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United States Distance and Middle-Distance Running Has Arrived

With their performances this past weekend, the United States proved that their poor showing at the World Championships in Beijing was a fluke.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

At August's World Championship meet in Beijing, the United States was supposed to announce its arrival on the distance running scene. Evan Jager had a chance at gold in the steeplechase; the field broke him. At least five athletes, including Matt Centrowitz, Jenny Simpson, Shannon Rowbury, Brenda Martinez, and Galen Rupp had chances at medals. None of them medalled. At the end of the meet, the U.S. emerged from events longer than 400m with only one medal to show: Emily Infeld's bronze in the 10,000m.

At the time, I wrote that there was no reason to fear that the vast progress the United States has made over the past decade would be undone by a series of poor showings at one meet. The athletes that caused us onlookers to be excited about American running--Centrowitz, Nick Simmonds, Galen Rupp, Ajee Wilson--were all young enough that they were not likely to go away after Beijing.

And they didn't go away. After netting only one medal in the middle-distance and distance events six months prior, the United States left World Indoors with six medals in those distances. The only event they were shut out of medals in was the women's 1500m. And American runners weren't just sneaking into third place finishes. Here is the breakdown of the six medals the US won:

Medal # Events
Gold 2 M1500m, M800m
Silver 2 M3000m, W800m
Bronze 2 M800m, W3000m

The naysayer could argue that this doesn't mean anything because it happened in indoors, when no one is in peak shape and top athletes routinely stay at home. That's not entirely illegitimate: the 1500m and 800m fields that Centrowitz, Berian, and Sowinski medaled in were a lot weaker than those at Worlds in August and, likely, those that will toe the line in Rio this summer.

But that argument is only a half truth. First, Centrowitz had to beat Nick Willis and Ayanleh Souleiman to win his gold. Both should be legitimate medal contenders this summer. In the 800, Aman and Balla certainly constitute legitimate competition even if a "big name" like Rudisha was missing.

That's to say nothing of the fields in the 3000m on both the men's and women's sides. Though Shannon Rowbury got blown out by Genzebe Dibaba, everyone gets blown out by Genzebe Dibaba. She held her own against Meseret Defar, who had run over 20 seconds faster than she had in the event prior to last weekend. In terms of raw times, Rowbury isn't in the same class as the women who will hope to medal in Rio, but she's a good racer in championship contexts, which ends up being worth a lot.

Then we have to talk about the 3000m field that Ryan Hill got a silver medal in. Yomif Kejelcha was 4th in the 5000m in Beijing last summer; Iguider was third in the 1500m in that same meet; Caleb Ndiku won the 3000m World Championship two years ago indoors and got second in the 5000m in Beijing. That 3000m was arguably the strongest field at the entire meet and Ryan Hill managed to get second.

The United States made as strong a statement as they could possibly make last weekend by picking up 6 medals of a possible 18 in events longer than 400m. Because it happened indoors, it is entirely reasonable to question how that competitiveness will hold up in more compelling fields at the Olympics in Rio. But, the United States did all it possibly could last weekend to shake off the disappointment of last summer. Their performance indoors was more in line with expectations than the Beijing results, so this should probably be seen as a return to the (new) norm for the Americans rather than a fluky product of weak competition.