This is going to be a hot one. The 2015 USATF Outdoor Championships this week will be a real scorcher. Daytime temperatures are expected in the 90s – including forecasts of 99 degrees on Friday and 98 on Saturday – and athletes will be burning up the track to make the team that will compete at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Aug. 22-30.
With competition running Thursday through Sunday at historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, here are 10 storylines to follow:
1. Already Qualified
The Road to Beijing in August is Easy Street for 11 athletes who have earned byes, thus garnering four spots in their events for Team USA at worlds instead of the customary three. All they have to do is compete in an event – any event – at the national championships to punch their tickets.
Five are defending world champions: LaShawn Merritt (400-meter), David Oliver (110-meter hurdles), Ashton Eaton (decathlon), Brittney Reese (long jump) and Brianna Rollins (100-meter hurdles). Six earned byes by winning 2014 Diamond League crowns: Justin Gatlin (100-meter), Michael Tinsley (400-meter hurdles), Allyson Felix (200-meter), Jenny Simpson (1,500-meter), Christian Taylor (triple jump) and Reese Hoffa (shot put). Alas, Diamond League champs Dawn Harper-Nelson (100-meter hurdles) and Tianna Bartoletta (long jump) didn’t qualify for a bye because the U.S. already has a reigning world champ in their events.
2. Regaining The Top Spot
Expectations are high for Team USA to regain the top of the medal table at the iconic Bird’s Nest Stadium, which hosted the 2008 Olympic Games. The world championships are the last major track and field event before the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and can be a barometer of future success.
Team USA won six gold, 15 silver and five bronze medals — a championships-high 25 total medals — at the 2013 worlds in Moscow. Home team Russia, though, had seven gold medals to lead the gold-medal table despite only 17 total medals.
3. Gatlin, Gay Lead Men’s Sprints
The fastest man in the world this year won’t run the 100. Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist and 2013 world silver medalist, has this season’s top two times: 9.74 seconds, run at Doha in May, and 9.75 at Rome in June. However, since Gatlin has a bye, he’ll save his energy for upcoming Diamond League events in Europe and compete only in the 200, where he also has the world-leading time of 19.68 seconds. Gatlin ran that blistering time at Hayward Field, giving TrackTown USA fans hope for a repeat performance.
Tyson Gay is the third-fastest man in the 100 this year, having run 9.88, followed by Mike Rodgers and Baylor University sophomore Trayvon Bromell, both at 9.90. Gay, who withdrew from the U.S. team prior to the 2013 world championships because of a doping violation and served a one-year suspension, is anxious to return to the big stage. Still the American record holder at 9.69 seconds, Gay has repeatedly apologized for making a mistake and promised to check all of his supplements.
By the way, while Jamaica’s Asafa Powell ranks No. 2 in the world at 9.84 seconds, world record holder Usain Bolt’s best time in the 100 so far is 10.12 from April, which puts him in a six-way tie at 49th. Bolt will race the 100 at the Jamaican world trials, which also begin Thursday.
In the 200, Dedric Dukes of the University of Florida is the only athlete besides Gatlin to run under 20 seconds this year, clocking 19.99 seconds. Despite running the second-fastest qualifying time in the semis at last year’s nationals, Dukes aggravated an injury warming up for the final and was unable to compete. Another collegiate runner, Ameer Webb of Texas A&M, has run 20.02 this year.
4. Will Stowers Lead A Hurdles Sweep?
The U.S. is loaded in the women’s 100-meter hurdles and could go 1-2-3-4 in Beijing. Jasmin Stowers has been practically unstoppable this season, posting the top three times in world this year of 12.35, 12.39 and 12.40 seconds. Even after hitting a hurdle midway through her race in the Rome Diamond League meet and stumbling, she posted a finishing time of 25 seconds. Kendra Harrison has run 12.50 and Sharika Nelvis 12.52, while Harper-Nelson, Queen Harrison and Lolo Jones are definitely in the mix. And, of course, Rollins has the wild card. Earlier this month, Olympic champion Sally Pearson of Australia broke her wrist on a fall in Rome so badly that she thought her left hand would have to be amputated. With Pearson out for the rest of the season, that clears the way for a U.S. sweep at worlds.
5. Watch Out, Symmonds
While Nick Symmonds, the reigning 800-meter world silver medalist, was attracting a new audience by competing on the television show “American Ninja Warrior,” Boris Berian made a stealth attack on the world rankings. A year ago, Berian was working at a McDonald’s and had a personal best of 1:48. He lowered that this season to 1:43.84 to rank No. 5 in the world. No other U.S. runner has broken 1:44 this season. Don’t count Symmonds out, though. When the pressure’s on, he’s been known to fight his way to the front of the pack.
6. Long Distance Kings
All eyes will be on Galen Rupp of the Nike Oregon Project in the 5,000 and 10,000. Allegations of doping and unethical behavior have been made against Rupp and his coach, Alberto Salazar, which they have firmly denied. Rupp is the Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000, becoming the first U.S. man to medal in the event since 1964. In the 5,000, Bernard Lagat is 40 years old and aiming for his fifth straight world championships team. Lagat was the world silver medalist in 2011 in the 5,000, bronze medalist in the 1,500 in 2009 and won both events in 2007.
Ben True, who is also doubling in the 5,000 and 10,000, is looking strong this season, and so is Diego Estrada, who competed for Mexico at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Estrada is now a U.S. citizen and won the USATF half-marathon championships in January.
7. Fresh Faces Line Women’s Sprints
Some new faces could make the Beijing starting line in the women’s sprints. University of Oregon superstar Jenna Prandini, 22, is entered in the 100, 200 and also the long jump. At the NCAA Championships earlier this month in Eugene, Prandini won the 100 and placed second in the 200 and long jump. She’ll face stiff competition in the sprints from Tori Bowie, 24, who competed at the 2014 IAAF World Indoor Championships in the long jump. At this meet, Bowie is only racing on the track. She clocked 10.82 to win the Pre Classic in Eugene in late May to grab the No. 3 world ranking in the 100, while former Oregon sprinter English Gardner has run 10.84 and Prandini 10.92.
Teen sensation Kaylin Whitney, who turned pro earlier this year on her 17th birthday, posted a time of 11.10 last year in the 100 and later won the bronze in the 100 and gold in the 200 at the IAAF World Junior Championships. However, she lost her American junior record on Saturday to a 16-year-old. Candace Hill, the first high school girl to break 11 seconds, ran a blistering 10.98 in Seattle. Hill, alas, won’t compete in Eugene. She is focusing on the world youth trials later this month.
In the 200, Dezerea Bryant has run 22.18, followed by Prandini at 22.21 and Bowie at 22.23. Jeneba Tarmoh leads the Diamond League standings in the event.
8. What Will Felix Race At Worlds?
Allyson Felix, who fell to the track injured in the 200-meter final at the 2013 IAAF World Championships, will race only the 400 in Eugene. Although she has the bye for the 200 in Beijing and the world-leading time of 21.98, she won’t double like she did in Daegu, Korea, four years ago. The 400 final is an hour before the 200 semifinal this go-round. Felix has said she will make her decision after the 400 at nationals.
Francena McCorory, who runs with her eyes closed, has been running lights out, with four of the top eight times this season. Her best is 49.86, followed by Olympic champion Sanya Richards-Ross at 49.95 and Felix at 50.05.
9. Everyone Comes Out For Long Jump
Jeff Henderson, who leads the long jump field with a leap of 27 feet, 10 ¾ inches, will have to hold off two top collegians, an Olympic champion decathlete and a football player. Marquis Dendy of Florida, who won the long jump and triple jump at the NCAA titles for a total of seven crowns, has jumped 27-4 ½, the same distance as Jarrion Lawson of Arkansas. Eaton, the decathlete, only needs to make one jump to activate his wild card for worlds. Eaton was supposed to compete in his first decathlon since the 2013 world championships in Austria in May but had to pull out due to a lower back injury.
Marquise Goodwin, the Buffalo Bills wide receiver who finished 10th in long jump at the London 2012 Olympic Games, petitioned into the meet. This will be his first meet since London. If he makes the team for Beijing, he would miss part of the Bills’ training camp, which runs from July 31-Aug. 25. The Bills also have preseason games Aug. 14, Aug. 20 and Aug. 29.
10. 1,500 Brings Big Names
Jenny Simpson has been running away with the 1,500, clocking 3:59.31 in Rome in the fastest race of the season. Simpson, who has won four U.S. titles in three different events, and Shannon Rowbury will continue their rivalry. Morgan Uceny, who last year fell for the third time in a major 1,500, will try to not only stay on her feet, but stave off Sarah Brown and Alexa Efraimson, who have been running well this year. Efraimson has been overshadowed by another runner who turned pro at age 17: former world team member Mary Cain. However, Cain, the 2014 runner-up in the 1,500, has struggled this year as a University of Portland freshman. She moved from Portland back to her home in New York, though she is still reportedly in communication with Salazar. Heather Kampf has been on fire on the road circuit and will attempt to carry that momentum onto the track.
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.