Quality depth marks women's high hurdles

No event at the 2015 USATF Outdoor Championships will be more hotly contested this week than the women's 100-meter hurdles with six athletes ranked in the top 10 in the world by Track & Field News magazine last year. (TrackTown photo)

EUGENE, Ore. – Of the 40 men’s and women’s events up for grabs at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field, the most difficult one in which to secure a podium finish has to be the women’s 100-meter hurdles.

No event in the U.S. is as deep and top-heavy in talent, or as ever changing.

Jasmin Stowers is currently the flavor of the month for the brilliant start to her 2015 season as a first-year professional with a world-leading personal best of 12.35.

Brianna Rollins dominated the world in 2013 and brought the American record down to 12.26, within striking distance of a world record set three years before she was born.

Olympic gold (2008) and silver (2012) medalist Dawn Harper Nelson has been a beacon of consistency through the years and led the world in 2014 at 12.44 as she won the Diamond League.

Queen Harrison is always a force to be reckoned with as she won two Diamond League events a year ago in running 12.46.

Kristi Castlin set the American junior record in 2007 and remains a competitive figure in the event with a personal best of 12.56.

Also in the mix are Sharika Nelvis, Keni Harrison, Tenaya Jones and Kellie Wells.

And somewhere out there, perhaps pushing a bobsled or posing for another photo shoot, is Lolo Jones, who should have won the gold medal in 2008 but did not, for the same reason the great Gail Devers should have won the gold medal in 1992 but did not.

That’s a whole lot of talent staring down a flight of 10 barriers.

“If you make the final, any of the top eight can be the gold medalist,’’ said Rahn Sheffield, U.S. women’s hurdles coach for this year’s IAAF World Championships in Beijing. “It’s going to be very hard to make the final in the 100 hurdles.’’

It’s also going to make that event a must-see race on Saturday, June 27 at 2:52 p.m. to be precise. As the 2014 Diamond League event winner, Harper Nelson has a bye into Beijing, meaning the U.S. will send four very worthy hurdlers to the IAAF World Championships.

It also means an equal number of hurdlers, or more, will not be going to Beijing, so rich is the event. Consider that six U.S. women – Harper Nelson, Harrison, Jones, Rollins, Stowers and Castlin – were ranked in the top 10 in the world by Track & Field News magazine in 2014.

“We can never predict who’s going to be on that team,’’ said Sheffield, head coach at UC Davis, and the brother of LaTanya Sheffield, a 1988 Olympian in the 400 hurdles.

“Predictions go out the window in the final of the 100 hurdles. We have more naturally fast athletes coming into that event. Instead of athletes running 11.8 (for 100 meters), there’s athletes that are running 11.2 to even 11-flat.’’

Using Devers as an example of how the event has progressed in the U.S., Sheffield said, “Devers ran alone for many years with that speed. Now these athletes are as fast as Gail Devers.’’

In her first season as a pro, former LSU standout Jasmin Stowers has posted a world-leading time of 12.35 seconds in the 100-mter hurdles. (TrackTown photo)

In her first season as a pro, former LSU standout Jasmin Stowers has posted a world-leading time of 12.35 seconds in the 100-mter hurdles. (TrackTown photo)

And they are coming along just as fast, one after the other. Rollins won everything in sight in 2013, including NCAA, USATF and World Championship titles. She came back to earth a little last year, running 12.53 for a No. 6 world ranking.

At 30, Harper Nelson cleaned up in 2014, winning the U.S. title and three Diamond League events, and recorded the fastest time of the year, 12.44.

Now, it seems, it’s Stowers’ turn. Now a pro, she served notice at the Drake Relays in April that there might be a new sheriff in town when she blasted a huge personal best 12.41 that took a full three-tenths of a second off her previous fastest time. She improved to 12.39 in Jamaica and then took the measure of the field at the Doha Diamond League meet in 12.35.

“Anytime you look at a person’s (improvement), you step back and look at their history, and they were there,’’ Sheffield said. “They were just quiet and waiting for their time.’’

That’s an apt description of Stowers, who, at nearly 5-foot-9 is one of the tallest elite hurdlers in the world. Last year she finished second at the NCAA meet and fourth at the U.S. championships and ran a then-personal best 12.71 and was ranked No. 8 globally.

“The right information is getting out to coaches,’’ Sheffield said. “It’s no longer luck of the draw. The coaches have the right information to make sure the athlete is brought along the right away instead of by luck. It’s science-based without ruling out the psychological part.’’

Sheffield does a deep dive into the science and technique of hurdling when he says, “Our competition is gravity. It’s defying gravity. If we can defy gravity more efficiently than the other person, we’re going to win. We defy gravity as sprinters and hurdlers.’’

Meaning, as he explained it, staying aloft as long as possible while spending as little time as possible on the ground while pushing off toward the next hurdle. That’s what doomed Devers in Barcelona in 1992. She was going so fast late in the race she did not have enough time to execute the proper technique over the last barrier.

“Her reaction time over the hurdle could have been more efficient,’’ Sheffield said. “She was moving at a rate where she didn’t have time to get her lead leg up. The game changes when you change one hurdle. This is really a rhythm race. When you’re moving at a certain velocity, timing has to go along with that velocity. We’re talking about shaving hairs over the hurdles.’’

No country does it better than the U.S.

As of June 15, the top eight times in the world were recorded by Americans, ranging from Stowers’ 12.35 to the winning NCAA mark of 12.55 posted by Harrison last week. In addition, seven of the fastest 10 hurdlers in the world this year are Americans.

Talking about the importance of confidence in a speed event that can turn dramatically over one hurdle, Sheffield said, “If you feel you are King Kong, you are King Kong. If you feel you are the fastest woman in the 100 hurdles, you are the fastest. Imagine having all eight feeling the same way. You open the door to possibilities.’’

Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:

Humble roots propel Kovacs in shot put

Hunger drives Rodgers on and off track

Felix lays groundwork for Olympic year

Jager hopes to lower U.S. record in steeplechase

Best still to come for U.S. triple jumper

Olympian inspired by motherhood

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.