View from the U: Team USA Sweet 16 Favorite Moments from Bydgoszcz

by Steve Underwood

The “View from the U” is a periodic column/blog by NSAF Media and Public Relations Director Steve Underwood, with editorial perspectives on news, events and issues in the world of prep track and field, and sometimes beyond.

I’ve now had the privilege to attend and “cover” five IAAF World Youth or World Junior/U20 championships during the past seven years – and each one seems to get better than the last.  The Team USA student-athletes keep getting better and better, it seems, and it sure helps when you have a head coach like Lisa Morgan leading the way.

When I look back from the week in Bydgoszcz, watching all of the races, jumps and throws and interviewing many of the Team USA athletes, I’m compelled to come up with … well, at first you think objectively – top performances or performers.  But then you realize it’s more compelling to be a bit more subjective – and call it a list of favorite or most memorable performances or moments.  I admit freely that athletes who have shone brightly in our NBN, Caribbean Scholastic and Iron Wood meets, and our Javelin and Triple Jump Projects, get a lot of my attention.

One could easily come up with two or three dozen or more worthy entries on this list from the nearly 80 athletes who represented Team USA here, but the list below already borders on unwieldy.  I managed to cut it off at a Sweet 16, and that will be with apologies to medalists like Alyssa Wilson (shot put), Lynna Irby (400), Taylor McLaughlin (400H) and others, and even record-setters like Anali Cisneros (10k racewalk).  So many of you were great, but these are the 16 that resonated most strongly for yours truly.

Team USA Sweet Sixteen: Favorite Moments from Bydgoszcz

16. Bronson Osborn breaking HSR with men’s Junior shot put

The high school record with the Junior men’s 6kg implement is a relatively obscure mark.  American preps only throw this implement at USA, Pan Am or World Junior (now called “U20”) meets, and have done so for about a decade.  That said, Bronson Osborn’s shot put performance in Bydgoszcz was special, indeed, coming through with an unexpected bronze medal.

The Esparanza, CA junior was, in fact, seeded 7th coming into Worlds, with a 65-10.25 best from USA Juniors – four inches behind teammate and NBNO champ Adrian Piperi (who would take 4th here).  But Osborn qualified 4th, then hit 69-9.5 in the final – not only improving his 6kg PR by nearly four feet, but smashing the 67-9 record shared by Mason Finley (’09) and Willie Morrison (’15).  Osborn was a 71-7.25 prep during the year and 3rd behind Piperi and Jordan Geist in that great NBNO battle.  There’s no standard conversion between the two implements, but Osborn’s 6kg performance was definitely worth more than 72 feet with the HS shot.  Can’t believe these guys all have another year in high school!

15. First 3 men’s 4x4 legs giving Wil London a chance vs. Botswana

You can cite the Team USA’s men’s 4x400 performance as a whole, and that would be just fine.  They had a great, come-from-behind victory in 3:02.39 -- #4 on the all-time World Junior list, behind Team USA’s 3:01.09 from this meet in ’04 and two other USA marks.  But true appreciation, IMO, requires context and analysis.  Emerging power Botswana had two sub-45 performers – including world Junior leader Baboloki Thebe, seeking redemption after a 400m DQ – and they were going to run the middle legs.  Team USA would not have a 3rd potential sub-46 runner, with Michael Norman only running the 200 and 4x1, to go with Wil London and Kahmari Montgomery.

So it came down to this: Team USA’s middle legs would have to stay close enough to Botswana’s studs to give London a chance.  And this is what happened: Champ Allison – our NBNO Most Outstanding Performer (100/200 sweep) and Team NSAF/Cuba sprinter – opened with 46.8 to lead everyone.  Ari Cogdell was passed mid-way by Thebe’s meet-best 43.5, but his own fine 45.5 carry kept USA within 1.3 seconds.  Then Montgomery’s 45.27 actually gained 0.11-seconds on Botswana’s #2 star Karabo Sibanda (45.38).  London had just 1.2 seconds to make up and did so easily, with that smooth 44.8 anchor.  Well played, USA, well played.

14. Middle legs of women’s 4x4 relay blowing it open vs. Jamaica

Even more so than with the men’s, Team USA’s women’s 4x400 lineup evolved during the meet.  With Lynna Irby (51.39 silver) and Karrington Winters (53.04 semis) both setting PRs in their respective individual 400s, they were always going to be in.  Syaira Richardson and Hannah Waller each ran legs in qualifying, as did 800 champ Sammy Watson – who impressed with a 52.63 closer.  For the final, Watson stayed as the anchor and 400H champ Anna Cockrell came into the mix.  Said Cockrell, “The coaches asked us what order we thought we were going to run in, and we said, “Karrington, me, Sammy, Lynna,” and they said, “No…”

Instead, Lynna led off in 53.7, handing off 4th but just 0.5 back.  Jamaica surged ahead in leg 2 with 400 individual champ Tiffany James and things looked a bit dicey for Team USA.  But Cockrell surged back in the final 100 of her 50.9 carry and was within 0.2 on the handoff.  Winters spotted Jamaica’s Stacey-Ann Williams an early advantage, but the Ohio State frosh roared back, took the lead and pulled away on her 52.04 run.  On the anchor, Junelle Bromfield would close on Watson slightly, but not nearly enough as USA prevailed in 3:29.11.  Winters, the lone leg who hadn’t medaled individually, said she was “extra motivated.”  Added Cockrell, “Karrington was saying, ‘I want that flag, I want that moment.  You guys had that and I want it, too.”

13. Watching and getting to know 200/4x1 champ Michael Norman

It was kind of a foregone conclusion that Michael Norman would be magnificent and dominating in Bydgoszcz.  Clearly, he only ran as hard as he needed to during 20.7+ qualifying and semifinal rounds, then showed his true form in his Championships record-setting 20.17 final – just .03 off his PR.  He was no less impressive in leading off the victorious 4x100 quartet – which probably wouldn’t have won without him.  Still, you had the sense that – as with Noah Lyles and Candace Hill (see below) – they peak efforts of the season came at the Olympic Trials in Eugene a few weeks earlier, and that this meet, as important as it was, was almost an epilogue.

On the other hand, it WAS Norman’s first international meet, as he turned down the Pan Am Juniors spot last year that he earned in the 200.  The Vista Murrieta, CA grad (USC recruit) is as competitive, yet as sincere and humble as they come, which really came out in interviews.  “It’s truly humbling to be able to come out here and get the outcome that I did,” he said after the 200.  “Words can’t really express how I feel right now.” 

12. Sprint King (Noah Lyles) and Queen (Candace Hill) getting it done

Now, after they’ve combined for nine medals in six international meet appearances, it takes a lot to make performances by reigning prep track and field Athletes of the Year Noah Lyles and Candace Hill really stand out and become “memorable.”  With Noah, those national 200 records indoors (NBNI) and out (Olympic Trials) are arguably his standards of excellence, while Candace still has that 10.98 100 hanging out there.  Still, both got it done in style in Bydgoszcz, capturing close but not photo-finish 100s and digging down to come from behind on 4x100 anchors.

And let’s face it, the deficits in those 4x100s were significant and perhaps only they among preps (and Juniors) could have overcome them.  Team USA needed those relay triumphs Saturday to keep the momentum going and they got them.  Both are pros now – Candace several months in and Noah newly minted – but that doesn’t mean they can’t chat and joke around like the high school kids they are (or have been).  To wit, check out this memorable clip.

11. Carson Dingler’s big breakthrough 13-11.25 PR in women’s PV

Like a few others further ahead on this list, Dingler epitomized the jumpers and vaulters who had clutch 3rd-attempt clearances and/or pushed past their PRs to finish higher than they were seeded.  In Dingler’s case, she got a 1st-attempt clearance at 4.10m/13-5.25, then needed three tries to match her 13-9.25 PR from USA Juniors.  Then, like we’ve seen her do more than once this year, she blasted over the next bar on the first try at a new lifetime best 13-11.25.  Next was 14-1.25, a height that would have given her the 14-footer she’s been seeking for months …

Dingler couldn’t get that one, but she’d already captured 5th place in an event where she had the 10th best PR coming in.  That’s been what the rising prep senior (Presbyterian Day School, Macon, GA) has been doing pretty much all year: Consistently meeting or exceeding expectations … and winning both NBNI and NBNO, as well as Taco Bell and Golden South.  Her only major losses were to Bydgoszcz teammate Rachel Baxter at Texas Relays and USA Juniors – and even then (in the latter), she was setting a new personal best.

10. Christina Aragon’s stunning bronze medal in the 1500m

As strong as Team USA women’s 1,500m performances at World Juniors had been the past four meets – three 4th-place and three 6th-place finishes since 2008 – 2016 figured to be the year for a first-ever American medal.  Alexa Efraimson had finished 6th in ’14 and that was actually a mild disappointment for her, as she’d won bronze the year before at World Youths.  In ’15, she turned pro and ran 4:03 in one meet – a time no entrant had topped coming into Bydgoszcz.  Yes, there would be tough competition from the Ethiopians and others, but Alexa – who’d made the Olympic Trials final a few weeks earlier – looked medal-ready.

Meanwhile, super prep Christina Aragon, a strong 2nd behind Efraimson at USA Juniors and owner of a stellar 4:09.27 PR this year, was seeded 6th among entries.  It seemed unlikely she could hang with the leaders, yet a strong mid-pack finish seemed possible.  The final went out modestly, in 1:07.63, 2:14.96 and 3:20.98.  Aragon did not flinch and with 200 to go, she was one of five right there.  In the final 100, she kicked hard, passed her teammate and finished a clear 3rd for the coveted bronze.  “I just went into this race wanting to finish out the season knowing I gave everything I could … and I think I did that today … I wanted to go in there today thinking, ‘I can hang with these girls.’”

9. Marcus Krah’s great start, blasting to men’s 110H triumph

We’d seen him finish off his indoor season with an impressive 3rd-place 60H final at NBNI.  We’d watched him author a stunning 13.32 wind-legal 110H at the NC 4A state meet as part of a stellar triple, then get nipped by NSAF teammate Trey Cunningham at the Barrientos Memorial in Cuba.  We then witnessed his thrilling back-to-back triumphs and NBNO and USA Juniors, leading to his first Team USA appearance here.  So it was with great anticipation that we watched Marcus Krah (Hillside, NC senior, UNC recruit) settle into his blocks in the World U20 men’s 110H final to see if he could do it again.

What we saw then, last Thursday, was probably the best start of Krah’s life, as he blasted a victorious, wire-to-wire PR-tying 13.25 for the gold medal.  The facts that USA teammate Amere Lattin (13.30) made it a 1-2 finish behind him, and that the American duo in the women’s 800 had done the same minutes earlier, added to the magnitude of the performance for the USA.  But what I’ll remember is that beautiful start, the reaction when he crossed the line (see photo), and how it put on exclamation point on Krah’s dream 2016 season.

“That WAS one of the best starts I ever had,” he confirmed, “I didn’t see anybody.  I did not know where Amere was, but I was hoping once I crossed the line, that he was there.  And he was.”

8. Emma Fitzgerald’s monster jav throw en route to #2 all-time hept

Plenty has already been written about Emma Fitzgerald’s rising fulfillment of her heptathon potential in stunning NBNO and USA Junior performances in June, scoring 5,400-plus in consecutive weeks despite coming in with a PR of just 4,698 from way back in 2013.  But the Worlds would be different, a place where 5,400 or even 5,500 points does not contend for a medal, a place where no American – not even Olympian Kendell Williams – had ever placed higher than 7th.  So it was after five events, Fitzgerald had been solid, but not great and was far out of relevance in 17th place. 

She would gain some spots back if she could do reasonably well in her best event, the javelin – where she’d ruled with 142- and 153-foot throws in her previous two hepts.  But she didn’t do “reasonably well,” she instead sent a 166-1 rocket into the ether – the 2nd best throw of her Project Javelin Gold and prep career.  Suddenly the Wisconsin recruit was in 8th place and a 3-second 800 PR away from eclipsing Williams’ high school record.  With a subsequent 2:25.23, she missed the 5,578 standard by a single, heartbreaking point.  But what mattered was that Emma had produced the spectacular performance she needed to make her Worlds hept a great memory.

“I think it was the fact that it was my last time throwing, where I just didn’t feel as much pressure,” she said.  “I remembered how I was throwing really well in Finland off just those three crossovers, and so I decided to do that again – and just do what (Coach) Tom (Pukstys) said – and I hit it straight through the point!”

7. Katie Rainsberger pushing to outdoor HSR in women’s 3k

Sometimes the “best” performances by American preps in World championships come in events where medals are out of reach.  U.S. runners have generally been out of contact vs. the top East Africans and select top contenders in the 3,000m in this meet, though Mary Cain broke the mold in ’14 when as a “pro” she ran the fastest ever for a high-school student and won gold with 8:58.48.  But Katie Rainsberger is not quite at Cain’s level and this year’s field was significantly better.

So when the top 6 broke away at 2k in last Wednesday’s 3k final, we waited to see what Rainsberger – the NBNI mile champ in March and trying to finish off a spectacular senior year – would do over the final circuits.  The answer was she kept hammering every remaining meter of the race and, after the first two broke the previous Championship record of 8:46.86 from ’92 (with 3-4 just missing), she crossed in 7th place at 9:00.62.  Holy crap, many of us suddenly realized, she just smashed the oldest prep outdoor record on the books: Lynn Bjorklund’s 9:08.6 from 1975.

The Air Academy, CO grad, bound for U. of Oregon, didn’t know she had beaten the record – and little wonder, given that some say Cain’s mark is the “record” and others point to Alexa Efraimson’s 9:00.16 on an indoor oversize track.  “I had no idea,” she laughed. “My goal was to be brave and run free.”

6. Ja’Mari Ward’s 26-ft long jump breakthrough to make men’s final

After two so-so (by his standards) qualifying attempts, Team USA’s top men’s long jump entrant here stood in 13th place.  The supremely talented but oft-injured Cahokia, IL senior and U. of Missouri signee was the final jumper of the session.  He raised his hands to get his teammates and other fans into rhythmic clapping, something he almost never does, and tried to inhale the energy and focus on the board – which he’d twice missed badly.  “I made sure I moved up a little bit, so I could hit the board,” he said, “and I just gave everything I had.”

Then Ja’Mari Ward rocketed down the runway, hit the board and soared into the daylight.  The crowd roared as he landed and when he popped out of the sand, he knew it was better, but not just how good it was.  When the numbers 7.96 flashed on the board, we all knew.  Ja’Mari had finally nailed his first career 26-footer (26-1.5, with 0.4 wind) and moved from 13th to 1st.  That made him =8th on the all-time prep list, but 2nd-best in the past 25 years.  What a thrill it was for all of us who watched him with Project Triple Jump (2 years) and CSI (2015) finally show everyone what he could do on the world stage!

“That was the most excitement I’ve felt ever, at a track meet,” he said, “no one ever clapped like that for me before.  I was really excited, finally being on a U.S. team competing against the best in the world … I finally did it, I finally jumped 26.”  The magic wasn’t quite there in the final, but Ward was a decent 6th and will still carry the energy of his qualifying achievement into the future.

5. Sammy Watson and Aaliyah Miller seizing historic gold-silver in women’s 800

Thanks to successes of Ajee’ Wilson (World Youth and World Junior gold in ’11 and ’12), Sammy Watson’s WY 800 gold last year, and a general surge of performance – 10 of the 22 all-time prep girls at 2:04.00 or better have competed in the past six years – Team USA girls/women are now consistent medal threats at World competition.  And, as it became apparent that the top 6 on the ’16 World Junior list were racing Senior level completion (3 top Ethiopians) or other events in Bydgoszcz (American Alexa Efraimson and Germany’s Konstanze Klosterhalfen) instead of the 800, it became clear that Watson (Rush-Henrietta, NY junior) and vastly improved Aaliyah Miller (McKinney Boyd, TX senior, Baylor signee) were serious medal threats.

But it got even better: Watson, through taking her prelim and semis, proved to herself she could do it again at this higher level, while Miller – in a rousing semifinal win – became confident she could do it at this level.  In the moderately-paced final – Watson seems always to magically get the tempo to her advantage – both USA runners were in bad positions in the final 250.  But Watson slipped out of a box to emerge with 100 to go, while Miller went from 1st to 6th, then sprinted wide and caught everyone except her teammate.  Let there be no doubt, the first-ever USA 1-2 in a World event longer than 400m ignited the 11-gold, 21-medal week and Team USA never looked back.

4. Deakin Volz crushing PR (NBNI) three times to grab men’s PV gold

When the men’s pole vault started in Bydgoszcz, the brightest part of the spotlight was on Australian World Junior leader Kurtis Marschall, prep record-setter and NBNO/USA Junior champ Chris Nilsen, and ’15 World Youth champ Armand Duplantis – the U.S. prep repping Sweden.  It wasn’t so much on Deakin Volz, the Virginia Tech frosh who had won NBNI in ’15 as a Bloomington North, IN senior.  Volz had some highlights in ’16, most notably 3rd at NCAA Indoor, but nothing to exceed that 17-11.5 in The Armory 16 months earlier.

Until last Saturday.  In a complex “chess match” of a PV final, Volz made 16-8.75 (2nd att.), 17-4.5 (1st) and 17-8.5 (1st) with passes in-between.  Then at 5.50m/18-0.5 – a height he’d no doubt tried and missed multiple times before – he had a triumphant 2nd-attempt clearance.  Suddenly Volz was in the medal hunt and when he missed his first try at 18-2.5, he boldly passed to 18-4.5.  On his final attempt, he nailed it and Marschall went out. 

With gold secured, Volz scaled his 3rd PR of the night at 18-6.5 and then celebrated.  “I guess it’s all the training and everything throughout the whole season, all accumulating into one meet,” he said afterward.  “I’m still not sure if I can believe it … My dad sent me a text this morning, saying ‘Time to jump 5.60.’”

3. Coach Lisa Morgan leading the climactic “U-S-A!” chant Sunday

I’ve never seen a national team coach like Team USA’s Lisa Morgan, who headed up last year’s triumphant World Youth squad in Cali, then did the same in perhaps even more extraordinary fashion with the Juniors here.  You never sense anything less than her being right there with each individual athlete and relay through their triumphs and their disappointments – part demanding head coach, part cheerleader, part den mother and part best friend – a best friend who won’t let you get away with stuff and calls you out when need be, but is also there with plenty of hugs.

So with that in mind, it was like icing on the cake of the wildly successful, Team USA 11-gold, 21-medal performance that Coach Morgan would lead the squad in their final “USA” cheer of the meet, as the gold medal-winning men’s 4x400 stood before them.  With a force that overwhelmed Stadion Zawisza, it was, “1-2-3! USA! 1-2-3! USA! 1-2-3! USA!” … then, like a rolling thunder, “Aaahhhhhhhhhh … U! S! A! USA!”  But you can see it for yourself …

2. “Big Meet” Darius Carbin’s never-say-die silver in the HJ

There’s something special about Darius Carbin that’s hard to put a finger on.  There’s no doubt that the Mount Pleasant, CA senior (and Georgia signee) deserves mention among the biggest of big-meet performers at this stage of his career, especially since he’s been rarely the clear favorite.  That quality first really manifested itself in his World Youth Trials victory last summer, then his unexpected bronze at the WY Champs.  Then again this year, as he edged defending champ Jaron Brooks at NBNI, won his first CIF state title, then soared to a PR 7-3.25 at USA Juniors to earn his 2nd Team USA vest.

Despite all that, Darius was still an underdog in Bydgoszcz, tied for the 6th seed coming in against a field of 7-5 and 7-6 jumpers.  Somehow combining an air of being surprisingly calm or even mentally adrift between jumps, with an intense, competitive focus when he’s on the clock, he waged war against these older jumpers last Friday.  First there were four makes at lesser heights, then a 1st-attempt 7-3 clearance that got him in the top six.  Then there was a grinding 3rd-attempt 7-3.75 that assured him a medal position.  Finally, as hope seemed to drain at 7-4.5, Carbin willed himself over the bar on his 3rd try again for the silver.

But when you talk with him afterward?  Just a humble young man who while clearly extremely pleased, simply conveyed a sense that he was just doing the best he could, just doing what he was supposed to do and not giving up – all while sounding a little more like he’d just gotten an A-minus on a chemistry exam rather than winning a World U20 silver medal.  And that’s the “something special” that puts him nearly at the very top of this list.

1. Anna Cockrell’s emotional 400H gold and week-long leadership

Interestingly, Anna Cockrell’s gold medal performance in the 400m hurdles (also Friday), and the aftermath, could not have been more different than Carbin’s – an aftermath awash in a flood of joyous tears, cries and cascading emotions.  But just as Darius’s reaction was his authentic self, so too was Anna’s, so appreciation of her is no less profound.  This is an athlete who wears her throbbing heart on her sleeve.  You could say Anna’s journey started in March of 2015, when she made big improvements in her 60m hurdles for 2nd at NBNI and secured her invitation for CSI in Cuba.  In Havana a few months later, she grew into the leader of her first international team.

A Pan Am Junior crown, more NBN All-American finishes and last month’s USA Junior runner-up performance later, it looked like Anna would be the 400H silver medal favorite behind World Junior record-setter Sydney McLaughlin.  But then Sydney made the Olympic team and left center stage at the U20s to Anna – who could hardly have grasped it more firmly.  She rolled through the prelims and semis, and then delivered 55.20 seconds of glorious intensity in the final to leave no doubt.  And two days later when it came to the 4x400 final, she delivered a sub-51 leg (like Sydney would have) to help secure another Team USA gold.

And yet … and yet, Anna’s performances on the track will always take a backseat to who she is as a teammate and a person.  When talking about her presence on Team USA, Coach Morgan said, “I was so happy for my team captain, an amazing, wonderful, humble individual.  To see her get that win and run that 55.20, that really touched my heart.  She was an awesome leader on our team.  She just has all of those qualities.  You should have seen her interacting with everyone and lifting the spirits of all, while handling what she needed to do as well.” 

And that’s why, watching her celebrate with Coach Morgan, Coach Carol Lawrence (from her Providence Day School in Charlotte, NC) and her family, there was no doubt Anna’s gold medal and leadership would be #1 on this list.


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