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Posted: July 9, 2023:  

(RRW) Athletics: Hiltz, Nuguse Take Home USATF 1500m Titles

From David Monti, @d9monti
© 2022 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved.

EUGENE (08-Jul) -- With fast finishes, Nikki Hiltz and Yared Nuguse took home the national 1500m titles tonight on the penultimate day of the 2023 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon. Hiltz, 25, who represents lululemon and trains in Flagstaff, Ariz., used a final burst of speed to win their first outdoor national title in 4:03.10. Nuguse, 24, who trains with the On Athletics Club in Boulder, Colo., had to come from behind in the homestretch to win his first national title in 3:34.90. Both athletes earned spots on Team USATF for the World Athletics Championships in Budapest next month.

PHOTO: Yared Nuguse wins the men's 1500m title at the 2023 USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

While Nuguse, the North American record holder for 1500m, was the favorite to win, Hiltz was just one of eight women who had a good chance to win tonight including defending champion Sinclaire Johnson, reigning world and Olympic 800m champion Athing Mu, and 2021 Olympians Cory McGee and Heather MacLean. With so much firepower in the field, Hiltz had to use a patient strategy and time their moves just right because simply overwhelming the field wasn't possible.

PHOTO: Nikki Hiltz wins the women's 1500m title at the 2023 USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

"It was kind of like, staying calm in the beginning and then making big moves at the end," Hiltz told reporters.

Hiltz did not react when Laurie Barton of the Brooks Beasts Track Club jumped to a three-meter lead from the gun. Instead, Hiltz kept an eye on Mu, who was running in second place at 400 meters, and stayed with McGee, Johnson, teenager Addy Wiley, and MacLean. Barton was still leading at 800 meters (2:12.29) but by the time the field hit the top of the backstretch everyone was together again. The pace was strong, but not too fast so Hiltz knew that there would be a big group left at the end.

"Obviously, everyone in there is like a class act and has done incredible things," Hiltz told reporters. "But I know that I'm a great runner, too, and I just had to believe in myself."

At the bell, Wiley took the lead with Mu, and McGee, Hiltz and Johnson followed. Everyone else was out of it at that point. That group of five came around the final bend, and the final wind-up began. Wiley didn't have the top-end speed of the others and had to settle for fifth in 4:04.25. Just ahead of her, Johnson, Hiltz, Mu and McGee were barreling for the tape.

"At that point it's just bodies," Hiltz said.

Johnson ran to exhaustion, fell to the track just before the line, and finished fourth in 4:03.49. Hiltz found one more gear and surged to the tape to get the win in 4:03.10. Mu ran a huge personal best in second (4:03.44) and McGee got third (4:03.48).

When asked what they felt at the finish, Hiltz paused and said: "I don't have words for it, but I think relief." Hiltz continued: "So much relief, joy, every emotion."

For Mu --who has an automatic entry for the World Athletics Championships in the 800m because she is the defending champion-- her first serious foray into the 1500m was a resounding success. She dropped her personal best by seven seconds between rounds, and ran a tactically sound race, getting good position for the final sprint and nearly getting the win.

"I went into it the same way I felt going into the semi-finals, chilling, at peace, just excited to run," Mu told reporters. She added: "By the time I got to the last 100 I just wanted to give it all, just like any other race and pull it all the way through."

Mu left open the possibility that she would double in Budapest, but said that she and coach Bobby Kersee had yet to make a decision.

"I don't know," Mu said. "Bobby has mentioned it numerous times this year. So, we'll have a conversation. We'll talk about it."

If Mu declines her team spot, it will go to Johnson who has the championships entry standard of 4:03.50 and was next in the finish order tonight. Both Johnson and McGee said it was a very physical race.

"I felt like I got caught up in that and lost a lot of energy," Johnson lamented.

The men's 1500m final went to script - almost. Nuguse, who is comfortable leading, went to the front almost from the start, and split a reasonable 58.8 seconds for 400 meters. Like soldiers in a convoy, the rest of the field lined up behind him, including Hobbs Kessler, Cole Hocker, and Eric Holt. Joe Waskom of the University of Washington, the 2022 NCAA 1500m champion, was back in ninth place.

"I just kind of kept it out, not going too hard but like keeping it relatively honest so it doesn't bunch up," Nuguse said when asked about his strategy today.

Nuguse still led through 1200 meters, but at the end of the backstretch Waskom attacked and passed Nuguse.

"Joe kind of popped out of nowhere and I was like, man, that was a good move right there," Nuguse said. He added: "It was cool to see a college kid going for the moment."

But Waskom's lead was short-lived. Nuguse came back on him, took the lead in the homestretch and won in 3:34.90. Waskom got second in a personal best 3:35.32. Third place went to Olympian Cole Hocker who held off the close of Sam Prakel, 3:35.46 to 3:35.83. Kessler, who had realistic hopes of making the team, only finished sixth.

"I'm super-pumped about it," Nuguse said of his win.

Waskom was equally delighted. Although he does not have the World Athletics Championships entry standard of 3:34.20, he is likely either to rise enough in the World Athletics points ranking to claim a team spot, or make the standard by July 30, as the rules permit.

"Pretty stoked," said Waskom when asked about representing the USA at the World Athletics Championships. "I can't really believe it myself."

In the other two distance finals tonight, the men's and women's 3000m steeplechase, both winners came as a surprise. On the women's side Krissy Gear of Hoka Northern Arizona Elite passed ten-time national champion Emma Coburn after hurdling the final barrier in the homestretch to not only win her first national title, but also lock-in her World Championships team spot by handily breaking the entry standard of 9:23.00 with a 9:12.81 personal best. She was in shock.

PHOTO: Krissy Gear (front and center) on her way to winning the women's 3000m steeplechase title at the 2023 USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

"I couldn't believe it," said Gear as she recalled passing Coburn, who finished second in a season's best 9:13.60. "I definitely had like a hiccup moment where I was kind of like, I felt really bad and didn't want to do it. Then I was like, it's Emma f***ing Coburn! You know, I want to see Emma win. I was like a fangirl, but I also want to win."

Coburn, 32, was at peace with her loss today. She told reporters that she didn't make a strong enough move late in the race and allowed her rivals to remain too close. But then she paused, and tears came to her eyes as she spoke about how much she misses her late mother, Annie, whom she lost to cancer on January 7.

"Worst stuff has happened to me than getting second at the U.S. Championships," Coburn began. She continued: "My last nine months has been super-hard, especially the last six months. I miss my mom a lot. That's the only reason that it would have been super-great to like, win this for her, me feeling like I'm doing this for her. She's watching and she doesn't care if I get first, second, third, tenth, whatever. It's been a hard few months for my family. It would have just been super-cool to have this be the cherry on top; that's the only painful moment of this."

Third place, and the third team spot, went to Courtney Wayment in 9:14.63. She had led most of the race before Coburn, then Gear, passed her. Courtney Frerichs, the 2021 Olympic silver medalist, qualified for tonight's final after falling in the prelims but did not start. She said on her Instagram account that she had an ankle injury and that it was painful to walk.

Kenneth Rooks of Brigham Young University was the shock winner of the men's steeplechase. Rooks, the 2023 NCAA champion, tumbled over the backstretch barrier on the second lap and rolled over three times on the track. But the 23 year-old was able to get back on his feet, catch the pack, then get into the mix for the podium on the final lap.

PHOTO: Kenneth Rooks wins the men's 3000m steeplechase title at the 2023 USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Ore. (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)

"The guy ahead of me just like, he stumbled and kind of fell a little bit over the barrier," Rooks recounted. "I was close to him and there was nothing really I could do. I just lost track of the barrier, ran into it, and fell over it."

To his credit, Rooks had thought about what he might do if he fell in the race as he made his preparations for tonight's final. He wouldn't panic.

"At that moment in time I was like, I'm going to get up and start moving forward," he said. "Henry Marsh (fourth in the 1984 Olympic Games steeplechase), he used to run from the back of the race, and I was like, I just have to slowly just work my way back up then I'll just see how many guys I can get."

With one lap to go Mason Ferlic took the lead and significantly upped the pace. Ferlic held the lead down the backstretch, but coming into the final water jump he was overtaken first by Benard Keter of the U.S. Army team, then Rooks also came by with Isaac Updike right behind.

"I couldn't get a gap on them, and my water pit was garbage," Ferlic told Race Results Weekly.

Rooks got past Ferlic on the final bend and set his sights on Keter, a Tokyo Olympic finalist. Keter got to the final barrier first, but Rooks motored past him in the final meters to take the win in 8:16.78, a personal best. Keter got second in 8:17.19, also a personal best, and Updike passed the tiring Ferlic to take third in 8:17.69.

"I wanted to make sure I left it out on the track today whether I had the success I had today or I didn't," said Rooks, who hasn't achieved the World Championships entry standard of 8:15.00 (neither have Keter or Updike). However, all three men should be high enough in the World Athletics rankings to claim team spots, and they also have until July 30 to hit the time.

These championships close tomorrow, with four more distance races remaining: the 800m and 5000m for both men and women. Tonight's crowd was the largest of these championships so far with 8,965 ticketed spectators, according to USA Track & Field.

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