Women ready to make history -- and memories -- at NCAA track and field championship
The steady crescendo of spring NCAA titles will reach its finality this weekend in the Pacific Northwest, when the women's title is awarded at the NCAA track and field championships.
This year's team race figures to be as close as ever. Georgia and USC have consistently topped the USTFCCCA rankings this spring, and the two programs flip-flopped in the latest iteration. Last season featured a dramatic ending, with Oregon's title coming down to the final lap of competition.
Beyond the team hunt, this year's NCAA championship carries a bit of track history. It will be the final meet contested at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, as we know it. The school plans to raze the current facility -- famed as one of track and field's best venues -- after the meet ends to begin a dramatic renovation before the 2021 IAAF World Championships.
"Whoever wins this, that will be very, very special," Georgia coach Petros Kyprianou said. "Because of the magic, the experiences and the memories we've all had in that facility. It will definitely be memorable."
Here are five notable athletes to watch in women's action, which opens Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and the ESPN app) and concludes Saturday (6:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and the ESPN app).
Karissa Schweizer, senior, Missouri
Schweizer is aiming to become the fifth female runner in NCAA history to sweep both distance titles: 5,000 and 10,000 meters. But how many of those runners added one of the events just months before graduation? We're certain in can't be many.
In an effort to simply "strive for something new" and collect more points for Mizzou, the Iowa native ran her first 10K in March at the Stanford invitational, collecting the ninth-fastest mark in NCAA history. Not bad for a debut.
But Schweizer, who won indoor and outdoor NCAA 5K titles last year, admits it wasn't anything close to smooth sailing.
"I remember running the first one thinking, 'This is the most painful thing in my life. I don't know if I can do another one,'" Schweizer said.
She did in fact return, clocking a 32:14.36 at regionals to claim the top seed in the field of 24. Her debut performance is the top NCAA mark this season.
This spring, Schweizer increased her distance training on her volume practice days to condition for the 10K, which she describes as "a whole other ballpark." In Eugene, she'll have the help of scheduling as she chases a distance sweep. The 10K is Thursday, and the 5K is Saturday.
"I like having a wide range, a variety of races, to be able to do," she said.
Kendall Ellis, senior, USC
If the team battle comes down to the 4x400 relay -- the final event of the meet -- USC will have Ellis, a steady yet explosive 400-meter specialist, on deck to run the final leg.
The sprinter checked off one of her biggest goals this season by breaking the 50-second barrier in the 400. She clocked a 49.99 at the Pac-12 championships against some mighty headwind in the homestretch to become just the second collegiate in the exclusive club. Former Texas star Courtney Okolo holds the collegiate record at 49.71 seconds.
"It's a pretty big barrier," USC coach Caryl Smith Gilbert said. "It's a goal that her and coach [Quincy] Watts set a while ago. Last year she ran 50.00 to make the world championship team. I was like, 'Kendall, you couldn't have gone one hundredth faster?' We laughed about it.
"It's great to have crossed that line -- that threshold. I think she was really excited about it."
Ellis will also run the second leg of the 4x100 relay in Eugene -- crucial to the Trojans' chance to win an NCAA title for the first time since 2001. USC finished third at last year's outdoor championships behind the Bulldogs -- who scored only in field events -- and the Ducks.
Keturah Orji, senior, Georgia
The most decorated athlete in this year's meet, Orji's jumping success is nothing short of remarkable, even before her final college meet. In the triple jump, her premiere event, she has won six NCAA titles.
She goes for an outdoor four-peat in the event Saturday. She is also seeded second in the long jump, setting up the Bulldogs to bank some major jumping points.
"She's a grinder," Kyprianou said. "She's one of those blue-collar workers that understands that there will always be a new sheriff in town. It's really up to her to hold her badge or star."
Earlier this year, Georgia captured the NCAA indoor title for the first time in school history behind 18 points from Orji. She was one of three Bowerman finalists last year and remarkably broke her collegiate triple jump record again this season with a mark of 47 feet, 11 3/4 inches at the SEC championships.
But it was Tori Franklin nabbing Orji's American record in May that brought a new sense of urgency to the 5-foot-5 Olympian.
"She needed that to give her the motive to keep pushing and searching for ways to ... sign a decent [professional contract] and make a living out of this," Kyprianou said.
Maggie Ewen, senior, Arizona State
Ewen's coach, Brian Bluetreich, likened her to the Bo Jackson of women's throws last month. If that doesn't give you pause, we're not sure what will.
Although Ewen missed out on qualifying for the hammer throw at the NCAA West Preliminaries by fouling in all three of her attempts, the redshirt senior will redirect her focus to the discus and shot put titles. Not too many could flex that kind of versatility. Earlier this spring, Ewen became the first thrower, male or female, to hold two collegiate records in the hammer and shot put.
"She's doing things that haven't been done before," Bluetreich said last month. "You have to enjoy that. You may never have another one."
Ewen is the top-seeded thrower in shot put and third in discus. However things shake out in Eugene, she has earned her place in throwing history with her work this spring.
Sydney McLaughlin, freshman, Kentucky
Before she donned a Wildcat jersey, McLaughlin had track and field's collective attention during an inspiring run to Rio in 2016 as a 16-year-old, Team USA's youngest Olympian since 1976.
It was only a matter of time until she collected a collegiate record as a freshman at Kentucky.
In the 400 hurdles at the SEC championships, she blew past the NCAA record from 2013 by more than half a second. McLaughlin finished in 52.75, a world-leading time so far this season and ninth all time in world outdoor competition.
The run was just 0.41 seconds behind the current world record set by Russia's Yuliya Pechonkina in 2003. Additionally, it topped the SEC and world junior records.
The SEC freshman of the year is the top seed in the 400 hurdles and is slated to run the third leg of the Wildcats' 4x400 relay.