After breaking the 4x800 world record, athletes ask: Why aren't there more African-American distance runners?

AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

From left: Chrishuna Williams, Charlene Lipsey, Ajee Wilson and Raevyn Rogers pose after winning the women's 4x800 relay race in the Millrose Games.

For the first time in history, American women hold the indoor world record for the 4x800 relay event.

Middle-distance runners and teammates Chrishuna Williams, 24, Raevyn Rogers, 21, Charlene Lipsey, 26, and anchor Ajee Wilson, 23, made history with a time of 8 minutes, 5.89 seconds at the Millrose Games in New York City last Saturday. The quad shattered the time of 8:06.50 set by the Russian team of Aleksandra Bulanova, Ekaterina Sharmina, Elena Kotulskaya and Anna Balakshina in 2011.

Not only did the four women, coached by Derek Thompson and Chris Johnson, cross the finish line in record-breaking time, they also helped open the door for African-American distance runners.

USA Track & Field has produced some of the most competitive sprinters in the world. From four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens, who dominated the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to Allyson Felix, the most decorated U.S. woman in Olympic track history with nine medals and counting, elite African-American runners have consistently been revered for their speed. Comparatively, African-American runners have historically been less successful in the middle- and long-distance events.

The possible reason?

Thompson, who has more than 25 years of coaching experience, sites culture, geography and weather as barriers of entry for African-American runners, specifically in the Northeast and Midwest regions of the country. "It's a combination of things. Most African-American athletes are in inner cities. They lack the space to train," he said, though he acknowledges this is just a theory. 

The U.S. women were well aware that they could break the world record, but they didn't dwell on it. Instead, on race day their collective mindset was to focus on individual performances. Running their best splits would lead to the desired outcome. "We knew what each leg had to run to get the job done," Wilson shared in a phone interview a few days after the race. And when it was time for Wilson, who holds the U.S. record for the 800-meter individual event, to bring it home after a successful exchange from Lipsey, she told herself "Don't mess this up," as making history went from a distant thought to within reach.

With their world record entering the books, the quad had a moment to digest the significance of their achievement and how their win could impact the future of the sport. "I didn't even know that was a thing," Wilson admitted with a chuckle shared by Lipsey. And Rogers, who was competing in her first professional 800-meter event, couldn't believe it either. She said, "It's hard to believe that some world records are still able to be broken [in 2018].

"When I saw the lineup, I was like, oh, it's four black girls. This is what track and field and our culture needs," Rogers added. Coach Johnson, with 16 years of experience, agrees the sport can benefit from greater representation among African-American middle- and long-distance runners. "It can help boost popularity and exposure to those disciplines," he said.

If having their names etched in the history books isn't enough to change the narrative associated with African-Americans and distance running, the champions, who remain humble despite their new accomplishments, want their running to speak for itself. Lipsey, who converted to the 800 after not having the speed to successfully compete as a 400-meter runner, quietly boasted, "You can say what you want to say [about black American middle-distance runners], but time don't lie." While Rogers simply acknowledged that "change takes time."

Rogers, who's just getting started in her career and has her sights set on breaking an individual record, embraces the importance of being a role model: "You see most black runners associated with sprints, not really with distance. So for the four of us to come together and have this accomplishment, it was significant and really inspired some of the high schoolers at the track." She added: "Young black girls have someone who's actually doing this event in their sport, not too far from their age. We're the new wave."

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