Symmonds Leads American Medal Hopes In Middle Distances

A thread was posted on the Letsrun.com message boards two years ago asking “Which American males have a shot at an Olympic medal (800m – Marathon) in 2012?” As 2012 begins, I wanted to devote a post to addressing the question on both the men’s and women’s side of the distance events. Today, we’ll start with the men’s middle distance events.

Before I get started, I want to lay down one ground rule that seems to apply to every Olympic American distance success – championship experience. Many runners have expressed the shock and awe of walking into a stadium of 90,000 cheering fans for the first time but are more prepared for the experience the second or third time around. Athens 2004 marathon medalists Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor were both making their second Olympic appearances, as was Shalane Flanagan when she won bronze in the Beijing.

Additionally, I want to point out that a lot can change in the months before the 2012 Trials roll around. Some crash while others rise. Nobody could have predicted in early 2008 that two OTC runners and a lanky Vermont-raised U of O harrier would have made the team in the 800.

Men’s 800 meters

The men’s 800m is traditionally the event that is most difficult to predict in all of track and field. The nature of the race means one tactical error at an inopportune time can destroy an athlete’s medal chances. Just look at recent Olympic history. Germany’s Nils Schumann came from nowhere to win in Sydney while former world record holder and perennial championship favorite Wilson Kipketer was never able to win the elusive gold. Additionally, no one tactic has proven to be most effective in winning championships. Yuriy Borzakovskiy of Russia utilized his signature finishing kick to take the win in Athens, but Kenyan Wilfred Bungei, notorious for front running, led wire-to-wire in Beijing and was able to hold off the masses to snatch the gold medal.

Things have changed in this regard with the emergence of David Rudisha. With his win in Daegu, the world record holder has shown the ability to win in fast rabbited races in addition to slower, more tactical affairs of championship races. Though he was beaten at the end of 2011, no one has consistently shown the ability to hang with the blistering pace Rudisha likes to go out in while also matching his finishing speed.

Despite these patterns, I feel that the sit and kick tactic still works best in a championship race setting, and none in the United States has perfected his technique as well as Nick Symmonds. Whether it was his breakthrough race at the Pre Classic in 2007 or the now legendary win at the 2008 Olympic Trials, Symmonds has sprinted by his competitors to achieve victory on a number of occasions on the domestic scene.

Now the question is whether he can do the same internationally. After failing to make it through the rounds of the Osaka and Beijing championships, the Oregon Track Club icon finally made it to the Berlin final but struggled to navigate around a 10 man final, finishing sixth, 0.42 seconds behind the winner. Then in Daegu, he was in prime medal contention in fourth place with 250 meters remaining but made the tactical error of allowing runners on his outside to box him in and ultimately finished fifth.

Despite these previous championship struggles, Symmonds is continually honing his tactics in Diamond League races. If he can manage to make the final, which isn’t an easy task, he’ll have a decent shot beating a few guys and cracking the top three.  Symmonds’s odds of medaling: 8 to 1.

Andrew Wheating is another potential medal contender. Although he has a very strong chance of making the team in the 800 meters if he chooses to, reaching the podium at the next level will be very difficult given his lack of international championships racing experience.

Among other names often discussed include Robby Andrews and Khadevis Robinson, two athletes whose chances I dismiss for two very different reasons. Andrews should really be focusing on qualifying for the team. He’s simply is too young and inexperienced on the big stage to really make an impact in London – although I did say the same of Matt Centrowitz in 2011 and he went on to prove me very wrong. Robinson is a strong threat on the domestic scene but has failed to make a World or Olympic final in each of his eight attempts. No reason to think it’ll be any different in 2012.

Men’s 1500 meters

Since the retirement of the king of the mile, Hicham El Guerrouj, championship 1500m races have followed a general pattern of going out at a very moderate pace, around 2:00 through 800m, and have finished hard, finishing in the mid-3:30s. The winning times at the last four  international competitions have been 3:34.77 (Bernard Lagat – 2007), 3:33.11 (Asbel Kiprop – 2008), 3:35.93 (Yusef Saad Kamel – 2009) and 3:35.69 (Kiprop – 2011).

Given these variables, which Americans have the best shot at medaling in London? Lagat has pretty much moved on from his days in the mile, leaving the mantle to Centrowitz, the 2011 World bronze medalist, and  three other contenders – Lopez Lomong, Leo Manzano and Wheating.

Matt Centrowitz had a truly remarkable year in 2011. Most, including myself, thought the Oregon junior had peaked after double victories at the NCAA and USA Championships but yet he kept on going with solid Diamond League outings in Paris and Monaco and ultimately claiming the bronze in Daegu. What impressed me the most about Centrowitz was his racing savvy. He never exhibited fear in a race regardless if he was competing in a collegiate dual meet or in the World final against the likes of Kiprop and Kiplagat

Assuming he follows the normal progression trend, Centro should be in contention for a second international medal. But as we saw with Andrew Wheating’s sophomore slump in 2011, it’s very hard for a young athlete to transition to the life of a professional runner and replicate extraordinary success of the previous year. As long as he can find himself on the start line of the 1500 final, he’s got as good as a shot as anyone does. Centrowitz’s odds of medaling: 10 to 1.

Lomong made his first World final in Berlin where he finished eighth, almost two seconds behind the winner.  Despite being a two-time U.S. champion, he had never placed very high in a loaded European 1500m race.  When he set his personal best of 3:32.20 in Monaco in 2010, he was only in sixth place. Lomong joined the Jerry Schumacher camp in 2011 but struggled when it came down to the kick at USA’s. Lopez has generally closed pretty well in domestic races, good enough to make teams in 2008 and 2009 but hasn’t shown the same ability in bigger races.  Unless he drastically develops his finish, he can make the final, but I don’t see him finishing higher than sixth place.  Lomong’s odds of medaling: 35 to 1.

Leo Manzano has a very different dilemma from Lomong.  He has been able to kick with the world’s best in certain instances but hasn’t been able to do so consistently.  He finished second at the 2009 World Athletic Final and had several top Diamond League finishes in 2010, a very promising sign for the former University of Texas miler. However, he has also performed very poorly in equally important races when he fell off the pace early. Like Lomong, Manzano had a difficult 2011 season in which he never got in a groove of good performances and ultimately failed to qualify for the World final. In the end, Leo needs to improve on hanging onto the pace when the Kenyans start pushing it 600 meters out. If he can, few can match his final 100 meters, making him a prime candidate to be the Nick Willis of 2012 and landing on the podium.  Manzano’s odds of medaling: 20 to 1.

Andrew Wheating’s chances are the most difficult to prognosticate given his up-and-down professional career thus far.  After dominating the NCAA scene for a number of years, he stepped up to the big stage in 2010 by setting massive personal bests of 1:44.56 and 3:30.90. The high expectations Wheating set for himself ultimately proved to be too steep. Injuries in the winter cut his early preparation and prevented him from ever getting on track in 2011.  If the Duck star can regain his fitness of 2010 and further hone his sit-and-kick tactics in the big European races, he can still be a threat in London.  Wheating’s odds of medaling: 25 to 1.

Other Americans will be in contention to make the team in 2012 but none are likely to be factors at the Olympics. Among them is Will Leer, a perennial top-5 performer at USA’s and could step it up to make the team. A giant question mark is Alan Webb. Webb left Alberto Salazar’s group early in 2011 and suffered from a series of injuries that forced him to miss nationals and the rest of the season. If Webb can regain some of the magic from the summer of 2007, he could be a contender.

Men’s 3000m steeplechase:

Americans have basically no shot at medaling in the steeple. This is an event that Kenyans have dominated with an occasional European grabbing a medal.  The pace typically goes out hard and stays hard.  All the medalists from the Berlin World Championships ran faster in those races than Dan Lincoln’s American record of 8:08.82, making the task of reaching the podium nearly impossible for a U.S. athlete.  Additionally, only one American, Anthony Famiglietti in 2008, has reached the final of a World or Olympic championship since Lincoln.

The only man I will even address is Dan Huling.  He broke out with a 8:13.29 personal best in 2010, moving himself to fifth on the American all-time list. 2011 didn’t go as well for Huling. Despite making the World team, he struggled with injuries throughout the summer and ultimately failed to make it out of the rounds in Daegu. Huling’s steady improvement through 2009 and 2010 was promising, but he’ll need a massive improvement to even have a prayer of doing anything in London.  Huling’s odds of medaling: 100 to 1.

Topics: London 2012

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