2013 Recaps - IAAF World Youth Championships - Reflection
The Donetsk Dozen: 12 Top Storylines from the WYC
By Steve Underwood
Photos by Kirby Lee, from Imageofsport.com
Team USA won two golds and 17 total medals at the recently completed 8th IAAF World Youth Championships in Donetsk, Ukraine. But like most such efforts, the 5-day event was filled with many highlights, both on and off the medal stand, and a few things that perhaps didn’t go quite as hoped or planned. So here’s one person’s take on the 12 most significant stories for Team USA during the WYC:
1. Keturah Orji’s TJ/LJ masterpieces
Her medals may not have been of a golden hue, but without question the biggest storyline and the biggest star of the WYC for Team USA was Keturah Orji. The modest, soft-spoken Mt. Olive NJ junior star was certainly a medal contender coming in, her outstanding season having already included a steady progression up to a #6 all-time US and WY#3 in the TJ and WY#5 in the LJ. But her series in the TJ final Thursday exceeded the wildest expectations, with three PRs including a 44-11(+0.8w) for the bronze – just a scant .75 inches off Brittany Daniels’ 2004 USR. Orji passed the likes of Erica McLain, Juliana Yendork, and Ychlindria Spears on the all-time list and she exceeded the WYC performances of Daniels, McLain and Michelle Sanford. And she jumped so far that only six American jumpers at any level – two collegians and four pros – have jumped further this year.
But that wasn’t all. Orji leapt into the long jump qualifying Friday, advancing second behind US#1 friendly rival and frosh teammate Courtney Corrin of Harvard Westlake CA. Then through two rounds of the final Sunday, Orji led with 20-4.25. Then after dropping to fourth going into the last round, she responded with a 20-11.75(-1.2w), to capture the silver – again exceeding what any Team USA long jumper had ever done at WYCs and also beating Corrin for the first time. No one performed in Donetsk like Orji.
2. Ky Westbrook’s Golden double
Only one Team USA member flew home from the Ukraine with two gold medals. Her name is Ky Westbrook. In a balanced final that included 11.3-11.7 standouts from around the world and her own super talented teammate and rival, Long Beach Poly CA junior Ariana Washington, Westbrook came up with a huge US#2 11.33(-0.8w) PR – showing an exquisite ability to peak and come through in the clutch. This completed a spectacular season in the century for the Chandler (Ariz.) junior, including victories at Arcadia, the adidas Dream 100, New Balance Nationals Outdoor, the Youth Trials, and just one major loss.
Westbrook was golden again for Team USA in the Swedish Medley Relay. Taking the unusual second leg, a 200 with the straightaway first, she had the decisive segment as she built a big lead for her teammates to follow, and provided exactly what the Americans needed for the 2:05.15 victory.
3. Girls’ speedsters carrying the load
If you’re trying to determine which category of athletes – male or female sprinters, hurdlers, distance runners, jumpers or throwers – were the most successful in bringing home medals for Team USA, your answer would not be surprising: Girls sprinters and hurdlers. Westbrook, as noted above, leads that group but of course there were several other contributors. Individual silvers were won by the aforementioned Washington in the 100, Columbia NJ junior Olivia Baker (400), and George Washington CO junior Dior Hall (100H), while bronzes captured by Washington (200) and Baton Rouge LA junior Mikiah Brisco (100H).
Then during the climactic medley relay, you had four Team USA medalists – Hall, Westbrook, Kincaid TX junior Raevyn Rogers (800), and Baker – combining to take that second gold. It should also be noted that those double medalists in both the 100 dash and 100 hurdles matched the feat of the 2011 WYC Team USA, for which Jennifer Madu and Myasia Jacobs claimed 100 gold and silver, and Trinity Wilson and Kendell Williams 100H gold and bronze.
4. Injuries hamper US boys’ sprint/hurdle hopes
Team USA’s boys’ sprint/hurdles fortunes were another story. Yes, there were three silvers and a bronze claimed by the Americans in the six events, but there could have been at least two more added to that and perhaps a few more of a better color, had not injuries hampered the efforts. The most dramatic of those was the hamstring strain or pull suffered by Papillon-La Vista NE junior Kenzo Cotton in his 100 semi, effectively knocking him out of the meet. Cotton was definitely a threat for a 100 medal and to at least make the final in the 200. He also likely would have given Team USA a better shot at hanging with the Jamaicans in the Swedish Medley Relay.
The other relevant injury was a different story, the ongoing back ailment suffered by Hoover AL junior Marlon Humphrey. He was feeling it through the rounds and final of the 110H, where he still took the silver. However, in the 400H – where he came in as the world leader – three rounds were just too much and he was unable to start the final.
Give credit to the other sprint/hurdle team members for what they did, however. Despite missing Cotton (and maybe even Humphrey, if they officials had picked him), the Americans – Thompson AL jr Jaalen Jones, T.C. Williams VA frosh Noah Lyles, Union Catholic NJ junior Taylor McLaughlin, and Banneker GA soph Ryan Clark -- still won relay silver and actually ran faster than every previous Team USA quartet over the years, except the 2011 champs that set the previous WY best. Clark led the 400 semis in a US#4 46.33 PR and won silver in the final (46.46), while Pace Academy GA junior Kenny Selmon took 400H bronze in 51.30.
5. Unprecedented U.S. boys’ 1500 performances
Some message board critics marginalized it, saying that no one ever won a medal from the prelims and that the finals would tell the true story. But those who had witnessed or followed Team USA efforts in the WYCs over the years knew they had never seen anything like the American efforts in boys’ 1500 qualifying. It wasn’t just that Stockdale CA junior Blake Haney (3:51.95) and Grand Blanc MI soph Grant Fisher (3:50.30) won their heats in succession, a first for an American distance runners, but the style in which they did it – with confidence, daring-do, and great kicks. With Haney, it was confirming talent already displayed during a state season this spring where he ran 8:48.58 for 3,200 and 4:07.78 for a mile. For Fisher, it was a big PR for a meteoric young star who had been rising through the ranks in Michigan, including 4:11.27 and 9:04.33 16/32 bests and a 4:12.74 NBNO unseeded mile win. He had surprised at the Youth Trials, running nearly stride for stride with the much more experienced and heralded Haney.
Everyone knew that in the final the Americans would give way, to some extent, to the massively talented African youth stars – the question was, how much? The answer? Not a whole lot. As Kenyan Robert Biwott took it out in a blistering 59.41, 1:56.95, 2:54.39 pace, a second pack was moving at barely over 4-flat mile pace. It was too much for Fisher, who still finished a very respectable 9th in 3:52.00. But Haney hung with the eventual silver and bronze medalists until the final straight. His reward was the highest finish ever by an American in the WY 1500 in 5th, with a huge PR and US#1 3:44.69. Coupled with the 7th-place finish of West Virginian Jacob Burcham for Team USA in the 2011 WY, Americans are becoming more and more competitive in global youth middle distance.
6. Continued shining girls mid-distance
Not to be outdone by any stretch, Team USA’s girls had their best collective effort in the middle distances as well – even without Mary Cain. Indeed, had the Bronxville NY prep who now trains with Alberto Salazar and competes against pros NOT made Team USA for the Moscow IAAF World Champs (Senior), she was slated to enter the Youth Trials and would have likely been an overwhelming favorite for two gold medals – with the WY leading times in the 800 and 1500.
But so amazing is the girls prep middle and long-distance scene in the U.S. right now that Team USA could miss their top runner and still get a bronze. Three of the top four preps in 1500 history competed this year and while Camas WA junior Alexa Efraimson was “merely” #3 on that list, she competed fiercely – emphasis on the word “fiercely” – for the gold in Donetsk. With multiple sub-4:20s on her spring record coming in, it was hoped she would battle the Africans and, in the end, only a pair of Ethiopians could outlast her. Efraimson’s 4:16.07 was the fastest ever by a U.S. prep at WY and her bronze has only been topped by Jordan Hasay’s silver in 2007. And, for the second straight WY, Team USA had two finalists with San Lorenzo Valley CA junior Anna Maxwell acquitting herself quite well in 9th at 4:23.75.
Meanwhile, in the 800, Team USA hit historic heights in 2011 WY when Ajee Wilson struck gold and Amy Weissenbach took fourth. This time around was nearly as good, as the aforementioned (Swedish Medley gold winner) Raevyn Rogers paced herself through three rounds, battled for gold in the final, and came up with bronze – the second American girls’ 800 medal ever at WY. Her time of 2:03.32 was nearly as fast as Wilson’s 2011 winner and moved her to 10th on the all-time list. And it has to be said that had Rogers not eased up right at the line, she would have had silver. Grosse Pointe South MI soph Ersula Farrow also impressed mightily, making the final on her 2:06.75 PR in the semis before running out of gas in the final and taking 8th. Two 1500 AND two 800 finalists for Team USA in two consecutive WY, and three medals out of it? We’ll take it!
7. Don’t forget Washington’s double ... and leadership
It’s easy to imagine that in her dreams, Long Beach Poly CA junior Ariana Washington would have emerged as a double gold medalist in the 100 and 200. And, as she was dominated the California Southern Section Prelims, Finals and Masters, then State Finals and Great Southwest – all on successive weeks – she looked like someone who could do just that. In reality, it was Ky Westbrook who was in absolute peak form at the Trials and in Donetsk, capturing those 100s, and Irene Ekelund who stormed to victory in the 200 in a WY-leading 22.92. Keep in mind that in all her efforts, however, Washington was within a few 100ths of her PRs. She just couldn’t summon the needed career-best efforts after the long CIF grind. But in capturing silver and bronze, she joined names like Bianca Knight and Ashton Purvis as double 100-200 medalists.
There was something else about Washington, though, that will remain in the mind long after the numbers fade and are replaced by fresh ones. Seeing her at the Trials, and noting her presence through the lens of others in Donetsk, one gets the sense of watching the burgeoning maturation of a true leader. It would not be surprising at all to someday see her captaining an NCAA championship team, or World Junior, World Senior, or even Olympic teams. Poly has long been the home of tons of relay and individual champions, and from those have emerged many leaders of those champions. Little doubt Washington is the latest of those ... and she could be the greatest.
8. More than expected from Moore
When the World Youth Championships began, Hugh Cummings NC junior Isaiah Moore was ranked 22nd of all the 110H entries and 22nd of all the long jump entries. No doubt the talent was there and maybe Moore could squeak in one of the finals, if he had a great qualifier.
Well, Moore had what can be best described as a “great week,” and he definitely added a big spark to Team USA on the boys’ side. The only athlete on the American roster pulling duties on both the track and in the field, Moore started Wednesday with a nice PR 24-4.25 in his LJ prelim, easily making the final. Thursday, he PRd in the morning 110H heats, qualifying 4th to the semis at 13.66, then in the evening wowed pundits and fans with another LJ PR of 24-8.5 and captured an unexpected bronze. Finally, on Friday Moore hit 13.66 in the 110H semis and 13.68 in the final – not quite enough for a medal, but pretty darn good for someone who wasn’t in the top 20 going in. Relative to his entry creds, he was without a doubt one of the week’s top Team USA performers.
9. Roth’s the real deal
With Bailey Roth, it wasn’t a matter of whether the Coronado CO junior had the ability to make the WYC 2k steeple final and place high. He had already shown that ability in eye-popping fashion with an unlooked-for 5:49.24 runaway victory at NBNO in his first concerted effort at the distance. In case anyone at all thought that performance was a fluke, he improved to 5:47.42 in the WY Trials. Veteran analyst Mike Kennedy has encouraged in his past writings for DyeStat athletes with 4:10-15 mile talent, who might not quite be the best at that event or the 1,500, to give the steeple a try. Roth is a great example of someone who did that.
So the question was, could he handle the immensely improved level of competition and the pressure at WY? The answer was yes, as Roth first qualified for the final with an even better mark of 5:45.20, good for US#2 all-time, then ran nearly as fast in the final while taking 7th in 5:45.87. Not surprisingly, it was the best showing ever for a male U.S. steeplechaser at World Youth.
10. Vertical lows, throwers woes
If there were a few event categories that will be looked upon for improvement – either in personnel or better performances from said personnel, it would be in the vertical jumps and throws. Team USA captured a single throws medal – the bronze from Liberty NV jr Ashlie Blake in the girls shot put – and no medals in the high jump and pole vault.
In the throws, the next highest finishes after Blake were her Liberty teammate Reno Tuufuli in the discus (7th) and #2 girls shot putter Lena Giger of Highland IL (8th). Team USA was two for four in getting in other shot and discus finalists, and one for two in the hammer. No one was selected for the team in the javelin, though it seemed there may have been a few more potential finalists there.
In the vertical jumps, there were a few strong medal candidates, but although five reached finals, no one PR’d and the best finish was 4th by Paulo Benevides in the boys’ PV. All that said, these shouldn’t be considered trends, for the most part. Two years ago, we had boys shot and discus and girls’ discus medalists, a 4th in the girls’ jav, and boys HJ and PV medalists.
11. Record-high medals, record-low golds
It’s simple on the surface: Team USA won a record-high 17 medals. They also won a record-low two gold medals. The first statement is probably the most significant, because it represents a trend of the American Youth having captured 16, 16 and 17 medals in the past three WYC. This time, there was certainly the potential for 20 or more, as well. It’s also significant that Team USA had 31 top eight (scoring on the IAAF Placing Table) performances, just one off the all-time best. There isn’t any reason to think these numbers will decrease in the future.
As far as the gold medal shortage, there were a few cases of serious Team USA gold contenders winning lesser medals, and a few of said gold contenders not medaling at all. The aforementioned injuries to Cotton and especially Humphrey might have represented the loss of a gold or two, as well. And, let’s face it, there were some cases of outstanding international competitors simply being better than our best. Americans typically win half a dozen or so golds at Worlds and, unless subsequent championships again result in low totals, it’s probably not a number to be concerned about.
12. Glass half-full or half-empty
There’s almost always at least a short (or not so short) list, for any major Youth or Junior championship, of athletes you wish had competed for a Team USA berth ... but for whatever reason, they did not. Think of what some of the following athletes might have done had they’d embarked on the path to Donetsk:
- Sprints: WY#4 10.42 100 (10.33w)/#6 21.05 200 Myles Valentine CA and #5 10.44 100/#4 20.99 200 Paul Lucas AZ
- Distances: WY#1 1:59.51 800/#1 4:04.62 1500 Mary Cain NY, WY#4 4:15.07 1500 Elise Cranny CO
- Jumps: WY#1 7-3 HJ Randall Cunningham NV, WY#4 16-10.75 PV Barrett Poth AZ, WY#5 24-11.75 LJ/#5 50-11.5 TJ Nate Moore CA, WY#4 6-0 HJ Vashti Cunningham NV, WY#5 13-8 PV Kaitlyn Merritt CA
- Throws: WY#3 165-4 DT Adriana Brown IN
There was also the unfortunate DQ of Texan Chris Platt (WY#1 46.64 400) at the Trials.
On the other hand, consider this: Of the 48 spots where the U.S. fielded athletes and relay teams, 37 made the finals. That’s well over 75 percent and pretty darn good. It’s not always easy to attract distance runners to the WY Trials, but USATF got about as good as you could hope for with Haney and Efraimson (and had a deep boys 1,500 Trials race) – given that they weren’t going to get Cain. We missed a few boys’ sprinters, but pretty much all of the girls’ sprint and hurdles standouts went for it. Yes, there were some field-event standouts for both genders that passed it up, but for every star that sat out, there were 2-3 that competed for berths. There’s no question that the advent of the WY Trials in 2009 is producing better and better teams with each WYC. By continuing to tweak the selection process as needed and with the positive forces that are growing the sport in the U.S., the future looks very bright.