Updated: Dec 18, 2019
There is not any event more unpredictable than the women's indoor 800 meters this year. Whether the national race is tactical or hard from the gun, the four laps that make up this half-mile battle rarely go as expected which makes it hard to predict who will end up on top.
This season, there are a handful of women who appear to have a good shot at winning this event and another group who could sneak onto the podium. Below, we highlight which runners are the favorites, who could contend, and a number of dark horses who might shake up the national picture.
Martha Bissah (Norfolk State)
Bissah was the fastest woman in the nation last winter after she clocked a 2:02.58 (flat-track converted) at the Camel City Invitational which gave her the top seed heading into NCAA's. That time was only 0.17 seconds away from also making her the fastest woman during the outdoor season as well. The Norfolk State senior is coming off of a relatively strong cross country season and should be setup to run very well come indoors. Last year she finished 5th at Nationals and should yet again be one of the favorites this season.
While there is certainly a lot to like about Bissah, there are a few cautionary aspects as well. After having a very solid indoor season, Bissah actually ran slower outdoors and finished only 9th in her prelim at NCAA's, causing her to miss out on the final. Her highest finish at an NCAA meet is "only" 5th place and she only broke 2:04 indoors once in 2019.
On the flip side, she was also one of only seven women to break 2:04 in 2019 and her flat track time of 2:03.99 converted to the fastest time of the season. She comes into her final season with a year of experience at the indoor national meet - something she did not have in 2019. Experience on the indoor oval goes a long way and if Bissah is in similar shape to 2019, it could be the defining factor that gives her the edge for her first national title.
Can she develop the tactical abilities to become a title contender in March? She has all of the raw talent in the world, but channeling that talent into a perfectly executed race plan will be her next challenge.
Danae Rivers (Penn State)
Rivers is the defending indoor national champion and is consequently the favorite to win it all again this season. The Penn State senior had an absolutely jaw-dropping campaign in 2019 where she won the 800 meter national title, set a collegiate record in the 1000 meters, and ran the fastest time in the NCAA for the mile (4:29 at the Millrose Games). It’s hard to imagine that she matches all of that yet again this season, but another title (in the 800 or mile) is certainly attainable.
Experience goes a long way on the indoor track and Rivers has plenty of it. She has run at NCAA's every year since starting at Penn State, competing in either the 800 meters or mile. Her personal best of 2:02.53 is one of the fastest among all collegiates and her ability to be an elite runner in any middle distance event makes her arguably one of the most elite athletes in the NCAA this winter.
This season, it seems unlikely that Rivers will be pursuing the mile even with the depth in the 800 meters. The mile field at Nationals will likely be stronger than what it was in 2019 and the return of Dani Jones will likely deter national title contenders from entering the mile over another event.
Although Rivers is coming in as the defending national champion, there are also reasons to suspect that she may not win this season. Like Bissah, Rivers also failed to make the finals at the Outdoor National Championships last spring. She also was only 7th in her prelim at NCAA Indoors in 2019 and barely made the final despite eventually winning it.
Rivers is way too good to believe that those mishaps will slow her down, but it’s definitely too early to simply hand her the title.
Nia Akins (Penn)
After finishing runner-up at both indoor and outdoor national meets last year, is this the year Akins finally wins an NCAA title? The Penn senior is the fastest returner from 2019 after running 2:01.67 in the final at the outdoor national meet. Despite having a dominant pair of track seasons, Akins somehow flew under the radar for much of the season even after putting together a string of dominant wins, displaying consistent improvement, and dropping a handful of impressive times.
On paper, it seems entirely reasonable to think that Akins can win a national title this year. She comes in with plenty of experience, great personal bests, and is certainly motivated by two runner-up finishes (one of which she lost by .05 seconds).
Avi’ Tal Wilson-Perteete (UNLV)
Wilson-Perteete is the favorite with the least experience, having only made Indoor Nationals once where she finished 15th in her prelim. She actually did not even qualify for indoors in 2019 despite rebounding the following spring to run the fastest 800 meter time of the outdoor season prior to NCAA's. Despite her minimal experience, the UNLV junior should have high expectations for 2020 after finishing 3rd at Outdoor Nationals last spring.
On paper Wilson-Perteete is an incredibly polarizing runner. Her personal best on the indoor track is only 2:04.71, but she has also run 2:01.14 during outdoors. She failed to make it past prelims at her only indoor national meet, but was also 3rd in the final at outdoors. The lack of consistency from Wilson-Perteete is a bit concerning heading into this winter season, but she has proven herself to be a major national threat on the track which should make her fun to watch as she competes for a chance at the title this year.
Sage Hurta (Colorado)
Hurta is a name that may surprise some people when it comes to the 800 meters as she is more well known for cross country and steeplechase accomplishments (mainly because she ran last spring unattached). While she may primarily be a 6k runner, Hurta ran 2:00.99 while competing unattached during the spring of 2019 and immediately vaulted herself into the NCAA title conversation for 2020.
The Colorado redshirt junior has not competed at a national meet on the track since June of 2017 where she did not make it out of prelims for the steeplechase. Her only indoor championship experience was a DMR appearance in that same year. Despite this lack of exposure to competition on the national stage (as far as track performances go), Hurta has loads of experience at NCAA meets in cross country and Colorado coach Mark Wetmore has a way of preparing his athletes well regardless of the circumstances.
What makes Hurta so intriguing in this event is that she has never focused on the 800 meters during an NCAA season and has only raced a handful of them during her collegiate career. There’s nothing to say that she even runs the 800 this winter. However, if she can break 2:01 outdoors, there’s a good chance she can be in contention for the half-mile title come March.
Kristie Schoffield (Boise State)
The Boise State junior comes into 2020 with a lot of potential after placing 6th at the Outdoor National Championships last spring. Schoffield ran her personal best of 2:02.65 during the NCAA West Prelims where she earned a 4th place finish and a trip to NCAA's. She also qualified for her first indoor meet earlier that season, running 2:04.34 before being eliminated in the prelims.
Schoffield really started to come on strong during the end of her outdoor season in 2019. Over the final month of the season, she ran under 2:04 four separate times, which led to her personal best at the regional meet. Her sophomore season provided substantial experience competing in championship-style races which should be valuable heading into 2020.
If Schoffield continues to improve at the same trajectory, she could be a threat this indoor season.
Katy-Ann McDonald (LSU)
Although McDonald has not made an NCAA final yet, she is only a sophomore and appears to have loads of potential. She qualified for the Indoor National Championships after running 2:05.11 at the SEC Championships last year. Although she did not make the finals at the national meet, earning experience as only a freshman should go a long way in her sophomore campaign.
McDonald struggled during her first outdoor season, running 2:06.43 as her fastest time that season, but has shown promise since then with a strong cross country season this fall.
It’s hard to say just how good McDonald will be in 2020. Her freshman season was consistent with many freshman seasons in that it was…well, inconsistent. She has shown a lot of potential and could certainly be a factor on the indoor oval. There’s also a chance that her strong cross country season leads to her moving up in distance to an event like the mile.
Regardless of where she lands, McDonald figures to be enticing to follow this indoor season.
Lauren Ellsworth-Barnes (BYU)
Ellsworth-Barnes breaks away from the typical BYU mold of a true distance runner. She found great success during her sophomore season as a Cougar, running the third fastest regular season 800 meter time in the NCAA last spring and boosting BYU to a runner-up finish in the DMR at last winter. Although her personal best of 2:02.49 at the Sun Classic was impressive, her ability to step up to the 1500 meters and post a mark of 4:18 is what really shows us her true talent.
Similar to McDonald, Ellsworth-Barnes is still relatively unproven on the track (as far as indoors go) and could be looking for another big jump in 2020. It's clear that the Lauren Ellsworth-Barnes that we saw last spring is far more improved and refined than the Ellsworth-Barnes we saw last winter.
Kayla Johnson (Miami)
The University of Miami junior qualified for both the indoor and outdoor national meets last year in the 800 meters and was also a member of Miami’s 4x400 relay at both meets. She enters 2020 with a personal best of 2:03.04 which she ran in April of 2018. With her background in the 400 meters, Johnson is certainly more speed oriented than many of her competitors and could be seeing double duties again this indoor season.
Johnson, like many others above, is still relatively unproven in the 800 meters. Despite qualifying for NCAA's in 2019, she failed to make it past the prelims in both national meets, struggling in both, running 2:12 each time. It is a bit concerning that Johnson is now almost two years removed from her personal best and never ran faster than 2:04 during 2019. If she can regain her form from years past, Johnson could be a legitimate contender this winter.
Amber Tanner (Georgia)
With one season left at Georgia, will this be the year that Tanner makes her name known at NCAA's? Similar to Johnson, Tanner ran both the 4x400 meters and 800 meters at the Indoor National Championships and is closer to a sprinter than a true distance runner. The Georgia senior has run 53.59 for 400 meters and 2:04.6 for 800 meters - both of which she ran during the 2019 outdoor season.
Tanner has not made it to a final at NCAA's in the 800 meters, but really didn’t make a jump in that event until 2019. She came into last year with a best of 2:06.28 - a mark which she bettered eight times in 2019.
It's hard to dislike the consistency, experience, and progression that we've seen from Tanner. With the SEC no longer hosting Jazmine Fray or Ersula Farrow, Tanner will be aiming to take home the conference crown this season.
Anna Camp-Bennett (BYU)
The other BYU runner to watch in this event is Anna Camp-Bennett. The senior was part of BYU’s runner-up DMR last March and finished 8th at the Outdoor National Championships last spring, securing the final All-American honor. She comes in with a personal best of 2:03.65 and is coming off a strong cross country season where she finished 60th at NCAA's, quietly displaying some of the best range in the NCAA.
Up until outdoors of 2019, she had never broken 2:07, but much like teammate Lauren Ellsworth-Barnes, Camp-Bennett peaked when she hit outdoors, running 2:05 or faster every single time she raced during the outdoor season.
It would be shocking if she doesn’t blow away her indoor mark this year and qualify for NCAA's in the process. Her improved fitness followed her into the cross country season, making her a prime candidate for a breakout season in 2020.
Ruby Stauber (Unknown)
Before the fall of 2017, Ruby Stauber transferred from LSU to Oregon. She was coming off of a tremendous freshman season where she placed 5th in the 800 meters at Indoor Nationals and running 2:03.01 in the process. Since then, Stauber has essentially disappeared from the collegiate scene in a somewhat similar manner to Brenna Peloquin of Boise State.
After extensive searches and reaching out to our contacts, it is still unknown where she is or when/if she will be back. She is not currently listed on Oregon’s roster. If she comes back, Stauber could be a contender - but banking on that, at least for now, is not worth much.