Track & Field (384)
By Mark Winitz
If her past three track and field seasons are any indication, U.S. multi-event athlete Barbara Nwaba is poised to turn heads in an important Olympic year. The 2012 graduate of University of California, Santa Barbara, who competes for the heptathlon and decathlon focused Santa Barbara Track Club, won the heptathlon at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Track and Field Championships while scoring a personal record 6,500 points. That score ranked her #6 in the world last year, and #1 in the U.S. Only five U.S. athletes in history have turned in higher scores for the seven-event heptathlon competition composed of the 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200m, long jump, javelin, and 800m. Of course, the U.S. and world all-time list is headed by legendary Jackie Joyner-Kersee who scored the current world record of 7,291 in 1988 at the Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Last March, at the 2016 U.S. Indoor Combined Events Championships in Portland, Nwaba, age 27, captured the win in the indoor pentathlon (composed of five events) with 4,415 points, a personal best. That was followed by a fourth place overall and top American performance at the IAAF World Indoor Championships with 4,661 points, another personal best. Then, switching to outdoors, on May 29 she placed fifth and top American with a 6,360-point heptathlon at the prestigious international Hypo Meeting in Götzis, Austria which is billed as the most prestigious meet for multi-event athletes outside of the Olympic Games. Canada's Brianne Theisen Eaton--a favored contender for a medal in Rio--won the event with 6,765 points.
How has Nwaba acquired the multiple, refined skills to sit near the top of the world in multi events? Where did she come from and where is she headed at the relatively young athletic age of 27? Let's find out.
Nwaba was born and raised in Los Angeles by parents who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria. She is the oldest in a family of six brothers and sisters. In elementary school, she was heavily active in an after school sports program organized by LA's Best which involves children in a different sports activity every month. She graduated from LA's University High School in 2007 where she competed in the California State Track and Field Championships as both a Junior and Senior, in the 300m hurdles and high jump. Nwaba was recruited by the University of California, Santa Barbara where she graduated in 2012 with a Sociology degree.
It was at UC Santa Barbara where Nwaba first met Josh Priester, the coach that guides her today. Following a successful multi-event athletic career at George Fox University, Priester was hired by UC Santa Barbara in 2008 to coach the sprints, hurdles, and combined events. Nwaba was in her sophomore year at UCSB after competing in the hurdles and high jump as a freshman.
"I distinctly remembered our first coach-athlete meeting," Priester recalled. "I found that Barbara had done some high jumping in high school. I took one look at her and thought she was probably going to be able to take up the throws because she is a big, strong girl. I asked her 'what do you think about training for the heptathlon?' Her first question was 'what's the heptathlon?' So, I explained all the events and told her that there was an 800 at the end of it. She wasn't too excited about that. Ironically, Nwaba had the fastest 800m time (2:07.13) in the world last year for the heptathlon."
Priester served as the Associate Director of Track & Field at UCSB until the summer of 2012 when he left the college. That Fall, Priester and Nwaba formed the Women's Athletic Performance Foundation, a non-profit organization specifically to support U.S. female elite multi-event athletes. In 2013, the organization evolved into Women's Athletic Performance Foundation "doing business as" Santa Barbara Track Club, to include male multi-eventers.
"The driving force behind the whole thing is to improve the heptathlon and pentathlon in the U.S.," Priester said.
And, what is Priester's general coaching philosophy that he employs to successfully develop Nwaba and some of the other finest combined event athletes in the nation?
"There's no cookie cutter approach to training for the decathlon or heptathlon," Priester believes. "Some athletes can handle a lot more volume than others. So, the most important thing is getting to know the person and not just the athlete. In my opinion, the athletics take care of themselves when you truly have the best interests of the person in mind. The nature of the decathlon is eliminating weaknesses over time. If you can eliminate weaknesses and have an even keel you can do really well in the multis."
Priester's club now includes 12 open division athletes. Watch for at least four of them at the upcoming U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials: heptathletes Nwaba (who is the top women's automatic qualifier) plus Lindsay Lettow and Lindsay Schwartz, and decathlete Tom FitzSimons (who will likely compete based on minimum field sizes).
Under Priester's direction, the organization also organizes a youth section of the club that currently has over 125 youth athletes who are guided and mentored by the club's elite/open athletes, plus track and field and cross country camps and clinics for youth and high school athletes, and private and group training programs. Santa Barbara Track Club also organizes the Sam Adams Combined Events Invitational--all at Westmont College in Santa Barbara where SBTC trains. Priester currently works as an Assistant Track and Field Coach at Westmont, an NAIA member school.
Both Ashton Eaton (the reigning world record holder in the decathlon and indoor heptathlon) and his wife, Brianne Theisen-Eaton (the Canadian heptathlon record holder) spend much of each winter and spring training in Santa Barbara, hosted by Westmont College and the Santa Barbara Track Club.
The SBTC and its athletes, including Barbara Nwaba, are sponsored by ABEO biomechanical footwear.
We caught up with Nwaba two weeks before the start of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials and asked her some questions about her training, progress to date, and her outlook for the Trials and beyond. The interview is below.
Q: Barbara, how did the Santa Barbara Track Club come about with you and Josh?
During the last few months of my Senior year (at UCSB) Josh told me that he was thinking about starting his own non-profit and giving me and other athletes a situation where I could train and live without struggling too much. Luckily, my athletics at UCSB went well. Otherwise, I didn't know where I was going to go. Because, with the multi events, it's really hard to find a post-collegiate training situation.
Q: Yes, you're certainly blessed in that respect--having other multi-eventers to train with. On any particular day, do you focus your training on one specific event as a group? Or, are you spread over the track in groups, working on different events?
In the Fall, we're pretty much all together. That's when we do a lot of our general conditioning work. We're not doing a lot of technical work yet. The wintertime is when we start doing a little more technical work and we usually do it all together at that point. In the spring, it gets a little harder because everyone is on different pages depending on their competition schedule.
It's great having a group that's pretty much all on the national stage. When we first started the club it was only me and it was really hard. I was asking 'Is this what professional track life is like? I want someone else out here with me.'
Q: Can you describe what a typical in-season training week looks like for you?
Yes, we have Sundays off. We come back on Monday where we have shot put. We start with a little longer warmup, going through a netball series of drills. After that we do some grass running to shake off the rust from the weekend--maybe some 200s combined with a couple of 100-meter striders. Tuesdays and Thursdays are a little harder where we do two technical events and work out up to four hours. Tuesday is long jump and sprints. Wednesday is our active recovery day so everything is non-impact. We can go on the bike, stationary bike, or ElliptiGO® (outdoor elliptical bicycle). Thursdays is hurdles, high jump, and a little bit of grass running. And, on Tuesdays and Thursdays we always go to the weight room and lift: A lot of Olympic lifting and cleans, bench press, inclines, netball, plus a lot of plyometrics. Fridays are javelin and our 800 or 1, 500 meter workouts. We also might lift on Fridays or have active recovery again.
Q: How important is it for you to work with other athletes during your workouts? How do the other athletes in SBTC support you during workouts?
It's definitely a huge benefit having other athletes with you. All of us have different talents and specialties. Like, my best event is high jump. The long jump is usually one of my tougher events. But Lindsay Lettow is an awesome long jumper. So, every now and then, when something my coach is telling me isn't really clicking, maybe she sees something and she might say 'Hey, Barb, maybe if you try this...' So, if you're willing to accept it, everyone can give you cues to help you get better. That's, definitely a huge benefit.
Even just watching other athletes, seeing how they go through the process--say, like wow, the way she turns her foot is something that I never do, That's definitely been a big help because I'm very much a visual learner.
Q: Coach Priester has guided you since your collegiate days. What are the key aspects of his guidance that have contributed the most to your development?
I think, a lot of it is his positive outlook. He was a multi-eventer himself, so he is very aware of the mentality that must have when you compete. Especially, if things go bad, he's, like, Hey, you're fine. Look at the bigger picture. He's the person that always believes more than I thought I was capable of. If sometimes I feel like this is it for me he'll come in and be, like: This is where I see you in the future. This is where you'll be if you just keep on the path you're going. I see you at this level. He's always upbeat. That energy, you just feed off it.
Q: You've experienced steady improvements over the past several years, to the point where you were ranked sixth in the world last year in the hep and first in the U.S. with a 6,500-point outing at the 2015 U.S. Outdoor Champs. Can you tell me what's contributed the most to these improvements?
It's definitely the time I've spent in the sport. Just learning the events is the biggest part for any multi-event athlete. For example, a single-event athlete, such as a long jumper, might hit the runway three or four times a week. Well, multi-eventers can only hit the runway once because we have other events to work on, The more time we spend at any particular event, the better we get at it. Most of my success to date is just patience and time and knowing that if you just keep at it things will get better.
Also, having the experience at big meets. I've been competing at the U.S. Championships since my junior year in college when I redshirted. Also, learning how to just step back, be yourself, relax, and do your own thing...and the points will just happen.
Q: In a seven-event competition such as the heptathlon how do you keep your focus on the event that you're competing in, without thinking about what happened in the previous event or what's coming up next?
No matter what the outcome in a specific event, I have to process what happened and park it. You need to reflect on what happened in any particular event when the meet is over. You can't waste energy on events that are already finished. Plus, in practice, we go through a progression for each event. For example, I know the specific warm-ups I need to do for every specific event. If I just go through those steps, I know I'll be fine. I'll know my mindset has changed to 'OK, now I'm specifically a 200-meter runner,' or 'now, I'm just a long jumper and nothing else matters.' If I constantly practice this in training I know I'll be OK.
Q: Do you want to talk about your experience at the outdoor World Championships in Bejiing last year? You recorded new PRs in the javelin and shot put, but the hurdles posed a bit of a challenge. What did you learn from your experience?
Editor's Note: Nwaba had a heartbreaking hurdles race--the hep's first event of the day. She mis-stepped hurdle one, then hit hurdles two and five going down both times. She did not finish the race, lost valuable points, and ultimately finished 27th in the hep competition.
It you're talking about experience, that was pretty much the biggest stage I've ever been on. I was seeing all these amazing athletes all around me. So, I almost felt that I was out of my element when I went into the hurdles. I was nervous. I think I just pressed too much in that race. I'd never taken an eighth step into the first hurdle. It just came out of nowhere. But continuing on to complete the competition was essential. I knew that it was the best practice that I could get going into an Olympic year. I was very proud of myself about everything else I was able to do at Outdoor Worlds.
Q: Moving ahead a little, to this year's big outdoor season, you had an excellent opener outdoors at the Hypo meet in Austria among a number of the best heptathletes in the world. That fifth place performance must now give you a lot of confidence going into the U.S. Olympic Trials and, hopefully, beyond to Rio.
Definitely if I repeat that kind of performance in Eugene I should be fine. Last year, winning USA's and then competing in the World Championships, I was in awe. Now, I feel like, yes, I belong. There's no need to be in awe, or be afraid. I just need to trust in my abilities. Now, I'm ready to go and just do my own thing.
Q: At this point, are you looking a little bit past the Trials? Do I dare ask, if you are competing in Rio, who your biggest competition might be? Brianne Theisen-Eaton?
Definitely. She's just a monster. As far as I can see among the top spots--who really wants it and has been working hard--it's Brianne for sure. She's been at the top for so many years now. It's always been a blast competing against her. Then there's Laura Ikauniece-Admidiņa from Latvia. She placed third at Worlds last year and had a huge PR (6,622 points) in the hep this year (at the Hypo Meeting in Austria). Also, Carolin Schäfer from Germany. So, if I want to get up there on the podium in Rio those are the girls I'll need to contend with.
But right now I'm not focused so much on that moment. Right now, it's just getting through the U.S. Trials and just making sure that I execute there.
Q: Barbara, what are your other goals this year besides that big, ultimate goal of representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games?
Yes, the ultimate goal is to make my first Olympic team. I'd also love to go out there, pull it all together, and PR. It would be great to keep climbing up there on the U.S. (all-time) list.
Q: And, what are your long-term goals in the sport?
Hopefully, to go another four years and, hopefully, to make two Olympic teams. And, hopefully, to reach the podium at the Olympic Games. Also, to make a lasting impact on the sport. If I can inspire anyone to even try the multi events once, it's an accomplishment because I feel like there is just so much talent in the U.S. and it's definitely growing. You can see that compared to the qualifying standards for the 2012 Trials, and what it takes now to qualify. The women's multis have absolutely exploded, which is awesome for our sport.
By Mark Winitz—On Day 9 of the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore. on Saturday, July 9 Californian Will Claye (Chula Vista, Calif./Nike) emerged as the men's triple jump winner. California's Chris Benard (Chula Vista, Calif./Chula Vista Elite) placed third. Both athletes made the U.S. men's triple jump team headed for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Brazil. Several other athletes from the Golden State fared well in their respective events and progressed to their finals on Sunday. A crowd of 22,847 at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field cheered them on--the largest single day attendance ever at the historic facility,
Claye's winning 17.65 meter/57 foot-eleven-inch triple jump came in the fifth round. Benard turned in a 17.21m/56-05.75 best jump, also in the fifth round, for third place. Gainesville Florida's Christian Taylor (Nike)-- the reigning Olympic champion and current World Champion--placed second with a best jump of 17.39m/57-00.75.
Claye was the 2012 Olympic Games triple jump silver medalist and long jump bronze medalist. Benard's berth on the 2016 U.S. Olympic squad will mark his first trip to the Olympics. Both Claye and Benard train at the U.S. Olympic Committee's Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. Last February, the USOC agreed to transfer ownership of the training center to the city of Chula Vista with an official opening under the new ownership on January 1, 2017. The center has an $8 million annual budget.
Claye, who is originally from Arizona, referred to his triple jump victory as "a blessing." Earlier this year, he had a sprain in his big toe that sidelined him for two months. He started training again last February. Last Sunday he took third place in the final of the men's long jump competition at the Trials, but didn't earn a berth on the Olympic team. Prior to the Trials he failed to earn an Olympic Games long jump qualifying mark of 26 feet, 9 inches. At the Trials he cleared the Olympic qualifying mark twice with jumps of 27-7 1/2 and 27-6 but both jumps were wind aided.
"Today was really refreshing. I've just been through so much with the long jump," Claye said after his triple jump victory. "It was distressful. I just needed to get my mind together and focus on the triple jump. I'm happy I was able to go into it with a clear mind and execute. I was just visualizing what I had to do--making sure where my feet were coming through the board, keeping my legs as stiff as possible, and being aware of my foot placement through the phases. It already happened in my head before I did it."
And what are Claye's expectations for Rio? "The expectations are always to win, no matter what the event," he said.
Third placer Chris Benard was also ecstatic about making the team on its way to Rio.
"I wanted to jump 57 feet coming in and that's what I expected I needed to make the team," Benard said after the competition. "Everything that I've done since I graduated from high school has centered around track. When you completely focus everything you have around something specific, validation comes with success. And this is the highest level of success I've ever had."
Benard attended Santiago High School in Corona, Calif. and then Arizona State University where he was the runner-up in the triple jump at the 2012 NCAA Indoor Championships.
"I work on every specific aspect of the triple jump in practice. And, in the end, when I'm at the meet, I try to put it all together," said Benard who occasionally trains with Will Claye at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center when their training schedules coincide. He more often trains with April Sinkler. Sinkler finished sixth in the women's triple jump final last Thursday, July 7.
In other action on the ninth day of competition at the Trials among Californians, Brittany Borman (Fullerton, Calif./Nike/NYAC) placed fourth in the women's javelin throw final. Her last throw in the competition was her best, a 56.60m/185-08 effort. Texas A&M's Maggie Malone won the event with a 60-84m/199-07 fourth round throw.
Reining U.S. heptathlon champion Barbara Nwaba (Santa Barbara, Calif. /ABEO/Santa Barbara TC) turned in a first day personal best score of 3,903 points, leading the women's heptathlon field into Sunday's second and final day of competition.
In the women's 200m semifinal, 2012 Olympic 200m gold medalist Allyson Felix (Los Angeles, Calif,/Nike) qualified for Sunday's final with a fourth place 22.57. Felix is competing with an injured ankle which she is rehabbing
"I feel good," Felix said after the semi "But, unfortunately, the turn (on the track) is an area that we haven't had the luxury of working on. So we'll just get through with what I have. It's not so much dealing with the (ankle) pain, it's just that we haven't been able to practice that section."
Dalilah Mohammed, photo by PhotoRun.net
This is the tenth article from Mark Winitz on the athletic performances of the athletes from California. This is Mark's articles on day Ten!
More Californians Punch Tickets to Rio on
Last Day of U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials
By Mark Winitz—The final day of the 10-day U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore. on July 10 ended with five additional California athletes qualifying for team spots on the U.S. Olympic team headed for the games in Rio. A Hayward Field record crowd of 22,944 were wowed and entertained by nine finals.
Dalilah Muhammad (Glendale, Calif./Nike) dominated the women's 400m hurdles final in 52.88, securing her pass to her first Olympic Games. Her time is a U.S. Trials record and the fastest time in the world since the 2013 IAAF World Championships. The former All-American for the USC Trojans earned the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships but said she had personal problems in 2014 and was injured in 2015.
"I don't think it's sunk in yet," Muhammed said after her victory. "You hope for this since you were a little girl. I've been running since I was seven years old. So, this moment is finally here. I feel that I'm in great hands with my coach. Now, I'm looking forward to the Olympics."
Muhammed trains at California State University Northridge where she is coached by CSUN Assistant Track and Field Coach Lawrence Johnson, the 2013 USA Track & Field Nike Coach of the Year.
Another USC Trojan, Jaide Stepter (Santa Ana, Calif./Southern California) placed 7th in 54.95, a personal best. Stepter completed her eligibility for USC with All-American honors this year.
Barbara Nwaba (Santa Barbara, Calif., ABEO/Santa Barbara TC) concluded the second day of the heptathlon on top, clinching her Trials victory while earning a coveted spot on her first Olympic Games team. Her 6,494 points was just shy of her PR of 6,500 which she scored as the victor at last year's USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and ranked her #6 in the world last year, and #1 in the U.S. 2008 and 2012 Olympian and former Cal Poly San Luis Obispo All-American Sharon Day-Monroe (Los Angeles, Calif./ASICS) finished just out of the medals in fourth place with a score of 6,385. Lindsay Lettow (ABEO/Santa Barbara TC), the NCAA Division II heptathlon and pentathlon champion in 2011 and 2012, finished 10th with 5,960 points.
Nwaba gave all the credit for her development into a first-time Olympian to the Santa Barbara Track Club and its coach, Josh Priester. Nwaba was coached by Priester at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she graduated in 2012 as a 4-time NCAA Division I All-American, and then joined the SBTC which Priester founded in the summer of 2012.
"Josh Priester has made this whole thing happen--his big belief in me and knowing that I could make the Olympic team one day," Nwaba said after securing her Trials victory. "When I was a college senior I was freaking out, like where was I going to go (after college)? Without him there might have been opportunities but I'm not sure how far I would have gone with them--as opposed to having a training group, funding for housing, and a job. I'm one of the coaches for the Santa Barbara Youth Track Club, so they've provided everything for me."
Last May, Nwaba placed fifth and top American with a 6,360-point heptathlon at the international Hypo Meeting in Götzis, Austria which is billed as the most prestigious meet for multi-event athletes outside of the Olympic Games.
Looking ahead, Nwaba said, "It's going to be amazing competition at the Games. I'll compete against some of the girls that I've competed against at the Götzis Hypo Meeting. So, I know these girls and I know what their talents are. So, for me, the focus is going to be on myself. If I can do that, and not get distracted about how other girls are doing, I'll be okay. If I can just keep the focus on myself and my abilities, and compete my hardest, I'll do just fine."
In a very competitive women's 5,000-meter final, during which rain fell, Kim Conley (West Sacramento, Calif./New Balance) captured third place in 15:10.62 to secure her ticket to her second Olympic Games. U.S. record holder Molly Huddle (R.I., Saucony) won in 15:05.01. Shelby Houlihan (Ariz., Nike/Bowerman TC) placed second in 15:06.14. Huddle holds the U.S. 5,000m record of 14:42.64. Houlihan was the 2014 NCAA Champion in the 1,500 meters at Arizona State University.
Conley ran conservatively on the outside of the front pack, avoiding trouble, for the majority of the race. She moved into third with two laps to go and closed strongly. On the second day of the Trials, Conley competed in the women's 10,000m final during which contact by another competitor slashed her right shoe partially off, after which she decided to retire from the race with about a mile to go.
"Obviously, the 10,000 was disappointing," Conley said. "I made a decision that the right call was to save myself for the 5,000. I got really excited about running the 5,000 here, and even the prospect of running the 5,000 in Rio. So, I've been totally forward focused and I'm so excited and relieved to make the team. I'm looking forward to what's ahead.
"My strategy was to stay out of trouble and I was trusting that Molly (Huddle) would keep the race really honest because she's such a strong runner. I knew there were several strong runners in the field like Shelby (Houlihan) that come from a really good 1,500 background so I didn't want it to be a 400-meter race. I was trusting that I could run a good last 1,000 meters. And, on the last lap, even knowing that Molly probably wasn't going to keep the 5,000 (Olympic team berth), I really wanted to be in the top three and be able to go on the victory lap. So, I was really tracking for that third place finish."
Following her 10,000m victory, Huddle waived her 10,000m spot on the Olympic team in favor of the 5,000m.
In the women's 200-meter final, former Clovis (California) High School standout Jenna Prandini (Puma, Eugene, Ore.) placed third in 22.53 literally falling across the finish line just in front of 2012 Olympic Games 200m gold medalist Allyson Felix (Nike) who was fourth in 22.54. Tori Bowie won in 22.25. Oregon's Deajah Stevens was second in 22.30.
"I was going all out. I just wanted to make sure that I got on this team," said Prandini who was the 2015 NCAA Division I Champion at 100m for the Oregon Ducks, and in the long jump the previous year. She was also the U.S. 200m Champion last year.
"The Olympics have been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl. I'm so honored to be on this team. I don't know if I can remember what happened the last few meters. I was just really focused on my lane, I knew that Allyson was coming so I just wanted to get to that finish line and do whatever it took to get on this team. I'm happy that (the sprawling finish) happened because it got me third place. I was hoping that it was enough to get me on the team. When they posted the spots on the board I was just overwhelmed with excitement. I have some little scrapes but I can't feel it. It doesn't matter right now."
For Felix, who won the women's 400m final earlier in the Trials, earning a berth on her fourth Olympic team in the 200m final was a partial letdown. Felix came into the Trials with an ankle injury that has cut significantly into her Trials' preparations.
"All year I planned for this race, and for it to end here, it's disappointing," Felix commented. "But when I look back and see everything that happened, I still think it's quite amazing that I was able to make this team (in the 400m). I feel like everything was against me."
Looking forward, Felix said: "I don't think I need races at this point. I think I need some work, some rest and recovery, and to take the time that we have left (before the Oly Games) just to get back and try to perfect the 400."
In the women's 1,500m final, Brenda Martinez (Rancho Cucacomga, Calif., New Balance) qualified for her first Olympic team by placing third in 4:06.39. 2008 and 2012 Olympian Jenny Simpson (Fla., New Balance) grabbed first in 4:04.74. Native San Franciscan Shannon Rowbury who now trains in Oregon with the Nike Oregon Project--also a 2008 and 2012 Olympian--was second in 4:05.39.
Back on Day 4 of the Trials, Martinez was relegated to a 7th place finish in the 800m final after being bumped and thrown off stride rounding the last turn, cutting short a potential trip to Rio in that event. After falling to the track at the finish line in exultation after grabbing third in the 1,500m, Martinez appeared in a post-race press conference where she expressed her unfailing belief in herself and an Olympic team berth.
"I just kept telling myself not to give up," Martinez told reporters. "I got so many e-mails, Instagram and Facebook messages, it made me feel so much support."
Click here for a USATF press release announcing the full list of U.S. track and field athletes, including Californians, who will be nominated to the U.S. Olympic Committee for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team headed to Rio.
Mark Cullen wrote for us in Beijing in 2015. Here is his first piece of the Olympic Trials for RunBlogRun, on the men's and women's 20k race walks. Mark has a superb blog at www.trackerati.com.