What to watch at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials

The United States Olympic track and field trials — aka where athletes attempt to qualify for the toughest team to make on the planet — begin on Friday [7 p.m. ET, NBCSN] at the country’s rebuilt cathedral to the sport, Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.

American track and field is arguably the deepest it has ever been, with world stars in nearly every event. Where the 1980s were a time for dominance in the sprints and jumps, the last decade-plus has seen a concerted effort to add depth and develop a more well-rounded team, and it's paid off. At the last World Athletics Championships, held in 2019, the U.S. men won medals in 12 of the 22 events and the women in 10.

The qualifying standards to get an automatic berth to compete are high as they get, and only the top three finishers in each event will represent the U.S. in Tokyo.

Picking just a couple events to preview is tough, because nearly every one will be must-see.

"There are so many good ones," NBC commentator and five-time Olympic medalist Sanya Richards-Ross told Yahoo Sports. "I guess there are so many athletes in particular that I am excited to see compete, especially those attempting to make their first Olympic team. One of the young women that I’m most excited about is Athing Mu. She will be competing here in the 800 (meters) but has done some phenomenal things in the 400 ... We haven’t seen that in American sprinting in so long, and I feel like the sky’s the limit for [Mu] and I’m excited to see what she does in the 800."

Allyson Felix will try to make her fifth Olympic team at the USA Track and Field trials, which begin this weekend. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
Allyson Felix will try to make her fifth Olympic team at the USA Track and Field trials, which begin this weekend. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Richards-Ross also mentioned record six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix, hurdler/sprinters Sydney McLaughlin and Rai Benjamin, sprinters Noah Lyles and Michael Norman, and 800 specialist Donavan Brazier — as well as one of the most promising American prospects.

"Sha’Carri Richardson, who is just phenomenal and I’m excited to see what she’ll do in three rounds of the 100," Richards-Ross said, "and if she’ll be able to get down into that low-10.7 (second), 10.6 range at this track. This track is so fast."

Track athletes to watch at U.S. Olympic trials

Mu, who just completed a sensational freshman year at Texas A&M in which she set world under-20 records in the indoor and outdoor 800 meters and finished with a new NCAA mark in the 400m at the national championships last week, will likely be in the finals with veteran Ajee’ Wilson, a two-time Worlds medalist, and 2019 world silver medalist Raevyn Rogers, among others.

Richards-Ross believes the athletes coming off the NCAA championships last week, also held at Hayward Field, are at an advantage at the USA trials. They're confident coming off their performances, their younger bodies recover better than older athletes, and they may be mentally sharper than the pros, especially since many pros have had limited opportunities to compete over the past year-plus due to Covid.

If the schedule is any indication, USA Track & Field and NBC believe the women’s 400m hurdles is a marquee event. It’s one of the last to be run, at 7:20 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 27. Presuming nothing catastrophic, McLaughlin and Dalilah Muhammad will be facing off again, for the first time since they went 1-2 at the 2019 World championships. Muhammad broke the world record in the race, with McLaughlin running the second-fastest time ever.

A 21-year-old New Jersey native, McLaughlin made the U.S. team for the Rio Games as a 17-year-old and is the most-marketed athlete in a deep crop of young Americans, reportedly signing a record-setting deal with New Balance and since adding Beats and Tag Heuer. Her looks obviously play a big role, but she’s been backing it up since turning pro.

American hurdler Sydney McLaughlin (left) could be a breakout star in Tokyo. First, she'll try to qualify at Hayward Field in Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
American hurdler Sydney McLaughlin (left) could be a breakout star in Tokyo. First, she'll try to qualify at Hayward Field in Oregon. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Ashley Spencer, the 400 hurdles bronze medalist in Rio, and Shamier Little, who was a world silver medalist as a 20-year old in 2015, are the top contenders for the third spot, and it's not unreasonable to think we could see an all-U.S. medal stand in the event in Tokyo.

The men’s 200m is the final event of the meet, set to start at 8:22 p.m. ET on June 27. Lyles, the reigning world champion known for his love of anime, colorful socks and side project as a musician, will be challenged by Norman, who will be attempting to make the team in both the 200m and 400m, the double made famous by Michael Johnson at the 1996 Olympics.

Richardson, who turned pro after winning the NCAA 100m title as an LSU freshman in 2019, ran 10.72 seconds in April, the sixth-fastest women’s 100 of all time.

Felix, the most decorated American track and field athlete ever with nine Olympic and 18 World Championship medals, will be trying to make her fifth U.S. team as a 35-year-old mother of a 2-year-old daughter. Last month she clocked 50.88 seconds in the 400, her fastest time in the event since 2017.

While there are five women with faster qualifying times, if she isn’t one of the three who earn spots in the open 400, Felix will almost certainly be part of the pools for the 4x400 and mixed 4x400 relays.

Brazier, fueled by his 19th-place finish in the men’s 800 at the Rio Trials in 2016, has been on a tear since, setting the American record and winning gold at Worlds in 2019. He’s the favorite in the event in Tokyo, but Brazier said on Monday during a USATF media session in advance of the Trials that he’s looking for “redemption” and making the American team is goal No. 1.

Who are USA's field stars?

On the field event side, 2016 men’s shot put gold medalist Ryan Crouser has only gotten better. In May he threw 23.01m (75 feet, 6 inches), the third-farthest mark of all time and best the world has seen in over 30 years.

Reigning world champ Deanna Price leads a deep field in women’s hammer, as Price, Brooke Andersen and Gwen Berry have the top three throws in the world this year.

Vashti Cunningham, the reigning World bronze medalist in women's high jump, cleared world-leading 2.02 meters (6 feet, 7 ½ inches) last month and is the clear favorite to win the U.S. title. Her father and coach is former NFL Pro Bowler Randall Cunningham.

Tara Davis, meanwhile, has gotten her groove back in the long jump. A California prep superstar, she endured a difficult (to put it mildly) stint at Georgia to begin her NCAA career, transferred to Texas, and after battling injury, won the indoor and outdoor national titles this year. In late March she jumped 23 feet, 5 ½ inches (7.14 meters) to break Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s 36-year old collegiate record. Davis will be looking to make her first Olympic team against an experienced field that includes four-time World Champion Brittney Reese.

Some big names missing from U.S. track and field trials

There will be some high-profile names unable to take part. Reigning men’s 100-meter world champion Christian Coleman is serving a suspension for missed drug tests, though he has never failed one. Reigning women’s 100m hurdles world champion Nia Ali, meanwhile, had a baby recently.

Shelby Houlihan will be allowed to compete after all, it was announced Thursday, after she was suspended earlier in the week by the Athletics Integrity Unit for a first failed drug test. The American record-holder in the women’s 1500m and 5000m blames a burrito for the result.

"I always hate when these stories surface, because it absolutely takes away from the best part of our sport," Richards-Ross said of the suspensions. "It’s hard to remind people that there are thousands of athletes, hundreds of athletes competing and these are just one or two stories.

"At the end of the day I think we all know that these things happens, there are missteps in every area of life, and I think it’s our job as commentators to continue to highlight and shine a light on all the great performances and the athletes doing the right thing."

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