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NEW YORK (09-Jun) -– The USATF NYC Grand Prix, a World Athletics Continental Gold-level meeting, was a sprint showcase, but also featured three exciting middle-distance races on what turned out to be a warm and windy afternoon at Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island. Great Britain’s Jake Wightman, the 2022 world champion in the 1500 meters, won his specialty with a well-timed kick, while American Sage Hurta-Klecker and Mexico’s Tonatiu Lopez took the 800s.

The men’s 1500 set off at a modest pace, passing 800 meters in 1:57. The entire 12-man field was separated by just one second at the bell, with Eric Holt, an unsponsored athlete with the local Empire Elite Track Club, in the lead (2:41.1) as he aimed to win this race for the second year in a row.

But Wightman, who missed the 2023 season due to a foot injury, continued his comeback campaign by timing his finishing kick perfectly. He cranked out a 52.6-second last lap to win in 3:34.01.  Holt was rewarded for his aggressive running with a personal best 3:34.05, while Hobbs Kessler, bronze medalist at March’s World Athletics Indoor Championships, took third in 3:34.41.

“I was trying to work out the wind,” Wightman told Race Results Weekly. “I knew it was going to be in the home straight. So, my hope was that I could be strong enough that no one else could run into the wind. But, Holt ran fast. He was there all the time. If I could have asked for that, I would have wanted it. It was a good simulation for the [upcoming British] Trials which is what I need.”

Holt had been hoping the early pace would have been quicker so he might hit the Olympic qualifying standard of 3:33.50. “Unfortunately, it was really slow, but it is what it is,” said the SUNY Binghamton grad. “I thought I was gonna win the race. But [Wightman] is a world champion for a reason and today my effort wasn’t good enough.”

He then lamented his status without a sponsorship deal. “Every race I step on the track I just want to show the sponsors that I deserve to be a pro, that I’m not just some schmuck, that I work really hard,” said Holt, who finished 4th at the 2022 USATF Outdoor Championships.

Vincent Ciattei (3:34.62) came home fourth, while 5000/10,000-specialist Grant Fisher ran a personal best of 3:34.90 for fifth and Eduardo Herrera set a Mexican national record 3:35.29 in sixth.

The women’s 800 field was towed through the first lap in 59.0, with Sammy Watson taking over for the pacer and leading through 600 meters and into the final turn. Coming into the straightaway, Hurta-Klecker surged to the lead and broke the tape in 2:00.33. Olivia Baker swung wide and mounted a late challenge, but couldn’t quite close the gap, finishing second in 2:00.73. Watson placed third in 2:00.91.

“My first couple of races were super, super fast, and this was just a good racing experience,” said Hurta-Klecker, who ran a season’s best of 1:58.48 to finish seventh at the Prefontaine Classic in May. “It’s a little bit different from a Diamond League where everything is lined up, strung out, so I needed a little bit of practice of getting into position and going for the win.”

Baker was also pleased with her run. “The goal was just to take another step forward. I ran 2:01 last week, two-flat today,” she said. “So, I’m moving in the right direction. I’m really happy with where I am going into the Trials.”

The men’s 800 also featured a frantic sprint to the line. Lopez had trailed the pacer through an opening 400 of 50.9, and refused to relinquish the lead, despite Isaiah Jewett’s best efforts. Lopez, who won the silver at the Pan American Games last fall, held his form and clocked 1:44.96 for the win, holding off a rush of challengers.

Lopez, who was targeting the Olympic qualifying standard (1:44.70), didn’t realize that the field was quickly gaining ground down the homestretch. “I didn’t know that they were so close to me,” he said. [There was] no screen to see. I don’t feel the steps [behind me].  So, I was thinking it was only me. But I’m very happy that I finished first.”

NCAA Division II champion Wes Ferguson of Nebraska Wesleyan, just seventh with 100 meters to go, closed well for second in a personal best 1:45.06. Josh Hoey (1:45.35) also set a PB after passing Jewett (1:45.41) a step before the line. Clayton Murphy (1:45.75), the Olympic bronze medalist in 2016, placed fifth.

Ferguson, who won his third-straight Division II outdoor title on May 25, was pleased to be the top American in the field but had some regrets over his tactics. “I’m really happy and I wouldn’t say that I’m ticked off, but if I had started that kick any time sooner, that would have been mine,” he said. “So, a good lesson to learn going into the Trials. A big PR, so I guess I can’t be too upset.”

PHOTO: Jane Wightman (right) just edged Eric Holt in the 1500m at the 2024 USATF NYC Grand Prix (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)