Culture

Podium Predictions And Dark Horses To Watch At Olympic Trials

Phoebe Wright—self-named "dark horse of the 800 meters"—shares her top podium picks and underdogs from some of track's top events.

It’s Olympic Trials week—here are some of the top faces to watch and underdogs to remember in some of the most-anticipated runs on the track, starting with the 800 meters and our May 2015 cover runner!

800 meters

The 800 meters is known as “that event that makes you puke” to anyone who has attempted to hold a sprint for 2 minutes. It’s an interesting event because all the racers are very close to the red line. You know in Mario Kart when you get that one mushroom burst? That is what the 800 meters is like—you have one burst and one burst only, so you better use it wisely. Because there is only one move—positioning matters. Positioning matters as much as (if not more) than fitness. The 800m is not for the weak hearted.

KEY PLAYERS:

alysia and linnea

Alysia “Smokin’ Fast Baby Mama” Montano
Asics

Alysia is the veteran of the field. She is also the mom of the field. She is also the one who had many moments of her career stolen by dopers. She has been in the game so long, that she has so many stories to tell. Four years ago she was at the London Olympics and barely missed the podium because she lost to dopers. Two years ago, she was racing the U.S. championships carrying around a -1-month-old—that’s right: she was 8 months pregnant! Last year, she won the U.S. championships despite (or maybe because, since babies do give mamas “old lady strength” and a clear head) having just given birth 8 months prior.

Bottom line: She is a strong lady that stands up for things that are right.

Her racing style mimics her lifestyle—a leader. She is the fastest over 400 meters in the field and uses this speed to her advantage. She takes out the races hard and dares people to follow. At this trials she will have seven women willing to take that challenge—will she be able to hang on to her lead?

Ajee “The Rookie That Acts Like A Veteran” Wilson
Adidas

If you watch Ajee race, you’d assume she has been doing this whole racing thing for a couple of lifetimes. In the same way people who are good at art have always been good at art, or math people have always been math people, Ajee has always been a runner. She was a high school phenom and now is a pro phenom. She is always calm and collected on the line. She is incredible especially for someone her age (21). She’s the talent of the field.

Brenda “The Fighter” Martinez
New Balance
Big Bear TC

Brenda had a rocky first few years as a pro. She struggled to create an environment that would lead to her success. Even after she created that environment in Big Bear with Legendary coach Vigil, she still struggled. Greatness involves a struggle it seems. She never lost faith in herself or her program and weathered the setbacks to become the first world championship medalist for the United States in 2013. She has been consistent this year and looks in good form going into these trials.

Molly “Out For Redemption” Ludlow
Saucony

Molly is the one on the line that you want to be best friends with. She has a good demeanor and finds joy in racing. This makes her dangerously consistent. In 2012 she finished fourth, barely missing an Olympic berth. Her legs started to give out the last 20 meters. She has been working for the last 4 years to make sure her wheels don’t fall off in that last stage of the race.

THE DARK HORSE:

Phoebe Wright—ME!
Nike

I know, it’s weird voting for myself, but I’m doing it. I don’t know if I will make the team, but I know that I could not asked for a better build up, my head is in the right place, I’m a consistent racer, and I’m owed one more “Jesus Run.” A Jesus Run is when you run beyond your fitness—which is seemingly impossible, unless you factor in Jesus. You are allowed three Jesus runs in your career and I’ve used up two. I’m hoping that last one kicks in here over the trials.

1,500 meters
The 1500m is three rounds—and this matters. A lot of times a speed-based 1500-meter runner can run a blazing fast 1500. But can they do three in a row? That takes a different skill set. I imagine the rounds like the-rope-a-dope. Everyone is taking punch after punch, and the one who can endure the punches wins. Having speed is deadly, but it also the first weapon to go in these rope-a-dope rounds.

KEY PLAYERS:

jenny simpson.jpg

Jenny “The Champ” Simpson
New Balance

Jenny has all the weapons—strength, ability to run from the front, wicked kick, great coaching and awareness of positioning. She is my favorite person to watch run because she is so dang talented. She has been on the top at the world stage; she won a gold medal in 2011, then grabbed a silver in 2013, which was her way of saying, “That was no fluke, I am here to stay.” She has been a force in women’s distance running for almost a decade. She has not raced much this season, which means she is either peaking for the games by training through these trials, or she’s been hurt. Both options make her slightly more vulnerable.

Shannon “Gunna Lipstick It To You” Rowbury
Nike/Oregon Project

Shannon is fun to watch race because fans can see that she wants it. She is like a hunter that knows she won’t eat if she doesn’t kill. I’m not sure where she draws all this emotion—I’m not sure I want to know. Her claim to fame is her bright lipstick that she wears in honor of her grandmother. She has the best strength in the field—her 3K and 5K PRs are the fastest. However, she’s the only competitor that has an Olympic medal to her name. With all that being said, she has not run blazing fast this season—could this be an indication that she is not 100% ready?

Shelby “The Hungry New Pro” Hoolihan
Nike/ Bowerman Track Club

Shelby has seamlessly transitioned from stud in college to stud in the pro ranks. She has a legitimate shot to make the team in both the 5K and the 1500 meters. It’s a good problem to have when you don’t know what event to go for. She started out the indoor season running a blazing fast 15:03 5K. Then she focused on the 800 meters for the beginning of outdoors. Her first pro 1500-meter run? Six Second PR for a 4:03. She’s peaked at the right time. She has the young runner confidence—and that type of blind confidence is powerful.

THE DARK HORSE:

Kate Grace
Oiselle/ Nor Cal Distance

Kate looks like she runs on angst. Like she has something to prove. I love that intense emotion. Last year, Kate didn’t run. She was sidelined with multiple injuries. She made a risky move to switch coaches. Switching coaches sometimes does not pay off instantly, but for Kate, the switch was exactly what she needed. Under Drew Wartenburg, she has had a massive resurgence. Quite frankly, she looks unbeatable. Her weakness: She has never made a team. Experience goes far in these trials—can her fitness and new form carry her to her first US team?

3,000-meter Steeplechase

Sometimes I think to myself, “If a pack of wolves were released on the track while all the distance runners were out there, which event group would be the most prepared?” (I know, I know, a weird hypothetical.) But we all know the answer is the steeplers. They’ve got good speed and good strength AND are obviously more coordinated that the rest of us considering they jump over things while their legs are dog tired. There is no sure thing at the Olympic Trials, and there is never a sure thing in the steeplechase. People can fall, people can swim, people can run straight into a hurdle—anything can happen, and anything will happen. The barriers provide such a wildcard factor.

Photo: David Clifford/Courtesy of Competitor
Photo: David Clifford/Courtesy of Competitor

Emma “The Beautiful Navy Seal” Coburn
New Balance

Emma was hurt with an Achilles injury all winter. You would not be able to tell though, considering her season opener was a PR and an American record. She is the fastest American ever, so she is the one to beat. Luckily, the higher the stakes, the better Emma performs. When I think of a word for her, it’s “execute.” She gets on the line and executes the plan. She does what she is capable of doing. Considering she is the most capable in the field, this could be a problem for everyone else. The wildcard factor: There’s no such thing as a sure thing in the steeple. She needs to stay on her feet.

Courtney “The College Kid” Frerichs
Nike/Bowerman Track Club

Not a lot of collegiate athletes can give pros a run for their money, but Courtney is ready to do just that. She not only won the NCAA championships, but she now also has the title of fastest collegiate runner of all time. She’s sixth fastest ever in the U.S.
She recently joined the Bowerman Track Club. She’s young and still discovering her ability. She hasn’t been tested in a fast race yet, so she has potential to go faster. She will be one to watch over the next coming years.

Ashley “We-Talkin-About-Practice?” Higginson
Saucony/NJNY Track Club

Ashley Higginson is often overlooked, and I’m not sure why. Maybe because she has been in law school and doesn’t travel to the premiere meets until the summer? She is very consistent at the U.S. championships. In track there are “racers” and there are “trainers.” By watching Ashley race, you can tell she is a racer. As Allen Iverson once said, “It’s not about practice, it’s about the game.” Ashley is all about the game.

Stephanie “Under the Radar” Garcia
New Balance/Furman Elite

Stephanie has been dabbling with the 5K and the 1500 meters this season, so we haven’t seen what she is truly capable of in the steeple this year. She had a massive 5K PR and that 5K strength will come in handy over the last few hurdles. She had a breakthrough in the steeple last year and now is relevant on the world scene. Her Olympic spot is not given—there are 4 or 5 women that are closing in on her best.

THE DARK HORSE:

Colleen “Wildcard” Quigley
Nike/Bowerman Track Club

Colleen has had a heck of a year of injuries. Athletes go into an Olympic year thinking they will have the most perfect buildup, and when they don’t, they have a choice: panic or not. Colleen has chosen to not. That level-headedness will not only get her far this week, but it also bodes well for the future of her career in general. Not panicking is the name of the game in track. She is coming off a good showing in the 1500 meters last week. She hasn’t run a steeple this year, so she has a heck of a challenge to get on the team with her opener being the semifinals of the Olympic Trials. She has the talent to do it, and she was top-3 in the U.S. last year.

5,000 meters

Remember that 5K Turkey Trot you ran last fall? This 5K is nothing like that. This 5K is a battle of who’s going to make that kick and who’s going to respond. I imagine it like a baby lion. It kind of looks tame and sweet at first, but you know that at any moment, that lion will start sprinting and trying to kill you. This race is similar, in that the pace is usually manageable at first, but the runners are waiting for the move. They don’t know when it will happen. They don’t know how fast it will happen. They won’t know if they can hang on to finish. But the strong try. You have to cover the move. That’s the name of the game in the 5K.

THE KEY PLAYERS:

**I’m assuming Molly Huddle and Emily Infeld are focusing on the 10K**

Photorun.net
Photorun.net

Kim “Makes Teams” Conley
New Balance/Nor Cal Distance

Kim was not a stud in college. But that not-a-stud-yet believed in herself and went all-in to try and make a career in professional running. She consistently improved and had her breakthough in the 2012 Olympic Trials. Besides, Hayward Field is good to Kim. The Olympic Trials are good to Kim. Plus she is rounding into good form with her 15:10 season best.

Marielle “Can’t Shake Her” Hall
Nike

Marielle is really, really good. People don’t know how good she is yet, because she is over-shadowed by older superstars. But I have noticed—and she’s really good. She is quiet, but if you sit by her and listen to her under-the-breath murmurs, you’ll realize that this lady is hilarious and has a great outlook on running. She has great speed and endurance, and her form rarely breaks down. She made the U.S. world team last year and is carrying that momentum into the trials.

Katie “Love is My Drug” Mackey
Brooks/Brooks Beasts

Katie is actually my pick to win the trials. She is the fastest in the field over 800 meters and her 5k PR is one of the best in the field. Her biggest asset is also her biggest liability—her emotion. This feisty lady has so much love and emotion in that little body of hers. When she can channel it, she’s unbeatable. She has been working all year on being able to focus that emotion, and it has been showing. If she can keep the trend going, she’s dangerous.

THE DARK HORSE:

Shelby “The Hungry New Pro” Hoolihan

If Shelby decides to focus on the 5k instead of the 1,500 meters, she is a dark horse pick. She has a great PR indoors and has been working on strength with her coach Jerry Schumacher and training partner Emily Infeld. The wildcard factor? She hasn’t run an outdoor 5K yet, and she is not as experienced as the rest of the field. Can her talent make up for her lack of experience in her new event?

10,000 meters

You cannot fake a 10K. It is the event that is won in the buildup. The fittest have the advantage. In some ways I’m jealous of the runners in this race, because positioning does not matter, you can make mistakes and recover, and if you are lucky enough to win, you get to have the “I’m going to win this!” feeling for at least a couple of seconds—unlike the 800 meters. But in a lot of ways, I’m glad I do not run this race. There is so much time to think. And more time to think means more time to become negative. These ladies must have such a strong inner voice to deal with that 30-ish minutes of time to go to the dark place.

THE KEY PLAYERS:

molly huddle
Photo: Scott Draper

Molly “The Unassuming Killer” Huddle
Saucony

Molly is so sweet-looking. She looks like she wouldn’t be capable of any type of violence—let alone ripping all of her competitor’s heads off (in the figurative sense). It’s like she turns from sweetie pie to silent killer after the gun goes off. She can win a race from the front or from a kick. She can make moves or cover moves. She’s the American record holder in the 5K and has run incredibly well this season.

Emily “Surprise! Got a Medal” Infeld
Nike/Bowerman Track Club

Emily is like that little sister that you always wanted—she’s always happy and laughing at all your jokes, so it’s impossible not to feel good about yourself when you are around her. She races with a “Let’s just see what happens!” optimistic attitude. That attitude has allowed her to navigate injuries, rock training sessions, and surprise: win a world medal. In 2015 she shocked the world by being the third fastest in the world—it was so wonderfully shocking that I cried when I watched it. She is the one who you love to root for.

THE DARK HORSE:

Liz Costello
New Balance/ New Balance Boston

Liz has been slowly creeping up through the ranks. She has great speed for a 10K runner, so if she is there with a lap to go, she is the woman I’d put money on. She is spunky and fun loving and loves hurting. I was her training partner for a year, and she loved ripping workouts. “The Wall” that runners talk about—Liz loves the wall. She loves pushing right through that wall. Plus, she has a good training situation up in Boston with Coach Coogan. She’s ready to roll.