Anticipation built heading into the afternoon session of the third day as Evan Jager appeared poised to, if not win gold in the steeple, at least break up the annual Kenyan sweep of the event. Instead, the Kenyans made a deafening statement that the steeplechase is still their event. Similarly in the 100m, Dafne Schippers emerged as a legitimate challenger to Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce throughout the heats, but was unable to take the crown for her this time around. In the women's 10k, an American got a medal, but had to outback another American woman to do so.
Women's 3000m Steeplechase Heats: Hiwot Ayalew was in a different class than her competition in the first heat. Despite doing the work in the lead from 2000-2800m, she was able to pull away convincingly coming off the water jump. Stephanie Garcia looked strong as she was with Ayalew and Virginia Nganda until the very end in a reasonably fast heat.
Habiba Ghribi didn't blow away the field, but she easily won and looked incredibly relaxed doing so. The German Gesa Krause responded to every move Ghribi made over the second half of the race and might have put herself in medal contention if things break right. Colleen Quigley ran 9:29.09 for 6th in the heat, which, as of the end of the second heat, was the third-fastest non-auto qualifying time.
Tugba Guvenc, who entered with a 9:33 PB was aggressive for the first 1000 or so meters and opened up a 10m or so lead on the field over the first couple laps.
Emma Coburn belongs in the short list of 4 or 5 women who could win gold in the steeplechase. She finished a bit of a distant third in the third heat, but seemed to be holding back in the last 100m as Jepkemoi and Assefa dueled it out. From before the start of the race through the end, Coburn looked in control and confident. She should be in the mix during the final on Day 5.
With Quigley getting in on time, this is the first time in history that the United States has advanced all six steeplers to the final at a World Championship. Only two--Jager and Coburn--have realistic shots at a medal, but gone our the days where the U.S. brings up the rear of each steeple heat. Ethiopian Etenesh Diro, who finished 6th in the London Olympics, was the second runner left out on time, so she will not compete in the final, creating a slightly easier path for Emma Coburn.
Women's 400m Heats: Allyson Felix asserted her dominance in heat one. After looking effortless--although, she pretty much always does--throughout, Felix really took the foot off the gas over the last 20m or so. Even so, she still won her heat by nearly 0.3 seconds while those who finished 2nd through 5th all set season or personal bests. The Allyson Felix 400m runner show is exceedingly compelling.
Notable in the rest of the heats: In heat 2, Christine Ohuruogu and Marie Gayot overtook a dying Natasha Hastings in the final straight. Christine Day and Joyce Zakary were the class of the third heat as 3rd place finished over .8 seconds behind Zakary, who set a Kenyan national record with 50.71. In heat 5, Bianca Razor improved her PR by nearly a full second to win the heat with a very impressive kick that took her past Patience George and Shericka Jackson. Shaunae Miller (50.53) convincingly took the sixth heat over Novlene Williams-Mills of Jamaica (51.07).
There's no clear favorite here, so tomorrow afternoon's semifinal could well see some solid runners get sent home.
American Scare in the W 400m Hurdles: The afternoon on the track started with a scare for the Americans as Shamier Little followed an unimpressive performance in the heats with a third place finish in the second heat of the semifinals, which forced her to wait on the results of the 3rd heat to know whether she made it through. The fastest woman in the world got in as the second time qualifier and was very emotional and relieved to do so:
If she plans on medalling in these world championships, Little will have to look better in the final as the event is looking very strong.
Women's 100m: While Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce ran the fastest time of the semis, the story here is Dafne Schippers. She blew away Veronica Campbell-Brown over the final meters of the race and emerged as the closest thing to a challenger Fraser-Pryce is likely to get.
In the finals later in the afternoon, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce showed why it was silly of me to entertain the idea that Schippers could challenge her for the win. SAFP started strong and led, to my eye, wire-to-wire. Shippers and Bowie got off to relatively poor starts, but both recovered to finish second and third, respectively. Schippers has shown incredible top-end speed in Beijing and nearly overtook SAFP. She'll be a legitimate contender for Olympic Gold in Rio.
Men's 400m Semifinal: Kirani James looked a lot better here than he did in the heats. He spent the last 100m of the race looking around and coasting in with Luguelin Santos and still ran 44.16. Santos came in second in 44.26 and has been something of a revelation in Beijing and has likely vaulted himself into medal contention.
Isaac Makwala looked strong in the second heat and he only figures to be stronger in the finals after getting in some pushups after crossing the line.
The final heat featured a face-off between LaShawn Merritt and Wayde Van Niekerk. Merritt came in as the only American hope for a finalist as Nellum, Verburg, and Norwood all failed to qualify. Merritt and Van Niekerk and they both separated themselves from the field and cruised to automatic qualifiers as Merritt continues to put a bit of an underwhelming season behind him at these championships.
The 10,000m stuck to the script of championship distance races--settle in and relax until the final mile. You'll hear and read a lot of hate about those tactics, but I find that they make the race more exciting. For 8000m, or more, anticipation builds as the race comes down to a smaller sample of distance to declare who his best. It's the same attraction to volatility that drives the astronomical ratings of the March Madness.
Unfortunately for the American contingent, the final laps of the race played out how tactical championship races usually do: With Kenyans and Ethiopians out kicking the field. Molly Huddle, Emily Infeld, and Shalane Flanagan were all in the pack before the kicks began, but only Huddle and Infeld were able to respond to Vivian Cheruiyot and Gelete Burka once the pace quickened. Coming onto the back straight, it looked like Huddle had bronze on lockdown, but she eased up over the last 10m, allowing fellow American Emily Infeld to pass her on the inside.
The image of Huddle raising her arms with 2m to go while Infeld leaned under them on her inside will be posted in high school locker rooms everywhere as a reminder to not celebrate before the race is actually over. The dejection on Huddle's face was painful as she realized she had just given away a bronze medal. She'll hope for another tactical race next summer for a chance at an Olympic medal.
Rumors of a Kenyan Demise Were Greatly Exaggerated
There was a ton of hype entering this race that Evan Jager could very well put an end to the Kenyan dominance of the Steeplechase and, for 2700m, that appeared to remain a possibility. I bought into all of it. I mean, he would have easily broken 8:00 if he hadn't tripped over the final hurdle in Paris. On the back stretch, all four Kenyans just started sprinting. And, be sure, I mean sprinting. This wasn't a typical kick that contains within it an element of fatigue. The Kenyans--Kemboi, Kipruto, Kipruto, and Birech--looked like they hadn't run a step of the steeple and just blasted by Jager to go 1-2-3-4 in the event.
Jager didn't even finish as the first American as he seemed shaken by the sudden Kenyan move. Daniel Huling was the top American, just as all reasonable people predicted, adding to the growing tradition of Americans passing their country(wo)men in the final stretch. We'll have to wait until next summer for the Kenyan demise.