(c) 2024 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Published with permission.

EUGENE, ORE. (29-Jun) — Weini Kelati was all but assured of a ticket to Paris before the women’s 10,000-meter run even started at U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Track & Field. The only competitor who had met the qualifying time for the Summer Games, she essentially only needed to stay on her feet and finish the race. Even so, she found an extra gear on the final lap to sprint home for her first Olympic berth and her first national title on the track. Behind her, Parker Valby narrowly edged Karissa Schweizer for the runner-up spot, though both will have to wait to see if their World Athletics rankings are good enough to qualify for Paris.

On a warm evening with low humidity, a field of 23 women set off with caution at Hayward Field. Marathoner Susanna Sullivan was the early leader, towing the field through a sluggish, but steady, early pace. Schweizer, Amanda Vestri, Kelati and Valby were on her heels through halfway (16:09.40), though most of the field was also in contact.

Erika Kemp made the race’s first real move in the seventh kilometer, taking the lead just before eight laps to go, with Schweizer, Kelati, Valby, Vestri, Jessica McClain and Kellyn Taylor following.  Both McClain, 32, and Taylor, 37, are veterans who ran the Olympic Trials Marathon last February.

Valby, who finished fourth in the 5000 earlier in the meet and said she only fully committed to running the 10,000 today, moved to the front three laps later, after getting the thumbs up from her University of Florida coach, Will Palmer. Only Schweizer and Kelati were able to match her pace, and at the bell, they both passed Valby, though they were unable to shake her. Down the backstretch, with 250 meters remaining, Kelati surged to the lead. She held off a challenge from Schweizer on the final turn and crossed the line first in 31:41.07. Valby caught Schweizer down the homestretch and inched into the runner up spot. Both were clocked in 31:41.56, and just 4/1000ths of a second separated them.

“I wanted to go to the front, but I said I have to wait, this is not what I planned,” said Kelati, a native of Eritrea who became a U.S. citizen on the eve of the 2021 Olympic Trials. “Patience, patience, patience, I kept telling myself that. I had to stay patient because I know I have that speed, have been working on my kick.”

It was fitting that she made her first U.S. Olympic team at Hayward Field, the site of her decision to seek asylum in America after competing for Eritrea at the 2014 World Athletics Under-20 Championships. “Every single time I’m here I have to have high goals and work towards them, no matter what,” she said. “I’m so happy to come here and make the team.”

Once Valby had gotten over the sting of the 5000, she decided that the 10,000 was a chance for redemption. “I didn’t want to leave on a fourth-place note,” said the six-time NCAA champion, admitting that the toll from the 5000 was much more emotional than physical. “I was super, super nervous for the 5K and I think that got the best of me. Before this race I was just having fun with it.”

An emotional Schweizer — who competed in the 5000 and 10,000 at the Tokyo Olympics — was in shock that she was once again able to finish in the top three in both events after a long recovery from surgery on her calf last fall.

“My road to getting to these Trials was way different than I had in the past,” she said. “I had to do a lot more cross-training than I would like to do and I’m just really happy because I feel like I’m finally back to being myself.”

That included her typical strong finish.

“I know I have a lot of strength in my last lap, my kick,” Schweizer said. “It’s not full force right now because I’ve just been coming back from something. So I had to install this confidence that wasn’t quite there yet, so I went for it.”

While Kelati knows her spot on the team is assured, Valby and Schweizer felt fairly comfortable that their performances tonight did enough to boost them into the World Athletics rankings quota which close after all global results are received on June 30.  It will then take another week before the final rankings are released.

“I did look at the time a little bit towards the end and I knew I had to squeeze it down for the last lap to ensure that I could get up in the rankings system,” Schweizer said. “The rankings system has been a bit of a whirlwind, for sure.”

McClain, fourth at the marathon Olympic Trials in February, matched that agonizing place here, in 32:04.57.  This was only her second track race in four years.

“I was hoping it would go fast and I was excited to run really fast, but I knew if it played out like the way it did today I likely wouldn’t have that last gear,” she said. “So it was about getting to the line as close to the top three as possible. I was pleased how it ended up for me based on how the race unfolded.”

Vestri, who is in the midst of a breakthrough season, finished fifth in 32:11.00, followed by Taylor (32:12.02), Maggie Montoya (32:13.26) and Kemp (32:21.84). Stephanie Bruce, now 40, finished 22nd in her fifth Olympic Trials 10-K, this time just nine months after giving birth to her third child.

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The women’s 1500 and men’s 800 finals are set for Sunday after semifinal rounds on Friday.

The 1500 was particularly fast. Nikki Hiltz pulled away from Elle St. Pierre with 200 to go to take the first section in 4:01.40. Knowing her qualifying position was secure, St. Pierre (4:02.14) cruised home in fifth, behind Sinclaire Johnson (4:01.68), Heather MacLean (4:02.09) and Cory McGee (4:02.09). St. Pierre and sixth-place finisher Sage Hurta-Klecker (4:08.07) were both given yellow card warnings for shoving. Hurta-Klecker, who had been fifth in Monday’s chaotic 800 final, did not advance.

“It would have been amazing to have a fairy tale ending in the 1500,” Hurta-Klecker wrote in an Instagram post, “but I found myself mentally and emotionally zapped going into the semifinal.”

The second heat was nearly as fast, with the top five tightly bunched down the homestretch. Emily Mackay (4:02.46) finished just ahead of Elise Cranny (4:02.56), Helen Schlachtenhaufen (4:02.68), Maggi Congdon (4:02.79) and Addi Wiley (4:02.92).

“This is my first time doing three rounds and how I felt today makes me feel really confident going into the final,” said Mackay, the bronze medalist at the world indoor championships in March. “It definitely helps having a day off between now and the finals. I think people were less timid and more likely to run harder today.”

The 800 featured a cutthroat format in which the top two in each of three semifinals advanced, along with three additional time qualifiers, and it produced a trio of sensational races. Josh Hoey (1:45.73) held off Clayton Murphy (1:45.76) in the first section. Isaiah Harris (1:46.21) and 2021 Olympian Isaiah Jewett (1:46.33) did not advance.

“My first year as a pro I wrote down a bunch of goals, the last one was to make the outdoor final and I’m here five years later,” said Hoey, a high school star who skipped the NCAA system and turned pro in 2018, but has struggled to find consistency prior to this season. “I made a lot of mistakes coming up to now, but I never gave up.”

In the second heat, Hobbs Kessler, who made the team in the 1500 on Monday, edged past Brandon Miller in the final strides to win in 1:43.71, a personal best by more than a second. Miller (1:43.73) also recorded the fastest time of his career. Abraham Alvarado (1:44.44) finished third and was rewarded with a time qualifier and the Paris Olympic standard (1:44.70 or better).

“I just wanted to run Brandon down, because we’ve really been working on going through the gears that last 150,” said Kessler. “That was a great opportunity to do it. I didn’t want to leave anything on the table.”

Two-time defending national champion Bryce Hoppel exuded confidence as he controlled the final section, winning in 1:44.01, with Jonah Koech (1:44.47) taking the second automatic spot. Shane Cohen, using the same late-race charge that got him an NCAA title on this track earlier in the month, stormed from sixth to third in the final stretch, trimming his personal best to 1:44.92, which was good enough to advance.

Crowd favorite Eric Holt clocked 1:45.05 and would have made it through on time, but he was disqualified for a lane infringement violation after taking three steps on the line.


PHOTO: Weini Kelati edges Parker Valby (2nd place) and Karissa Schweizer (3rd place) in the 10,000m at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials 10,000m (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)