Team USA's WJC showing rivals best ever

Team USA's 4x400 women celebrate after taking the gold medal at the World Juniors Sunday. David Ramos/GettyImages


BARCELONA, Spain -- The story is in the numbers.

** Nine gold medals, more than twice as many as any other country. An meet-leading four silvers and seven bronzes for a grand total of 20 medals, within one of its 2002 record.

**188 points on the “placing table,” which assigns point values for first through eighth places, a total which exceeds the previous meet record by a half point.

**Three American Junior records. Four high school records and five more all-time top five performances. Plus a narrow miss of a World Junior record by .01.

Those superlatives all describe Team USA’s performance (plus that of a couple of preps competing for other countries) at the 14th IAAF World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, which concluded Sunday. The American sprinters and hurdlers really came on the last few days and jacked up the medal total, but the value of the total team performance is also evident in the placing table total, which happens to be where a lot of the greatest high school marks took place: Two USRs by Brianna Nerud NY in the 3,000-meter steeplechase heats (fourth-place) and finals (fifth); the #2 5,000 performance in history by Cayla Hatton MA (fourth); a 1,500 USR by Mary Cain NY (sixth); and a heptathlon USR by Kendell Williams GA (eighth). Yes, you could say the fact that these all-time prep performances came non-medal placings means the U.S. still has a ways to go to catch up to the rest of the world – or you could take the glass half-full approach and say the world’s best are pushing Americans to ever-greater heights.

And, of course, Cain’s USR in the 1,500 completed an amazing meet for Team USA’s prep girls’ distance runners, with the above-mentioned non-medal marks by Cain, Nerud and Hatton joined by Wilson’s #2 all-time 800 for the gold medal. In summary, in four of the five distance races at the WJC, U.S. girls ran the first- or second-best times in prep history. Pretty heady stuff.

Cain’s run on Sunday was arguably the best of those (though you can argue strongly for Wilson), her 4:11.01 slicing an incredible three seconds off of Jordan Hasay’s 2008 standard of 4:14.50. Some of the previous WJC 1,500s had been kickers’ races, which might have favored Cain placing even higher, but as it was, the pace was fast – but not so fast (66-2:14-3:19) that Cain couldn’t stay solidly in the chase back, behind the lead, for all but the last lap or so. Kenyan winner Faith Kipyegon would destroy the WJC record with her 4:04.96, with Cain following six seconds and five places later.

Cain clearly had the USR on her mind, as well as Hasay’s previous two WJC efforts. “When I was on the line, all I was thinking was that in five minutes, you’ll be done, and in five minutes, hopefully you’ll have a national record if you run well,” she told USATF. “I knew the best Team USA had done was fourth, but those were at 4:19 and 4:13 … This is the fastest an American has ever run here, so I’ll go with that.

“I had an aggressive start, and was actually spiked in the leg,” she continued. “That last 600 meters, I was like (dang) – these girls are fast. This has been a great experience (in racing) – I’ve never had the chance to actually chase people.”

Unbeatable with the baton

Meanwhile, Team USA’s chances of getting at least 20 medals and sweeping the relays got a boost Sunday morning when the women’s 4x400 took advantage of an overturned disqualification from Saturday’s heats. The quartet of preps Kendall Baisden MI and Robin Reynolds FL, as well as collegians Kiara Porter (VCU) and Olivia Ekpone’, ran a 3:34.25 in a solo “runoff” to get into the final as the top seed. Several hours later, the American women – now with collegiate 400 gold and bronze medalists Ashley Spencer (Illinois) and Erika Rucker (South Carolina) replacing Reynolds and Porter – led wire-to-wire for a 3:30.01 victory, the first half of a Team USA 4x400 double to close out the meet.

“(The occurrences in these last 24 hours) were really unexpected,” Baisden told USATF. “I just stayed focused. We are a team and we came out and did it together. People came out to support us for our race this morning, and I wanted to get out and do my part for this gold.” The Detroit Country Day (Beverly Hills, Mich.) junior, who made the 400 final and won gold on the 4x4 at World Youths last summer, still has another year as a prep.

There was less drama in the men’s 4x400, as prep 400 silver and bronze medalists Arman Hall FL and Aldrich Bailey TX joined collegians Chidi Okezie (Hampton) and Quincy Downing (LSU) to lead from the gun in a 3:03.99 triumph. Bailey, who was visibly disappointed after the 400, had to crack a few smiles after the relays – especially because he carried on the winning 4x100 Saturday, as well. “I came out of here with three medals, so I can’t be mad,” the Mansfield Timberview (Texas) senior told USATF. “This was fun, it was worth it.”

Hall, who anchored in 45.7, was happy to be receiving a medal of a different color. “It’s great to finally get on the medal stand with a gold medal,” the St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) senior told USATF. “It was a great experience to come overseas again. Great environment, great experience, and great people – I loved it.”

Saturday, it was Team USA’s 4x100s topping that medal stand. The men’s quartet, featuring preps Tyreek Hill GA and Bailey, followed by collegians Arthur Delaney (Oregon) and Aaron Ernest (LSU) finally pulled away for good on Ernest’s anchor for a 38.67 victory, just .01 off the U.S.’s WJR from 2004.

Like Hall and Bailey, the Coffee County (Douglas, Ga.) senior Hill was happy to finally get that gold after a 200 bronze and 100 fourth in his individual events. “I wanted to cry, but I didn’t want to show the emotion right now,” he said to USATF. “Leading off was good, because I knew I had the best block work. Coach just told me to catch the first man (on my outside), and I knew when I did – we had it.”

The women’s 4x100, won by Team USA in 43.89, had some redemptive qualities for Boyd Anderson (Lauderdale Lakes, Fla.) senior Shayla Sanders, who was able to bring the stick home in the final. “It feels so great to win the gold – I worked so hard to get here,” said Sanders to USATF. “I was sad that I wasn’t part of the (100 or 200), but I was very happy to be on this relay and win.”

The relay golds helped make up for the disappointment some of the Team USA athletes felt for netting but one gold in the six men’s and women’s individual sprinting events. That gold went to the Illinois frosh Spencer, with her dominant 400 win Friday. Otherwise, there were plenty of finalists and medals of other colors. During the previously covered first three days of the meet, Americans went silver-fourth in the men’s 100 (Ernest and Hill), fifth in the women’s 100 (Jennifer Madu TX) and, as mentioned above, silver-bronze in the men’s 400 (Hall and Bailey). Then later in the week, it was gold-bronze in the women’s 400 (Spencer and South Carolina’s Rucker), silver-bronze in the women’s 200 (Texas A&M’s Ekpone’ and Clemson’s Dezerea Bryant), and silver-bronze in the men’s 200, as Ernest and Hill crashed into each other after the finish.

Finishing between Spencer and Rucker in that women’s 400 final was Medgar Evers (Brooklyn, N.Y.) junior Kadecia Baird, representing Guyana. Baird had run 52.40 in the previous day’s semifinal, not far off her US#1 52.14 to win New Balance Nationals Outdoor. But prep track aficionados were not prepared for what she did in the final: a staggering 51.04, crushing her PR by more than a second and moving to #5 all-time with the best US prep performance since 2002.

Earlier in the week, Kingwood Park (Humble, Texas) senior Shawn Barber was third in the pole vault, competing for Canada, with a US#1 and #2 all-time prep mark of 18-2.5 – the other HS’er competing for another country who shook up the all-time lists.

Hurdles success and heartbreak

Meanwhile, Team USA came home with two golds out of the four hurdles finals, but there was an equal amount of heartbreak. For prep fans, Friday’s men’s 400 hurdles provided the most delight as Penn Wood (Landsdown, Pa.) senior Eric Futch continued with his consistent improvement. After a 50.77 in the semi, he ripped a 50.24 in the final, rising to #13 all-time prep. It was a typical Futch performance: steady, but trailing the first 300 meters, then finishing like gangbusters in the final 100.

“I was a little further behind than what I normally am (coming off the first 200), but I had to keep on pushing” he told USATF. “I wanted the gold – I came and got what I wanted and it’s an honor.”

In the women’s 400 hurdles Saturday, Lindblom Prep (Chicago, Ill.) junior Shamier Little was hoping to win or medal in similar fashion; she’s known for her late race charges in the event just as Futch is. But just as she was moving into second with a bead on first, Little hit the final hurdle and crashed to the track. Team USA did win bronze, with Notre Dame’s Kayla Barber running 57.63. In the semis, Little had clocked 57.46, just .02 off her US#1 mark from US Juniors.

Then in Sunday’s 100 hurdles, another prep star suffered almost identical misfortune. George Washington (Denver, Colo.) soph Dior Hall was in great position for a medal – maybe gold – before hitting the eighth hurdle and tumbling over the ninth. Meanwhile, Texas frosh Morgan Snow negotiated the barriers into a 2.4 wind and came up with the gold for Team USA.

Vaughan settles for bronze

As amazing as Mansfield Legacy (Texas) prep Shelbi Vaughan has been this year, in setting four USRs and taking fourth in the Olympic Trials, she was NOT favored to win the discus. Germans Anna Ruh and Shanice Craft came into the WJC with ranked #1 and #2 globally and, especially with Ruh, there was not just one big throw, but actually marks from five different meets that were further than Vaughan’s best on her ledger.

For a little while Sunday, however, it looked like the American might take the gold. Through three rounds, Craft led with 191-11, Vaughan had 191-9 and Ruh 189-10. Ruh fouled her fourth throw, then Vaughan came up with 197-1, the second best throw of her career. When Craft didn’t improve, the Texan had the lead through four complete. In round five, Ruh improved to 191-10, but was still in third, while Vaughan fouled and Craft threw 170-1.

But in the final round, Ruh finally really nailed one, a 204-8 that was nearly six feet beyond Vaughan’s career best. Then after Vaughan hit 192-8, Craft closed the competition with 198-2 to move into the silver spot.

“I wish I could have gotten a further throw out there,” Vaughan told USATF. “I was looking to place higher than third because that’s where I finished last year in the World Youth Championship. But, third in the world – can’t complain. I was excited to hit 60 (meters) because it is close to my PB. I was really hoping to get another PB, but it didn’t happen today. I’m still the youngest of these girls that made the finals, so I’m pleased.”

One other prep made a throwing final during the last three days. Averill Park (N.Y.) junior Rudy Winkler threw the hammer 240-1 Friday, his best-ever with the junior weight implement, to advance from qualifying. In Sunday’s final, he hit 227-6 for 11th. He was also a World Youth finalist in 2011.

Williams builds on her “weak” events

Coming in at 15th on the world list, it was going to be very tough for Kell (Marietta, Ga.) junior Kendell Williams to even contend for a heptathlon medal in Barcelona. Even she would have probably admitted that, having had the experience of finishing 11th at last year’s World Youth meet. It’s not so much that American heptathletes are inferior, it’s that they tend to get to the upper 5000s (point totals) in college and beyond.

So Williams wanted to improve her PR from the 5,481 she scored at US Juniors, possibly chase Shana Woods’ USR of 5,533, and maybe improve on her placing from WY. In the end Friday, all three goals were accomplished. It wasn’t so much that Williams did better in the events she was great in – she went 13.74 (-1.0w) 100H, 5-11.25 HJ and 20-0.5w in the LJ – it was improving her weaker events. That part was a huge success as she hit PRs in the shot (35-1.25), javelin (100-0) and 800 (2:26.60). That was good for the 5,578 and a very solid eighth in the competition.

“That’s what I wanted to do. I came out here – I knew it was going to be hard to get on the podium, but all I wanted to do is PR and I did,” Williams told USATF. “So, I’m really happy. I thought I may have fallen off the pace after the 200 (24.94) in day one, but PR-ing in the javelin and 800 made up the points.