The 18-year-old was the lone American to advance out of Tuesday’s middle-distance action.
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EUGENE, Ore. — Sporting the red Team USA vest for the first time at the IAAF World Junior Championships, Sabrina Southerland was overcome with pride. When she took to Hayward Field here for the opening round of the women’s 800m on Tuesday, the 18-year-old from New York City had a clear look of determination in her eyes, an aura of confidence and jubilation glowing from her frame.
“It’s amazing. I’m so happy and proud to be representing the USA. It’s an honor to represent my country in my own country,” she told Race Results Weekly shortly after placing third in 2:05.84. “It’s been in other countries in past years, and it’s barely ever in the U.S., so it’s such an honor to be able to compete this year in the U.S. It’s just amazing.”
Taking advantage of the first IAAF World Championships competition hosted in America since 1992 (three years before she was born), Southerland gritted her teeth around the Bowerman curve and down the homestretch, holding on for third and qualifying herself for Wednesday’s semifinal. Southerland was the only American from Tuesday’s middle-distance action to advance to the second round.
For Southerland, the first round was a proving point, a race that validated she could compete with some of the world’s best juniors and hold her own. It was also a learning experience, one that taught her a few valuable lessons.
“I actually didn’t hear the gun. I didn’t know it was like a computer gun or something. I was just trying to stay with them and secure my position,” she said with a chuckle. “I didn’t know what to expect, but now I know going into the second round. It was a different experience but it was fun.”
Over the last three months, Southerland has faced some setbacks. After a fine freshman season at Georgetown University that saw her earn a conference indoor title and a 2:04.21 personal best, Southerland recorded a DNF at the NCAA Division I Eastern Preliminary Round, thus not qualifying her for the all-important NCAA Championships. At the USA National Outdoor Championships in Sacramento, Calif., she finished last in her heat, clocking a 2:07.48.
Walking through the mixed zone after that race, the often bubbly Southerland looked lost and confused, frustrated and baffled.
Earlier this month at the USA Junior National Championships here in Oregon, Southerland appeared to turn the corner, placing second and qualifying for her first national team. Making the most of her opportunity here Tuesday, Southerland did not let herself get intimidated by those faster than her in the prelim, including Cuba’s Sahily Diago (who owns a personal best of 1:57.74).
“I was just trying to run my best and not worry about anyone else in the field. Just making it to the next round is my goal for right now, until tomorrow,” she said.
Southerland is well aware that a time around 2:01 or 2:02 is likely needed to earn a medal at these championships. That thought doesn’t daunt her whatsoever.
“I feel like this is the perfect situation for me to run [a personal best],” she said. “I’ve been in races with girls who have run 1:57 like Brenda Martinez and Phoebe Wright, and that has kind of prepared me for a different level. I feel like I’m prepared so I just have to run it like any other race.”
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On Wednesday, Southerland will sport the red USA kit once again, aiming to solidify a spot in Thursday’s final. She’ll do anything she can to make it to Thursday, giving her another chance to don USA on her chest.
“I knew there were some great girls out there,” she said. “It’s like a test for me.”