It is, of course, a big deal to make one Olympic team. It’s an even bigger deal to make two. But three? Or even four? That’s the task some of the biggest names in American distance running have set for themselves at this month’s Olympic Track and Field Trials, to be held June 18-27.
Here’s a check-in with five runners who’ve been on at least two Olympic teams. What these veterans might lack in youthful verve, they more than make up for with tactical experience that should serve them well in races based on place, not time.
Previous Olympic teams: 2008 (steeplechase); 2012 and 2016 (1500 meters)
Event she’ll contest at this Trials: 1500 meters
Simpson, 34, will be vying for her fourth Olympic spot in an event she has mastered in global championships. She was the 2011 world champion and the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, and won silver at the 2013 and 2017 Worlds.
Simpson looked far off that form in her first race this season, and her first since February 2020, a 9th-place 4:10 1500 on April 24. She improved to a 2nd-place 4:06 on June 6. That result is encouraging, but still not quite standard Simpson. (Her PR in the event is 3:57.22 from 2014.)
It’s been, to say the least, a challenging year-plus. “The pandemic introduced a consistent visceral buzz of impending calamity. The weight of the burden oscillated between heavy and crushing,” Simpson tells Runner’s World.
But maybe we shouldn’t read too much from one disappointing and one so-so race.
“This year hasn’t had the same formula as past years, it hasn’t followed the same progression for most competitors,” Simpson says. “It’s difficult to judge someone as a ‘threat’ off of a race they did in the winter or especially people who haven’t raced much at all yet. If you got through 2020 and arrive to June 2021 ready to race, who knows what can happen!?”
Calling herself an optimist, Simpson adds, “I’m hopeful. I’m the best I know at learning how to cope.”
Previous Olympic teams: 2012 and 2016 (1500 meters)
Event he’ll contest at this Trials: 1500 meters
Centrowitz, 31, is the reigning Olympic champion at 1500 meters, and a two-time outdoor Worlds medalist in the event. He’s also one of the best tacticians of his generation, seemingly always in the right place at the right time. (Rewatch his gold-medal run in Rio for just one example.)
After winning gold in Rio, Centrowitz left Alberto Salazar’s group before it imploded in 2019. He’s now with the strength-based Bowerman Track Club, and has a 13:00 5,000-meter PR from last year to show for it. He got off to a slow start this season, but convincingly won the 1500 in 3:35 on May 15 at the Sound Running Track Meet in Irvine, California. He got in some high-quality speedwork at the Stumptown Twilight Meet on June 3, running three heats of the 800 and hitting successive times of 1:53, 1:49, and 1:50.
“I am maybe not quite as sharp as 2016 yet, but have very, very similar fitness to 2016,” Centrowitz says.
Although the crowd at the Trials will be smaller than usual because of the pandemic, Centrowitz will welcome however many people are present.
“Now that we are racing again, it is kind of tough not having all the fans in the stadium, not having all your family and friends who usually come out to support,” he says. “This is something I love having and draw energy from, and not having them there has been a huge adjustment.”
Previous Olympic teams: 2012 (5,000 meters) and 2016 (10,000 meters)
Event she’ll contest at this Trials: 10,000 meters
Huddle, 36, is the first to acknowledge that she’s had a less-than-ideal build-up to the Trials. “Blergh,” she wrote on Instagram after running 15:24 for 5,000 meters on May 29. Partial translation: No discernible progress from the 15:23 she ran three weeks earlier. Also, it’s likely that the top three in the 10,000 Trials will run at least that fast for the second 5,000 of the Trials.
Huddle has struggled with low-grade but chronic body issues since before the Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2020. (She dropped out of that race—the first DNF of her life—when it was obvious she wasn’t going to make the marathon team.) Peroneal tendon troubles led to compensating elsewhere, most recently a hip/glute/hamstring problem that has compromised her usually enviable running form. Lack of access to in-person bodily therapy for much of the pandemic prolonged her issues.
“I feel in similar fitness and in a similar situation to 2012,” Huddle says. “In that season, I was dealing with some up-and-down races and workouts. The difference would be the event is much deeper than probably in any other year I’ve raced. I’d say there are at least 12 women who, if they do the 10,000, could make the team.”
Huddle says that she’s feeling increasingly comfortable at 10K pace and that a steady, grind-it-out race is her best chance of making the team. She has a long history of taking on just such efforts, so don’t be surprised to see her fronting the 10,000 field early on at the Trials.
Previous Olympic teams: 2008 (1500 meters) and 2012 (5,000 meters)
Events he’ll contest at this Trials: 10,000 meters, possibly 5,000 meters
Lomong, 36, could earn his third Olympic spot on the first night of the Trials, in the men’s 10,000. The former 800- and 1500-meter specialist has moved up in distance in the latter part of his career. He won the U.S. 10,000 title in 2019, and then set his personal best of 27:04 while placing seventh at that year’s world championships.
He hasn’t raced the distance since; in the meantime, three Americans have joined the sub-27:15 club. “I have had a strong, consistent training camp in Park City, [Utah],” Lomong says.
“There is nothing more confidence-building than stringing together week after week of solid training.” If his fitness is good enough to keep him with the lead pack until the last mile, Lomong is a solid bet to finish in the top three in the 10,000.
If he doesn’t, he can return to the 5,000, in which he placed 10th at the 2012 Olympics and set a PR of 12:58 in a Bowerman Track Club intrasquad meet last year. “The 5K will be a zinger!” Lomong says. Indeed, he’s one of eight men with qualifiers of 13:06 or faster. Lomong ran 13:26 at the Portland Track Festival on May 29, but that was likely more of a rust-buster than a peak tune-up race.
“I have a confidence in my training and in my understanding of the event,” Lomong said of his chances in the shorter event.
Previous Olympic teams: 2012 and 2016 (5,000 meters)
Event she’ll contest at this Trials: 5,000 meters, possibly 10,000 meters
Conley, 35, has quietly built an impressive CV over the years, including national titles at 10,000 meters and the half marathon, and two Olympic berths.
As of this writing, Conley’s 15:05 qualifier puts her 16th among the 20(!) women with the Olympic standard of 15:10 in the 5,000. Yet her task might not be as daunting as it seems. With the 1500 and 5,000 finals occurring in the same hour, no woman will attempt that double. Three of the sub-15:00 qualifiers—Shelby Houlihan, Ellie Purrier, and Jenny Simpson—are expected to run the 1500. Others ahead of Conley on the list, such as Emily Sisson and Rachel Schneider, are expected to focus on the 10,000, and might not want to risk two heats of the 5,000 earlier in the meet before the longer race.
“I think my fitness is better than in 2012,” Conley says. “That year I ran 15:24 at the end of April, which at the time was a huge PR. In March of this year I ran 15:17, not a PR, and very much a stepping stone on the way to (hopefully) faster races.” Conley ran 15:32, then 15:22 in two 5,000s in May. If she doesn’t make the 5,000 team, she can run the 10,000.
Conley isn’t counting out anyone, including herself. “I made the Olympic team in 2012 by running the [Olympic] standard in the race, so I would never discount someone without the standard who has positive momentum,” she says. “The Olympic Trials are very unpredictable, which is what I love about them.”
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