GREENSBORO, N.C. -- All three of them had built stellar resumes, made numerous appearances in big national races, and produced a lot of near-misses.
But Ahmed Bile (Annandale, Va.), Jacob Burcham (Ona, W.V.) and Kelsey Margey (Long Island, N.Y.) all became national champions on Saturday during the final day of competition at the New Balance Nationals Outdoor championships at Greensboro, N.C.
In a meet where some of the star power was siphoned off by the U.S. Junior Championships, all three of these first-time winners earned legit titles.
Bile, son of 1987 world 1,500 champ Abdi Bile, found an open seam in Lane 1 and strode past Zavon Watkins to win the 800 meters in a personal best 1:49.85.
"With 100 to go I thought, 'Well second isn't that bad,'" Bile said. "The whole inside lane opened up and I was like 'I think I could catch him if I go on the inside.' But it was a little risky. I'm just speechless."
Watkins was speechless, too. The senior from Liverpool, N.Y. could almost reach out and touch the national title it was so close. And in the blink of any eye, Bile's 6-foot-4 frame swept past him. Watkins ran 1:49.98.
"I was heartbroken," Watkins said. "I didn't hear him, I didn't see him. If I had I would have stepped over (into lane one) and stepped through, but it happens."
Bile had finished seventh at the adidas Dream Mile, fifth at the Penn Relays mile, and been a top-15 finisher twice at Foot Locker in cross country. Last year in the New Balance 800 he was fourth.
"It was my last high school race and I really wanted to go out with a bang," said Bile, who will enter Georgetown in the fall.
Burcham, a junior, was second in the Brooks PR Invite mile (Feb.), second in the Penn Relays mile (April) and second at the adidas Dream Mile (June). Those experiences all added up to something. He was the class of the field in Greensboro, pulling away almost immediately from a field that included Connecticut champion Henry Wynne and New Balance 5K champion Jake Leingang of North Dakota.
"I planned to go a little faster but it didn't work out," Burcham said. "I still won and that was all that I cared about, really."
Burcham ran 4:08.80 and was more than two seconds clear of the field.
"I should have some confidence knowing I won my last race of the year, and national champion (sounds) good too," he said.
Margey was part of Nike's Elite camp last summer and had placed third and sixth, respectively, in the New Balance Outdoors mile in 2010 and 2011. She had placed in the top five in a wide variety of big events, including fourth at the Manhattan Invitational (cross country), fourth at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, third at the adidas Dream Mile (in 2010) and second at Penn Relays (in 2011).
She came into New Balance Outdoors fresh off a victory at the New York state meet in the 800 and second place in the 1,500.
On Saturday, she smartly ran the kick out of defending champion Wesley Frazier (Raleigh, N.C.) by pushing from 800 meters out and cruised to the win in 4:45.84. The Friends Academy senior will attend Villanova in the fall.
"The spring season of my senior year I grew a lot and got a lot stronger, physically and mentally," Margey said. "Today it all came together for me. I was nervous because it was my last race and it means a lot. I was really happy with how I did."
Frazier, for the second year in a row, was irrepressible despite an ambitious schedule. On Saturday, she ran the mile in 4:48.28 for second place and then less than half an hour later ran a 4:48 split for 1,600 meters on her team's distance medley relay, kicking late to grab fourth.
In seven championship races over 2011 and 2012 (six individual, one relay), Frazier has won three times and never finished outside the top four.
"I was tired. My legs were so heavy," Frazier said of the short recovery after the mile. "I was just like, 'I've just got to go one more mile. I can do it.'"
Frazier barely had time to think about her second place finish in the mile. She went straight to the check-in area to get a new hip number and confer with her teammates for the DMR. She was determined to finish in the top six so her three teammates, including freshman sister Ryen, could make All-American.
Another gutsy double came from Robert Rhodes of Boys and Girls (Brooklyn, N.Y.), who finished third in the 800 (1:50.53) and then quickly turned around and split 47.5 to anchor his team's 4x400 to victory in 3:14.95.
Rhodes had made a bold promise back in November that he would break his coach's school record in the 800 (1:50.83) by the time he graduated. After he hit the finish line he had no idea whether he had kept his promise but he laid on the ground for several minutes. It was a sweet relief that he had come through because a weak earlier he had faltered and run 1:54.06 and placed fourth at the New York state meet.
After accepting his third-place award, Rhodes jogged over to get his sweats and then found his teammates.
"I told my teammates, 'Listen, usually I'm the one coming through for you guys. Today, you guys have to come through for me because I'm very tired,'" Rhodes said. "And my third leg got me the lead and I was able to hold it."
Earlier in the day, Sam Mattis of East Brunswick, N.J. successfully defended his title in the discus. He sent three towering throws beyond 200 feet on his fourth, fifth and sixth attempts and won it with 203-2.
"It wasn't perfect but it was a national championship and a good way to end the season," said Mattis, who concluded his senior year ranked No. 1 with 218-4. He had winning throws in excess of 200 feet in five meets this spring.
Carla Forbes of Newtonville, Mass. swept the horizontal jumps, taking the long jump crown with 19-9 to complete an unbeaten spring. Forbes, a junior, won the triple jump on Saturday with 42-9.50.
The other double winner was sophomore Ky Westbrook of Chandler, Ariz., who added the 200 (23.92w) to the 100 title she won Friday.
Kadecia Baird of Brooklyn (Medgar Evers) turned in one of the most impressive performances of the day by winning the 400 in US#1 52.12. But she opted out of the 200 final despite running 23.26 (+3.5w) in the prelims.
Raevyn Rogers, a sophomore from Houston, Texas, hadn't raced since May 4 because of a hamstring injury but she returned to form and ran a surprising US#4 2:05.50 to win the 800 meters. That race also included amazing seventh grader Daesha Rogers from Plantation, Fla., who placed sixth in 2:09.89.
The girls from Ridgewood, N.J., who came to the meet hoping that with two chances they could get at least one podium finish, instead got two national championships. Anchored by freshman, Catherine Pagano, Ridgewood ran US#4 11:50.73 to win the distance medley relay just one day after a stunning win in the 4x800.
Marshfield (Mass.) won the boys DMR with US#1 10:01.32 as anchor leg Joel Hubbard closed his 1,600-meter leg with a 58-second last lap.
Shawn Barber of Kingwood Park, Texas won the pole vault with 16-4 but his real achievement this weekend may have been survival. Barber, his father, and two companions rented an SUV and drove it from their home near Houston and drove it to Bloomington, Ind. so he could compete at U.S. Juniors on Friday (16-4.75 for sixth). As soon as that was over, they packed up and drove to Greensboro for Saturday's competition.
Was the road trip fun?
"It was fun if you like driving," Barber dead-panned. Before the sun was down, he was packed up and on the road again, headed west for Texas and the final leg of a 2,600-mile odyssey.
Other athletes may have dug deeper for their titles at this meet. None were as travel-weary as Barber.