DES MOINES, Iowa -- This is the “off year” for the U.S. track and field team, with no Olympic Games or IAAF World Championships this summer.
Yet hundreds of athletes are pouring into Drake Stadium for the 2018 USATF Outdoor Championships this week because, after all, there are still national titles at stake.
And these athletes have every intention of being “on.”
Here are eight storylines to follow for the meet, which is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. Tune in Friday at 11 p.m. ET on NBCSN, and Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m. on NBC to watch some of the country’s best track and field stars in action.
1. Will We See A New Men’s 100-meter Champ?
Some of the biggest names in U.S. track and field – including Allyson Felix, Justin Gatlin, Christian Coleman and Brittney Reese – have chosen to skip the meet, either to save their legs for meets down the road or in Coleman’s case, heal an injured hamstring. That leaves the door open for new faces and perhaps new national champions. Gatlin and Coleman went 1-2 at the 2017 world championships in London, but neither are high on the world list this season. Ronnie Baker was the world leader at 9.93 seconds until four sprinters beat that time earlier this month. Two-time U.S. champ Michael Rodgers (2009 and 2014) and Isiah Young ran 9.92, along with Jimmy Vicaut of France, while Zharnel Hughes of Great Britain ran 9.91. Noah Lyles, the 200-meter sensation who will race only the 100 here, also clocked 9.93.
With that much firepower, Team USA will try to regain the world lead in Des Moines. On the heels of the retirement of Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, “There’s a lot of talk about who’s going to be the next guy,” Baker said. “I’m just lucky to be in the conversation.” Baker added that the absence of Coleman – whom he beat twice earlier this year – and Gatlin “definitely doesn’t diminish the value of winning this meet at all.”
2. Stars Are Exploring Unfamiliar Territory
Other stars are competing here in events that are not their specialties. Sydney McLaughlin, a 2016 Olympian in the 400-meter hurdles who has the world-leading time of 52.75 seconds, will run the 400 – but without hurdles. Kori Carter, the 2017 world champion in the 400 hurdles, will run the 100-meter hurdles. Christian Taylor, the two-time Olympic champion in the triple jump, will run the 400. And Gwen Jorgensen, who won the historic gold medal in women’s triathlon at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, has zeroed in on road racing with her eye on the marathon and is entered in the 10,000-meter.
3. Sydney McLaughlin Ditches The Hurdles
McLaughlin’s choice is the most intriguing. The 18-year-old freshman at Kentucky won her first NCAA title before announcing she was turning pro, but has yet to win a USATF crown. She was the youngest track and field athlete in 44 years at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, where she made the semis in the 400 hurdles. She has the top two marks in the 400 hurdles in the world this year of 52.75 seconds, which would have won both the 2016 Olympics and the 2017 worlds. Dalilah Muhammad, the Olympic champion, is skipping the meet in Des Moines, which made one fewer obstacle for McLaughlin in the event. However, she opted for the 400, where she is tied for sixth internationally with a time of 50.07 – an improvement of more than a second in the past year. Kendall Ellis is the top American racing in Des Moines with a time of 49.99 while Lynna Irby (49.80), the NCAA champion from Georgia, will not compete at nationals – which comes at the end of a very long year for collegiate competitors. Neither will Phyllis Francis, the 2017 world champion. In the 400 hurdles, only 13 competitors are eligible, so the first round of heats may have to be canceled. Georganne Moline and Shamier Little are the top contenders in the 400 hurdles.
4. Kidney Power!
Can Aries Merritt win his first national title since 2012 in the 110-meter hurdles? Merritt, the 2012 Olympic champion who had a kidney transplant in 2015, was second last year behind Aleec Harris. Harris is back, as well as two-time national champion Devon Allen. Grant Holloway of Florida has the No. 2 time in the world this year of 13.15 seconds.
5. It’s Hammer Time
Throwers Gwen Berry and DeAnna Price have nailed down the top two marks in the world this year. That’s an unprecedented feat for Team USA, which has never before had the No. 1 and No. 2 performers on the IAAF list. Berry threw 77.78 meters while Price threw 77.65 meters. Anita Wlodarczyk of Poland, the Olympic and world champion, ranks third. Price has been the most consistent, with three of the top six marks. Berry and Price, who both attended Southern Illinois and are 2016 Olympians, train together and push each other.
6. Women’s Triple Jump Comes To The Forefront
The women’s triple jump, which has often been overshadowed at the national championships, also has one of the hottest rivalries in the field events. Tori Franklin broke the American record in the event with a mark of 14.84 meters. That mark was held by Keturah Orji, who set it en route to placing fourth at the Rio Games. She has gone 14.62 meters this year. Orji is coming off her fourth straight NCAA title in the triple jump for Georgia and also won the long jump. Last year, Orji beat Franklin by a foot and a half at nationals. Franklin said of Orji, “She’s got a great career, I’m sure she’s going to be doing some great things in the future, and I’m glad to have her by my side.”
7. Going Head To Head
Other top head-to-head matchups include Jenny Simpson and Shelby Houlihan in the women’s 1,500-meter and Ryan Crouser and Joe Kovacs in the men’s shot put, with Darrell Hill also in the mix. Houlihan, a Rio Olympian in the 5,000, passed Simpson in a thrilling finish at the Pre Classic in late May and will try to keep Simpson from winning her fifth straight U.S. title in the 1,500. Crouser, who defeated Kovacs to win the gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, has 23 of the top 24 throws this year. But never count out Kovacs, the 2015 world champion, who can uncork a big throw.
8. Forming The Inaugural World Cup Team
Who will emerge as members of the Athletics World Cup team? This is the newest event in international track and field and will be held July 14-15 in London, which went wild over the world championships last year. The United States, Jamaica, China, France, Germany, Great Britain, South Africa and Poland will field one competitor apiece on the track from the 100 through the 1,500 (plus hurdles and relays) and in eight field events. The top finisher in these events at nationals will have the option to compete in London.