was a challenge from Olivia Baker, so I just responded and brought it home.”

Wilson also told FloTrack that Sammy Watson, who ran 2:04.11 for sixth in Saturday’s final, has also joined their training group in Philadelphia under coach Derek Thompson. The 20-year-old Watson won the NCAA outdoor title as a freshman at Texas A&M and turned pro last winter.

Kaela Edwards, 26, was second in 2:02.41 and Allie Wilson, 23, placed third in 2:02.99.

Emily Infeld wins first track race since hip surgery.
Infeld, also of the Bowerman Track Club, has dealt with more than her share of injuries—including surgery on her hip—since making the 2017 world championships team in the 10,000 meters. Since then, she’s run just one track race and a handful of road races. Her return to action was impressive, as the 29-year-old won the Husky Classic 3,000 meters in 8:48.73 to set a new meet record in Seattle.

Whittni Orton, competing for Brigham Young University, took second in 8:49.63, a new school record and the fastest time in the NCAA this season. The senior has now set three school records this season, including the 5,000 meters and mile.

Marlee Starliper makes high school history.
Marlee Starliper, a senior at Northern High School in Dillsburg, Pennsylvania, ran 9:07.14 for 3,000 meters to place seventh overall at the BU Valentine Invitational against a field of professional and collegiate athletes. The North Carolina State University commit is now the third-fastest performer in prep history behind only Katelyn Tuohy, who set the national record of 9:01.81 last year, and Mary Cain, who ran 9:04.51 in 2013.

Tuohy will also attend North Carolina State next year.

Dana Giordano of the Boston Athletic Association elite team won the race in 8:51.78.