One typically thinks of sprints as being the strongest of American events. So it might surprise you to learn that U.S. men have not won a World Junior gold in the 100 meters since 2004, and just three in the previous 13 editions of the meet. Or that Team USA has not won a WJ 200-meter medal since 2002, or gold since 1994. With a sprint corps led by Tyreek Hill, Aaron Ernest, Aldrich Bailey and Arman Hall, American sprint fortunes might be about to take a turn for the better as the 14th IAAF World Junior Championships start Tuesday at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, Spain.
Not that it's been all bad for American sprinters. In the relays, in fact, Team USA will be defending titles at both the 4x100 and 4x400 distances. Between the two events, they've captured nine of the last 10 golds (contrary to mixed fortunes for relay teams at the Olympic and World Championship senior level). And in the 400, three of the last five golds have gone to Team USA. But if the four above-mentioned athletes can perform as hoped, it could really be a sprint bonanza.
Hill is the key, and whether he can maintain his fitness and composure as his life has been turned upside down. Just over two months ago, he was a non-factor nationally, just a good south Georgia sprinter hoping to win a 5A state title or two. He did that impressively, but everything changed at Golden South in late May, as he suddenly rocketed down to 10.19 and 20.14 (the 200 being US#2 all-time). After a false start at the Dream 100 in New York, he came to Bloomington and backed it up at the US Junior meet with winning marks of 10.28 and 20.57. Hill could win two medals individually, at least one of them gold, and teammate Ernest – an LSU frosh with plenty of prep and NCAA big meet experience who was runner-up in both – should be close or right there in both sprints, too.
Bailey and Hall, on the other hand, are experienced internationalists having served Team USA at the 2011 World Youth Champs – where both earned relay gold and Hall the 400 title. This spring, Texas prep Bailey has succeeded Florida prep Hall as the top American as they've moved up to the Junior level, with a World #2 best of 45.19. But both have to be considered medal threats. And these two, along with Hill and Ernest, figure to lead Team USA's hopes of extending relay dominance.
Americans have generally done well in the hurdles at this meet, with four golds and several more medals in the last decade. Preps Dondre Echols MD and Eric Futch PA lead hopes at 110H and 400H, respectively, and both should make their finals and be medal contenders.
The distances – 800 meters through 10,000 meters – have been primarily the property of East African runners during the history of this meet and 2012 should not be an exception. Team USA 800 runners Cas Loxsom and Robby Andrews kind of crashed the party in 2010 with silver and bronze medal efforts, but it would be a huge surprise for any American to get close to a medal this time around.
Sean Keller, Jarrion Lawson, Jarrett Samuels, Nikita Kirillov, and Gunnar Nixon top Team USA medal hopefuls in the field events and multis. WA prep Keller is ranked #3 in the world after his 253-0 jav at the Olympic Trials, while Nixon's 7,760 at US Juniors has him slotted at the #3 spot globally. Collegian Samuels is World #6 in the long jump, but his wind-aided best suggests a potential medalist.
Lawson, the Texas prep who upset Samuels in the US Junior LJ and also won the triple jump, should make the finals in both and contend for a medal. And with World #1 and US collegian Andrew Irwin not competing in the pole vault, collegian Kirillov will be the #3 seed in the event at the meet.
How many medals can Team USA men win in Spain? Figure on three golds – at least one relay, one sprint, and one more in a contending event – and five or six medals of another color. That would get Team USA almost halfway toward its all-time best of 21 medals, in 2002, and a long way toward topping the overall total of 15 from 2010.