Five women to watch at NCAA Championships & Olympic Trials

Texas A&M junior Shamier Little (with hair bow) has never lost a race in the 400-meter hurdles at Hayward Field. She will be seeking her third straight NCAA title in that event at the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships. (Photo courtesy of Errol Anderson)

EUGENE, Ore. – Shamier Little has never lost a 400-meter hurdles competition at Hayward Field. If she keeps that streak alive in 2016, the Texas A&M junior will end the season as a three-time NCAA champion — and a first-time U.S. Olympian.

Little, who enters the meet ranked first in the NCAA and fifth in the U.S., boasts a remarkable record of success in Eugene. In 2014, Little won her first NCAA title here in a personal-best and school-record time of 55.07 seconds. Since then, Little has racked up Hayward Field victories at the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships, the 2015 NCAA Championships, and the 2015 USATF Outdoor Championships — all en route to winning a silver medal at the IAAF World Championships in Beijing last summer.

Texas A&M junior Shamier Little will be seeking a third straight title in the 400m hurdles at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, June 8-11, at Hayward Field. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Hancock)

Texas A&M junior Shamier Little is ranked first among collegians and fifth in the U.S. in the 400m hurdles heading into the 2016 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field. (Photo courtesy of Andrew Hancock)

If Little can fend off a deep list of challengers this week, including Jaide Stepter (USC), Sage Watson (Arizona), Kiah Seymour (Kentucky), Autumne Franklin (Harvard) and Chanice Chase (LSU) among others, she’ll claim her third straight NCAA title and enter the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Track & Field, July 1-10, with a perfect record at Hayward Field.

But will the road through Eugene lead Little to Rio?

“I just want to get there. That’s the goal,” she told ESPN last fall. “Once I get there, I’m sure that I’m going to have another goal.”

With her sterling credentials and signature hair bow, Little might be the most high-profile Olympic hopeful competing this week. But here are four other women who could also make a splash at this summer’s Trials in Eugene.

Morolake Akinosum (100 meters)

After two consecutive runner-up finishes in the 100-meter dash, Texas senior Morolake Akinosum will try to break through this week for her first individual NCAA title. Akinosum’s wind-aided time of 10.97 is currently the fifth-fastest all-conditions mark in the U.S. — and the best in the NCAA.

Akinosum’s top challenger this week is likely to be Oregon sophomore Hannah Cunliffe, who ran a wind-legal time of 10.99 at the Mt. SAC Relays in April. Both Akinosum and Cunliffe have qualified to compete at the Olympic Trials in July, along with former UO stars and NCAA 100-meter champs Jenna Prandini and English Gardner.

Courtney Okolo (400 meters)

Perhaps no athlete will be as heavily favored this week as Texas senior Courtney Okolo, the 2014 NCAA 400-meter champion and 10-time NCAA All-American.

A year after missing the 2015 NCAA Championships due to injury, Okolo has returned with a vengeance in 2016, breaking her own collegiate record with a U.S.-leading performance of 49.71 seconds, which currently ranks as the second-fastest time in the world. Okolo’s closest competitor at the NCAA meet, Arkansas senior Taylor Ellis-Watson, has run the one-lapper in 50.78.

Courtney Frerichs (3000-meter steeplechase)

Courtney Frerichs, the 2015 NCAA steeplechase runner-up for the University of Missouri – Kansas City, will be wearing a different-colored uniform on the track this week. By Saturday, Frerichs hopes she’ll also be sporting a different-colored medal.

Since transferring last summer to the University of New Mexico, Frerichs has made herself a clear favorite to replace last year’s winner, Colleen Quigley, atop the podium. Her season-best performance of 9:29.31, set at the Payton Jordan Invitational last month, is the third-fastest time in the U.S. this year — and the fastest in the NCAA by nearly 18 seconds.

Keturah Orji (triple jump)

With a stiff breeze at her back at last month’s SEC Championships, Georgia sophomore Keturah Orji leapt to a personal-best mark of 47 feet, 10 ¾ inches — the longest all-conditions jump in the U.S. this year. Last week, Orji proved she doesn’t need the wind.

Competing at the NCAA East Preliminary Round in Florida, Orji jumped to a wind-legal collegiate record of 46-10 ¾, putting her officially atop the U.S. rankings. This week, Orji will be challenged by Vanderbilt senior Simone Charley – who has the second-best mark among collegians at 45-1/2 – plus Nebraska junior Tierra Williams, Penn State junior Dannielle Gibson and Auburn junior Marshay Ryan.

 

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