There’s a new sheriff in track town, and her name is Shelby Houlihan.
There’s a new sheriff in track town, and her name is Shelby Houlihan. (Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty)
In Stride

This Summer’s Biggest Track and Field Stories

American sprinting, Shelby Houlihan, Caster Semenya. The list goes on.

There’s a new sheriff in track town, and her name is Shelby Houlihan.

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This year’s track season kicked off on a grim note when it turned out that the latest doping Icarus was none other than Kenya’s champion 1,500-meter runner Asbel Kiprop. Back in May, it was reported that Kiprop had tested positive for EPO. So far, he has insisted on his innocence (and fired off a few cryptic Tweets) but I’m not holding out hope. 

Fortunately, if you’re looking for something to get excited about this track season, there are plenty of viable alternatives.

U.S. Men’s Sprinting Has Its Groove Back

Last year saw the curtain descend on the Usain Bolt show and we all had a good cry. During the decade of Bolt dominance, it sometimes felt as if the most noteworthy news about American male sprinters was the way they seemed to bungle the handoff at a championship 4X100 meter relays again, and again, and again… and again. (It also didn’t help that Bolt’s two main U.S. challengers, Justin Gatlin and Tyson Gay, both failed drug tests.) But now that the great man has moved on to teasing us with intimations about a burgeoning soccer career, a new generation of U.S. sprinters is making a name for itself. Christian Coleman (age 22), Noah Lyles (21), and Ronnie Baker (24) have all run well below the ten-second benchmark and are arguably the three best sprinters in the world at the moment. Here’s to the future.

Caster Semenya Is Unbelievably Focused 

In May, the IAAF announced that it would be reinstating its controversial policy to set an upper limit on the testosterone levels of female athletes. To justify the decision, the athletics world governing body cited a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which concluded that female athletes with higher T-levels had a “significant competitive advantage.” This month, however, news emerged that the BJSM study was littered with bogus data points—leading some to call for a retraction of the study. Meanwhile Caster Semenya, the South African 800-meter runner who is presumed to be hyperandrogenic, has stated that intends to challenge the IAAF rule in court. Through it all, Semenya has continued to race—and win. As of this writing, her unbeaten streak in the 800-meters stands at 37 races. In June, she ran a personal best of 1:54.25—the fourth fastest time ever. 

Shelby Houlihan Is Throwing Down

In recent years, the most intriguing rivalry in U.S. women’s middle distance running has been Jenny Simpson vs. Shannon Rowbury. They were the only American women consistently capable of running under four minutes in the 1,500-meters—the unofficial standard to make it into the upper ranks of world class metric milers. But there’s a new sheriff in track town, and her name is Shelby Houlihan. This has been a breakout year for the 25-year-old Iowan, who completed a rare 1,500/5,000 double at the USATF Outdoor National Championships in June. Impressive as this was, Houlihan trumped herself earlier this month, when she won the 1,500-meter event at Lausanne’s Diamond League event in a PB of 3:57.34. (In doing so, she vanquished a several of the best middle distance runners in the world, including Sifan Hassan, Laura Muir, and, yes, Caster Semenya.) And then, last Saturday, Houlihan set a new American record in the 5,000 when she ran 14:34.45 in Belgium. 

Ajee Wilson Deserves More Respect 

It’s not easy to make a name for yourself in the women’s 800 during the Caster Semenya era, but Ajee Wilson is doing a pretty good job. Despite Semenya’s continued steamrolling of her competition, Wilson has quietly put together an admirable 800-meter resume of her own. In fact, she’s put herself in good stead to be considered the best American half miler we’ve ever seen. And she’s only 24 years old. Following successive gold medals in the 800 at the 2011 World Youth Championships and the 2012 World Junior Championships, Wilson accrued multiple national titles (indoors and outdoors), as well as a Diamond League win at a time where the competition in the women’s 800 is arguably as hard as it’s ever been. Last season was Wilson’s best to date, as she medalled in the 800 at the IAAF World Championships and ran a national record of 1:55.61. For context, prior to this season, the fastest Caster Semenya had ever run was 1:55.16. Could Wilson deliver the upset of the decade by taking down Semenya later this summer? Stranger things have happened—though I’m not sure what they are.  

Jakob Ingebrigtsen Is Norway’s Boy Wonder 

It’s probably a stretch to assume that I could convince an American audience to watch the European Athletics Championships, which will be taking place in Berlin from August 7 to August 12. (It’s enough of a challenge to get Americans to care about stateside track meets.) But this year’s iteration of the biennial competition is especially intriguing, thanks teenage sensation Jakob Ingebrigtsen. The Norwegian 1,500-meter specialist caused a stir last year when he became the youngest sub four-minute miler in history, running 3:58.07 at the 2017 Pre Classic as a 16-year-old. This year, at the advanced age of 17, Ingebrigtsen has taken his perverse precociousness to another level, improving his mile PR to 3:52.28 and clocking 3:31.18 in the 1,500-meters. As things stand, Ingebrigtsen has a legitimate chance to crown himself European champion as an adolescent. The awkward years aren’t awkward for everyone, it seems.  

Lead Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty