In recent memory few can remember a U.S. Olympic Trials where the 10k would be either interesting, close or have medal implications at the Olympic Games themselves. All of the above can be checked off in the 2012 go-around at Hayward Field on Friday.
Currently there are eight runners in the men’s race that hold the all-crucial ‘A’ standard of 27:45 or under, which is remarkable in itself, as well as a further five athletes within eight seconds of that most agonizing of marks to summit. Gone are the days when but two or three Americans are able to have the required standard and the rest were merely running the trials in what amounted to a ferocious time trial to meet the standard.
In 2004 we were able to witness a young collegiate named Dathan Ritzenhein qualify to the Athens Games by merely finishing the race – albeit with pained cadence as he was severely injured – because he was third holder of a qualifying ‘A’ standard. Gladly those days of drought in American distance running have been rid of by the new crop of distance talent which has lowered times and gathered several groups across the country to become viable contenders. Even Mr. Ritzenhein is back eight years later though searching for an ‘A’ standard but this time. He should have company in the effort to produce the required time and the company will be excellent.
What is not clear is who among or what exact order out of the pool of runners will emerge as Olympians. However we do know that one of the three places should be a near lock with American record holder and wunderkind Galen Rupp returning to his home track to place a flight to London in his first of two events. Looking strong at the recent Pre Classic at Hayward, Rupp was confident and relaxed as he broke 13 minutes for 5k and placed third behind training partner and Olympic favorite Mo Farah. I find it hard barring extreme mishap – or high pollen count – that Rupp has any difficulty in winning the 10k handily despite strong competitors.
An interesting possibility however would be that Rupp aids partner and fellow Salazar adherent Ritzenhein to make the team through a pacing strategy. If this plays out look for Rupp to try and control pace, lead Ritzenhein through at goal splits and then pull off for a win. This though requires that the other runners allow such a thing to happen and I find that to be a hard scene to envision with hungry competitors wanting to be in the qualifying spots and not ceding their race plan to a Salazar-designed trap which guarantees his athletes a qualification while leaving the rest out in the cold. Whichever way it plays out, Rupp should be in control of his own fate and Ritzenhein must overcome to race hard and beat others while getting his mark, a tall feat for a man just returning to consistent trace shape. I personally see this as being another Houston, where Ritzenhein may finish on the cusp of top three but overwhelmed by more race-prepared men.
Other contenders include newly graduated Stanford superstar Chris Derrick who uncorked a 27:31 time and is seemingly ready for taking on international caliber athletes that he will face in Eugene. His lack of a NCAA title may be forgotten with a visit to London. I have this guy grabbing a top three spot despite the chance of fatigue from a long collegiate season. His maturity and talent have been showcased and I see him being this Olympic’s Ritzenhein of 2004 or Rupp of 2008 by going straight from college to being a U.S. representative in the distances.
Two Schumacher athletes have both the standard and a chance of placing and that is Matt Tegenkamp and Brent Vaughn. Despite some recent sub optimal races for Tegenkamp, his PR’s, world experience and raw ability make for a dangerous threat to place. His speed is exceptional for a 10k runner and if the race is close it makes him a favorite. Vaughn, the former CU Buffalo and U.S. cross country champion, has run an impressive 27:40 and has been improving steadily since joining the Portland group. A tough competitor and strong rather than quick athlete, he could be the beneficiary of a faster pace which could develop out of necessity of the non-standard holders.
From the remaining athletes who have the ‘A’ Bobby Curtis comes in with the second fastest seed time at 27:24 but has suffered ups and downs in racing. Tim Nelson, another former Badger, is known to pull of surprises despite a lack of notoriety and consistent Ben True of Saucony can mix with the faster pack.
As for those not sporting an ‘A’, Ryan Vail, Aaron Braun and Scott Bauhs are familiar with big time racing and must not be written off. These three constitute a group which I foresee making the pace honest and wanting to make the squad through a qualifying time in Eugene which is not a simple task. Without the time none are going to London.
Whatever the outcome the spectators and American fans should be glad to know that their team is filled with legitimate contenders which was absent during the distance drought of the mid 1990’s to early 2000’s.
As for personal choices, Rupp is going, no questions asked in my mind. Vaughn, not fellow Buffalo Ritzenhein, is set to qualify with strong racing and confidence behind him and the collegiate force of nature. Derrick, who despite the nagging lack of an NCAA title has produced outstanding performances while smiling the entire time.
That’s an image we should get accustomed to viewing over the week’s events.