Eugene - The IAAF World Junior Track & Field Championships get underway today at Historic Hayward Field with 1,758 athletes from 177 countries competing.
Included among those are six University of Oregon athletes, 18-year-old distance phenom Mary Cain, who trains in Portland with Alberto Salazar's Nike Oregon Project group, and emerging star Alexa Efraimson, a high school senior in Camas, Washington.
The six-day competition, held every other year since 1986, is making its first-ever appearance in the U.S. and will be the largest IAAF event ever held on American soil. The World Juniors will give local track and field fans a great chance to see in person many of the athletes who are destined to become stars at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
Don't let the word "junior" fool you, though. While only athletes who are under 20 years of age at the end of 2014 are eligible to compete here, the top athletes at this meet are already world-class in many cases.
Take Mary Cain, for example. Cain exploded on to the U.S. distance scene as a high school junior, setting five U.S. junior records over the past two years. At the tender age of 17, Cain made the U.S. team for the IAAF World Championships in Moscow last summer, and became the youngest woman to make the 1500 meter final, in which she finished 10th.
Cain is running the 3000 meters here, and the 3000 final on Thursday evening will pit her against two young Africans who have run even faster than Cain. Ethiopia's Senbere Teferi is the favorite in the event, having run 8:41.54 to Cain's personal best of 9:04.51. Kenya's Lilian Kasait Rengeruk, who has run 8:53.41, is another strong contender.
After winning the 3000 meters at the U.S. Junior Championships to qualify for this event, Cain was asked why she chose to run the longer distance at the World Juniors rather than the 1500.
"I know that internationally the 1500 and 3000 are both really strong events, but I personally felt I'd be a little more challenged in the 3K," Cain said. "I'm not as familiar with it because I don't race it as often, so I thought it would be fun to mix it up and get a really hard effort in. And It's kind of nicer because there's just finals and no heats, so therefore it might be a little faster than the 1500 will be."
Cain said she plans to train through this meet, though, and use it as a means to both gain experience against top competition and to stay in top shape for the Diamond League meets in Stockholm and/or Zurich in August.
Asked about facing the stiff competition from Teferi and other African runners, Cain said she was looking forward to the challenge.
"At first I was like, 'oh, jeez,' and then I got really excited 'cause I think the thing is I don't think we're going to run 8:41 pace the whole way, it will be more like a sit and kick (race). It will give me a really good chance to continue to practice how to compete. I actually know the girl (Teferi). She came in third two years ago when I was racing (at world juniors) and, it's funny, we actually have the same birthday, May 3rd.
"The thing about me is I don't shy away from competition . . . I think it will be a really good field in that 3K and that's why I'm going for it."
Cain turned professional last fall, giving up her college eligibility while still in high school. She said at the time that going pro and continuing under the tutelage of Salazar would give her the best chance to develop as an athlete. A 4.0 student at Bronxville (NY) High School, Cain will still go to college, though, as she will attend the University of Portland, starting this fall after her racing in Europe is done.
"I have to go to school at some point," Cain laughed. "I'll probably miss the first couple of weeks though . . . awkward!"
US Junior 1500 champ Alexa Efraimson, who will be a senior at Camas High School this fall, is the second-fastest American junior woman ever in the 1500 behind Cain at 4:07.05 and is on a similar career trajectory as Cain. Efraimson has been so dominant against high school competition that she is planning, like Cain did, to skip high school races her senior year, and focus on major U.S. invitationals and international meets. Efraimson has said she is still considering whether to compete in college, or turn pro.
Efraimson has the third best 1500 time among juniors worldwide this year, but will have to deal with Ethiopia's Dawit Seyaum, the only junior athlete to break 4 minutes in the 1500.
Among the other athletes with a local tie, UO incoming freshman Arianna Washington is given the best chance to medal. Washington, who is already enrolled in summer classes at Oregon, will run the 100 meters and the 4 x 100 relay. U.S. teammate Kaylin Whitney blazed to a 11.10 100 time at U.S. Juniors and is a co-favorite in the 100 with Great Britain's Diane Asher-Smith.
Another incoming UO freshman, Raevyn Rogers, has longer odds but could still be a factor in the women's 800. Rogers, 17, has a personal best of 2:03.32, and Cuban Sahily Diago leads all entrants with her 1:57.74, the second-fastest time in the world this year.
Oregon freshman Cole Walsh, who red-shirted the 2014 outdoor track season, also has a chance to medal in what should be a highly-competitive pole vault. Walsh improved his PB at the US Juniors by eight inches to 17-6.5. Junior list leader Axel Chappelle of France has vaulted 18-1.25.
Also on the men's side, Trayvon Bromell is another world-class athlete who will be competing here. As a true freshman at Baylor this spring, Bromell won the 100 meters at the NCAA Championships on the Hayward track. In the process, he became the first junior ever to dip under 10 seconds in a wind-legal race, clocking a world junior record time of 9.97. Bromell will face off with Yoshide Kiryu of Japan, who has run 10.01 and is seeking to become the first man of Asian descent to break 10 seconds in the event.
Other UO athletes competing here are sophomore Maggie Schmaedick, 5000 meters; Christian Brennan, an Oregon sophomore representing Canada, 400 meters; and Ashlee Moore, U.S. Junior champion in the heptathlon and incoming freshman at Oregon.
Notes . . . In addition to staging the World Juniors Tuesday through Sunday, TrackTown USA is also putting on a High Performance Meet for elite professionals immediately after the Junior afternoon session on Saturday. The meet will feature six individual events and two relays. While all the fields have not been announced yet, 2012 Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor is the headliner in that event. The women's 4x800 relay will feature five teams, including a Nike All-Star team with Laura Roesler, NCAA 800 champion, and another All-Star team led by Ajee Wilson, US champion at 800 and holder of the world leading time in the event this season. There will be no admission charge for Saturday ticket holders to stay for the High Performance Meet, which gets underway at 5:50 pm . . . There will be both a morning and an afternoon/evening session Tuesday through Friday at the World Junior Championships, and a single afternoon session on Saturday and Sunday . . . At the 2012 World Junior Championships in Barcelona, Spain, the United States had its second-best performance ever with a total of 20 medals. The best showing for the U.S. came in the 2002 championships when the American team garnered a total of 21 medals.