Wonder Women


This is the best era of women's distance running that we have ever seen.


For anyone who has religiously read every word we've written over the last few months, you will know that this is not a new idea for me. Oddly enough, no one has challenged me on this (yet), although I'm sure that will change once this is published.


Don't get me wrong. I understand that there were some pretty phenomenal women who have made their way through the NCAA system over the years. I also understand how much influence recency bias has in these kind of debates and that numbers are typically the best way to get an answer.


But what I am arguing isn't necessarily about statics, record-breaking performances, or national titles. Instead, it's about how the dynamic of women's collegiate distance running has shifted entirely - mainly because of how good everyone has become.


* * *


When I look at the top women set to run at Nationals next week, I can't help but be overwhelmed by the amount of talent and firepower headlining the fields. With so many unique storylines to follow, it's easy to get lost in the entries and miss something.


Maybe that's why no one has been talking about the fact that Alicia Monson won't be toeing the line next weekend. Admittedly, Monson's absence from competition this spring became apparent relatively early on. For most of us, we've had time to digest that she won't be at the national meet, although it is odd that she ran at the BIG 10 Championships and then not at the regional championships...


So why isn't this a bigger deal?


Shouldn't a woman who ran 8:45 for 3000 meters (NCAA #3 all-time) en route to a Millrose title - before also winning the indoor national title in the 5000 meters - be a much bigger talking point? What would the general dialogue be if Morgan McDonald or Grant Fisher were injured and not running at Nationals? It would be a bigger deal, right?


That's because as long as there is uncertainty, fans will tune in to find out what happens next. That's why the McDonald vs Fisher rivalry is so important for men's distance running this year. Not having either McDonald or Fisher would mean there is no one to challenge the heavy favorite for the national title, especially with Amon Kemboi and Joe Klecker not racing.


No challengers means less excitement and for the women, there are plenty of challengers.


New Mexico's Weini Kelati will enter the national meet as the favorite, but the appeal of Dani Jones returning from injury, moving up in distance, and going head-to-head with the woman who she upset during cross country is a storyline that will still capture the attention of distance running fans across the nation. Heck, we haven't mentioned Ostrander who has been at the absolute peak of her dominance this year and could be going for the 5000 meter national title after doubling back from the steeplechase.


In other words, the rest of the field is so good that even the loss of a Millrose/NCAA champion won't damage our curiosity about who will win the national title next week...and that's a crazy thing to think about.


However, the level of raw talent that we've witnessed from this year's top collegiate women has been more influential than we may have initially realized. They have done more than just sustain our interest in the absence of a superstar. Often times, they have overshadowed the once dominant names who controlled the narrative at championship meets.


* * *


Texas A&M's Jazmine Fray owns the indoor NCAA record for 800 meters with a 2:00.69, but has hardly been considered as a threat for the national title since last year despite running the NCAA #1 time of 2:02.27 just five days ago. Instead, the attention has gone to women like Danae Rivers, Nia Akins, Allie Wilson, and Martha Bissah - women who have shown the range and consistency that Fray simply hasn't.


In today's day and age, having a top-ranked performance isn't enough to guarantee you NCAA gold. The real value lies in consistency. That's why every All-American woman from the indoor 800 this past winter (which includes Fray) will be returning to Nationals next week. It's also why the top 10 seeds in the women's east region 800 will all be advancing to NCAA's.


And what about Ednah Kurgat, the 2017 cross country champion from New Mexico who was essentially unmatched early in her career? It would be fair to say that she hasn't returned to that level, but it would be unfair to say that she's been running poorly. She did, after all, win one of the fastest indoor 5k's that the NCAA has ever seen five months ago.


But Kurgat's sustained success has not been able to match her competitor's rapid improvement, most notably teammate Weini Kelati who (in the eyes of many) is the next heir to become Queen of the NCAA.


Of course, it's not just Weini Kelati who has eclipsed the successes of Kurgat.


Oregon's Jessica Hull has assembled a resume of her own that only legendary collegiates before her can match. Her potent mix of speed and endurance has made her nearly unstoppable in the 1500 meter distance and it even prompted many of us at TSR to question if she would pursue the 5000 at the National Championships. Even with indoor mile champions like Karissa Nelson and Julia Rizk toeing the line next weekend, there won't be anyone who is a bigger favorite than the Aussie native.


* * *


Although Hull is primed to win yet another collegiate crown, it is hard to not think about "what could have been" when looking at the rest of the field that she will be facing.


What would have happened if Dani Jones was 100% healthy or if Sage Hurta wasn't running unattached this spring? What if we got to see these two women - at the peak of their fitness - clash with their PAC-12 rival in the final collegiate race of Hull's career? Would the Oregon Duck, who has put up stats that rival upper-echelon stars of this millennia, still be considered the favorite to take home the national title?


It's a question we can only ask in theory, but the fact that I can even ask that and not get yelled at gives you a perspective of just how talented the 1500 field could have been in 2019...


* * *


The talking point are endless.


Honestly, I didn't even get to them all.


We haven't even discussed the story of Erica Birk, the BYU mother-student-athlete who has been dominating the NCAA this year after giving birth to her son Jack just 16 months ago.


Or what about the elite women who are headlining the steeplechase? How about Sammy Watson's departure? What about Josette Norris' breakout season? The return of Erin Finn?


All of these topics (and more) are what have helped shaped this era into one of the best ever in women's collegiate distance running. Often times, you get overwhelming dominance from one individual or one team. Other times, you never know who will walk away with NCAA gold.


But in 2019? We have found a balance.


A balance where the absence of one superstar woman doesn't crush interest in the sport.


A balance where fast times and consistency is rewarded.


A balance where all-time greats can still be challenged for their crowns.


And who knows? Maybe this is just the beginning of even bigger (and better) things to come...