This week is culmination of the American college system athletics season when the famed National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) track and field championships are held.
First conducted in 1921 the battle between leading US colleges is fierce. This year the championships will be held at historic Hayward Field, prior to renovations commencing ahead of the venue hosting the 2021 IAAF World Championships.
A group of nine Aussies will line up for their colleges, dominated by distance runners, javelin thrower Mackenzie Little and sprinter Steve Solomon.
Little, the 2013 World Youth champion, will be competing in her third consecutive NCAA Championships. Following seventh and fourth placing at the last two championships, she arrives in Eugene as the favourite following a record season for her college Stanford. After nailing a personal best of 58.63m in April (seventh Australian all-time), Little, who calls Sydney home, qualified for the NCAAs 10 days ago with a mark of 57.19m – two metres further than any other qualifier.
Competing for Duke University, Solomon arrives in Eugene after a terrific qualifying performance of 45.41, 10 days ago in Florida. The Gold Coast Commonwealth Games finalist is enjoying his best season since his 2012 campaign which saw him make the London Olympic final as a teenager. He goes in ranked ninth.
Queensland teenager, Clare O’Brien, who is studying at Boise State, has been in great form in her sophomore (second year student) year. Twice last month she broke the Australian U20 10,000m record. Combined, she has slashed a staggering 1:36 minutes from the record, bringing it down to 32:39.30 and is currently the fastest junior in the world by over a minute. Over 5000m indoors she ran 33 seconds under the Australian open record (15:42.60), but it was on an oversized indoor track and cannot count for record purposes.
“I'm excited to race at NCAA this coming Thursday in Eugene and compete in the 10000m,” she said from Boise in Idaho. “The 10000m is a relatively new event for me but I’m enjoying the longer distance and the slower pace than the 5000m. I was fortunate enough to race at NCAAs last year in the 5000m, so it will be nice coming in this year with some more understanding of the process.”
O’Brien reflected on her series of tremendous races this year.
“I think the biggest thing in those races was being able to be pulled by the other girls and just trying to hang on. The more I race, the more I am gaining confidence that I can stay with them.”
However, the move for O’Brien has taken some adjusting.
“When I first arrived in America, I was overwhelmed with many things, especially the high level of competition. Coming from the small Queensland town of Gympie, the move to America was challenging and took some getting used to. The people here are so accommodating and friendly, which made the adjustment a lot easier.
“I am grateful for the opportunity I had to run cross country and track at Boise State university. Being able to run for BSU allows me to run for our team and pursue my bachelor’s degree at the university. One of my favourite things about being part of the team is travelling to meets. I love getting to stay in hotels with the team and seeing new places.”
Another athlete making a name for herself is NSW South Coast’s Jessica Hull, who runs for Oregon, the host school for the NCAAs. She has this year already run 4:10.46 for 1500m and clocked an indoor 3000m time of 8:58.50.
“I’m super excited for the NCAA’s, with my preliminary round for the 1500m going off on Thursday,” said Hull.
“I’m excited to compete on our home track at a national level, there’s no place quite like Hayward Field and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to race here again and soak it all in. My season so far has been a lot of fun with some big racing opportunities that we were ready for which has helped build momentum across the season.”
Despite living a long way from home some special guests arriving this week should make the tyranny of distance a little more bearable.
“I’m looking forward to next week and can’t wait to have mum and dad over here.”
In the traditional distance school of Oregon, Hull has received good coaching.
“I am coached by Maurica Powell, the women’s distance coach here at Oregon. Maurica is amazing, we’ve worked together to continue building layers each year and she ensures we get to the line with a high level of preparedness for what may unfold in a race,” said Hull.
Another distance runner who has been on fire is Ollie Hoare from Sydney. In his second year of an Economics degree at University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ollie has slashed his personal bests across the events. In his first outdoor race he ran 3:37.84 in the 1500m, smashing his best by nearly six seconds. His indoor season had also been remarkable running bests of 7:51.69 for 3000m and 14:07.50 for 5000m. However, he has not just recorded quick times, but compiled a very competitive record.
“My season has been a big leap from freshman year. I have achieved this season, alone, four Big Ten championships - cross country, indoor 3000m & 5000m and outdoor 1500m.
But one performance standards out.
“My best performance in time is the 3:37 for the 1500m at Mt Sac in one of the fastest ever collegiate races.”
He has embraced the adjustment required to succeed in the college system.
“The challenge for every college athlete in my view is to be consistent in training and avoid injury, have resilience in when things don't go the way you've hoped and to be able to juggle academic goals, social life and this sport.”
He makes his NCAA debut in the 1500m and is looking forward to that.
“I am in a great place mentally and physically for the upcoming finals. I know that means I'm going to be a menace on the track.”
400m – Steven Solomon (NSW, Duke)
3000m steeplechase - Amy Cashin (VIC, West Virginia)
1500m - Oliver Hoare (NSW, Wisconsin)
1500m - Mick Stanovsek (VIC, Oregon)
1500m - Cameron Griffith (NSW, Arkansas)
1500m - Jessica Hull (NSW, Oregon)
5000m - Chartt Miller (WA, Iona)
10,000m - Clare O'Brien (QLD, Boise State)
Javelin - Mackenzie Little (NSW, Stanford)
David Tarbotton for Athletics Australia