USA Cross Country Championships Women’s Preview

Saturday’s race features a battle between the old guard and the new.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

Every once in a while a changing of the guard occurs at the USA Cross Country Championships. Take 1997. That year a 25-year-old up-and-comer named Deena Drossin took down three-time world cross country champion Lynn Jennings. Jennings retired soon afterward while Drossin, as Deena Kastor, went on to win a silver medal in the 2004 Olympic Marathon and set an American record in the marathon.

Kastor also went on to win seven more national cross country titles. In the last of those, in 2007, Kastor beat a 25-year-old up-and-comer named Shalane Flanagan. The following year another changing of the guard occurred as Flanagan won the USA Cross Country Championship in Kastor’s absence. Flanagan then went on to set American records at 5000 and 10,000 meters and win a bronze medal at 10,000m in the Beijing Olympics, all within that same calendar year. She’s been the top dog in American women’s running ever since, alongside Kara Goucher.

Both Flanagan and Goucher will compete in the 2011 USA Cross Championships Saturday morning at San Diego’s Mission Bay Park. Will another changing of the guard occur? It’s possible. Within the past year several dazzling new American female running talents have emerged, and are now poised to become the next top dogs. Two of them, Lisa Koll, 23, and Molly Huddle, will line up against Flanagan and Goucher Saturday.

Last year, Koll set a new American collegiate record of 31:18 at 10,000 meters before graduating from Iowa State University and followed that up with a sizzling 14:55 in her first summer track season as a professional. Interestingly, Koll trains with Flanagan under coach Jerry Schumacher in Portland, Oregon.

At a press conference held Friday at the site of the race Koll was asked about the “new guard versus old guard” dynamic in the next day’s race. “I’m just taking it all as it comes,” she said. “I think that, just because I’m younger than everyone else doesn’t mean I can’t compete, but I also think that I have a lot to learn from these women I look up to.”

Molly Huddle stole Shalane Flanagan’s 5000m American record last summer, clocking 14:44.76. She finished second to Flanagan at last year’s USA Cross Country Championship, but that was before her big summer breakthrough. In Friday’s press conference Flanagan revealed that it was a breakthrough she saw coming. “I told her, ‘You’re going to break 15 minutes in the 5000 this year,’” Flanagan said. “I just didn’t know she was going to break it by that much!”

It’s going to be a very interesting race. Of the four women involved in this new guard versus old guard dynamic, only Kara Goucher stands little change of winning. She is still returning to form after giving birth to her first child last September and is logging heavy mileage in preparation for April’s Boston Marathon. Don’t be surprised to see her take a big step forward, though.

Even if Flanagan and Goucher are both defeated by the two younger women, it would be premature to put them out to pasture. Goucher is just 32 years old and Flanagan still 29. Undoubtedly many of their greatest accomplishments lie in front of them regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s race. And on the flipside, even if neither Koll nor Huddle prevails, the future of American women’s running looks very bright because of them.

[sgi:MattFitzgerald]

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