As you may already know, the Bowerman Awards are the highest honors in collegiate track and field, going to the best male and female athletes each year. The awards ceremony is held in conjunction with the coaches’ convention each December. A year ago I was honored by becoming part of the media voting panel.
With the Olympics coming up in a just a few days, this seems like an odd time to back up and look at college track again. But the ballots are due on Friday and I haven’t sent mine in yet, so here I am.
Last year I left the NCAA Championships with my mind already made up as to who would get my votes. Ngoni Makusha and Jessica Beard finished off tremendous seasons with dominant performances at the NCAA Championships, and I thought they were easy choices. I returned my ballot on the same day I got it.
This year, however, I really have no idea who I’m going to vote for even as I begin to write this. Each finalist has a strong case, especially on the women’s side. I guess I’d better have a decision by the time I’m done writing this post.
As voters, we are charged with evaluating each athlete solely on the strength of their collegiate season. The Olympic Trials and other summer competition after the NCAA Championships doesn’t matter.
Let’s take a look at each of the six finalists, and their strengths and weaknesses…
Cam Levins, Southern Utah
Undefeated outdoor season in 5,000 and 10,000 meters, including a somewhat rare double NCAA Championship
13:18.47 for 5k, #8 on the all-time collegiate list
27:27.96 for 10k, #2 on the all-time collegiate list
Dominant outdoor season, among the best in decades
Rest of year wasn’t championship-caliber
3rd at NCAA Indoor 3000 meters, 4th at NCAA Indoor 5000 meters
4th at NCAA Cross Country
Tony McQuay, Florida
Undefeated indoor/outdoor season in individual 400 meters
Heroic relay anchor legs at NCAA Championships and Drake Relays
Times not outstanding — best time of 44.58 is outside all-time collegiate top ten
DNF at SEC Indoor Championships
Andrew Riley, Illinois
Unprecedented 110m hurdles / 100 meters double win at the NCAA Outdoor Championships
Lost only twice in 110m hurdles (one of them to Olympic favorite Aries Merritt)
Best time of 13.28 is #9 on all-time collegiate list
4th at NCAA Indoor Championships
This is really, really hard to choose. Each athletes’ strengths are good but has significant weaknesses. When I look at what I think is important in track, though, it gets a bit clearer. Like Al Davis, I say “just win, baby”. I think the whole season matters, not just championships, and dedication to team matters (especially at the big relay carnivals).
This means I have to give McQuay my #1 vote. He won except the one time he was injured, and he anchored his team to wins in the two biggest relay races.
What about second? That comes down to whether you think outdoor track is significantly more important than indoor track or cross country. I do, and I think that makes Levins #2. Riley’s unusual double was notable, but Levins’ entire outdoor track season is about the craziest f***ing thing I’ve ever seen.
The women’s nominees are much, much harder to separate.
Brigetta Barrett (Arizona)
Undefeated season in high jump
Best height of 1.97 meters (6-5½) just one centimeter off the collegiate record
Kimberlyn Duncan (LSU)
Only 200m defeat came to Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross
Only 100m defeat came at NCAA Championships
Best time of 22.19 is #2 on all-time collegiate lists (and #1 at low altitude)
Brianne Theisen (Oregon)
Undefeated season in heptathlon/pentathlon
Best mark of 6440 is #2 on all-time collegiate list
These are three tremendous athletes, and all of them are deserving of the award. The committee really cannot go wrong this year. Unfortunately, I can’t split my vote three ways.
Here’s what it comes down to for me: Is this award about track and field in general, or college track in particular? The voting rules make it clear that it is the latter. One athlete put her Olympic dreams at risk in order to help her team win during the collegiate season, and for that I have to give her my #1 vote.
Duncan was everywhere at the NCAA Outdoor Championships: she won the 200, took second in the 100, ran on the winning 4×100 and on the runner-up 4×400 relay. She went to the wall to help her team win the championship, and doing so may have impacted her Olympic chances. Besides that, she ran on the NCAA Indoor Championships winning 4×400 relay, and was all over the place at the Penn and Texas Relays. She put team first, which is what I think makes college track special, and for this I have to give her my #1 vote.
I really couldn’t come up with any other way to separate Theisen and Barrett, save one: Theisen was a senior, Barrett a junior. Barrett will have another chance at this and Theisen won’t, so I’m ranking Theisen as #2. Admittedly, this is a stupid reason, but a stupid reason beats no reason at all.