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American Distance Runners Beat the Heat at Olympic Trials

by Rich Sands

Cory McGee, Elle Purrier St. Pierre and Heather MacLean celebrate on the podium after the Women's 1500 Meters Final at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials at Hayward Field on June 21, 2021 in Eugene, Oregon. 

 

EUGENE, Oregon — The finals of the women's 1500- and 5000-meter runs were both held on Monday at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Track & Field, which prevented anyone from doubling in those events. But it also served to illustrate how deep the pool of young American distance runners has become. 

Elle Purrier St. Pierre and Elise Cranny came out on top in hotly contested races — emphasis on hot, as temperatures were over 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) at Hayward Field during the late afternoon competition. All six women who qualified for Tokyo in the two events will be making their Olympic debuts this summer.

First up was the 1500, where American indoor mile record holder Purrier St. Pierre survived some intense jostling in the opening 50 meters of the race, and was briefly forced to run on the infield of the track.

"I don't know what happened," said the Vermont native, who won an NCAA indoor title in the mile for the University of New Hampshire. "I was in the first lane and was on the rail and when the girls cut in there was a collision that shoved me off."

Without hesitating, she adjusted to a more aggressive racing strategy.

"I jumped back on the track as fast as I could and tried not to let it bother me," said Purrier St. Pierre. "I think it gave me a little bit of a boost. I wanted to get out of the mess and go to the front."

Indeed she did, leading the entire rest of the way en route to an Olympic trials record and personal best time of 3 minutes, 58.03 seconds.

"I lead most of it because I believed in myself," she said. "I knew that I was strong enough to do that, and I wanted it to be fast."
Behind her, Cory McGee (4:00.67) and Heather MacLean (4:02.09) set personal bests to finish second and third. MacLean also got under the Olympic qualifying standard for the first time, ensuring she can race in Tokyo. She held off fourth-place finisher Shannon Osika (4:02.18) by less than a tenth of a second.
For Purrier St. Pierre and MacLean, it was extra special given that they train together in Boston under the guidance of Mark Coogan, a 1996 Olympian in the marathon for Team USA.

"Heather is one of my very best friends," said Purrier St. Pierre. "She was in my wedding. We make each other better. We push each other in practice and we have a lot of similarities. Were both really tough girls. We've made each other better."

Another set of training partners dominated the 5000. Cranny outdueled Karisa Schweizer down the homestretch for the victory, coming out ahead 15:27.81 to 15:28.11 in a race that felt more like a training session for the Portland, Oregon, based women.

Given the extreme heat, the pace was cautious for the first nine laps.

"The plan was just to stay out of trouble, make sure you have room to run," said Stanford grad Cranny.

Then, with a four laps to go, their pre-race plan to break up the field went into action.

"It felt like practice, working together, switching off lap by lap and trying to slowly squeeze it down."

Schweizer, who won six NCAA titles in cross country and track while at the University of Missouri, echoed that sentiment. "This is such an individual sport and we've made it a team sport, truly," she said. "Being able to go out there and work together to get on that team was huge. It literally felt like practice when she took the lead and I took the lead. It felt very comfortable running behind her."

Rachel Schneider (15:29.56) pulled away from Abbey Cooper (15:31.05) over the final 250 meters to grab the final spot.

"We visualized this race quite a bit in a whole bunch of different scenarios," said Schneider, referring to her coach (and fiancé), Mike Smith. "When that move with a mile to go happened, I had already played through that scenario in my head. I felt super confident that I could go with whatever move, whenever it was made in the race. I just took it one lap at a time."

Gwen Jorgensen, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in the triathlon, finished 10th in 15:50.62

Cranny, Schweizer and Schneider all said they plan to double back in the 10,000 meters on Saturday.

Rich Sands is a New York City-based freelance editor and writer and has been a correspondent for Track & Field News since 1995, covering the sport at the high school, college and professional levels. He was previously an editor at TV Guide Magazine, overseeing the magazine's Olympic coverage.
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