The City Beautiful Kicks Off the “Super Bowl of Running”
By Barbara Huebner
On a postcard winter morning, athletes and civic officials gathered Friday on the downtown shores of Lake Eola to kick off the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon in Orlando, the first-ever city in Florida to serve as the Trials site and what Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings called “the hospitality capital of the world.”
“Hosting an event of this magnitude is a true regional effort and I want to take a couple of minutes to thank our inclusive and collaborative community, who has truly rallied around this opportunity,” said Jason Siegel, president and CEO of the Orlando Sports Commission, in welcoming the media to the pre-race press conference.
Added Buddy Dyer, the Mayor of Orlando: “I’m happy to say that tomorrow, the road to the 2024 Paris Olympics starts in Downtown Orlando. … I want to encourage all of our Orlando residents to turn out tomorrow in red, white and blue to cheer them on.”
In a brief Q and A, Jon and Betsy Hughes – who have owned Track Shack, the epicenter of Orlando running, since 1983, spoke about what it means to host these Trials. Just as it has taken the 380 athletes entered in tomorrow’s Trials much effort to get to the starting line, it has been “a six-year journey for us, and we couldn’t be happier,” said Jon Hughes. “This is the Super Bowl of Marathons.”
Jon and Betsy Hughes, who met as teenagers while running at a local high school, “raised our family with our Track Shack family and they are all over the city of Orlando today, that Track Shack family, getting things ready for tomorrow, and one of them said to me before I walked in today, this is like Christmas!”
On Saturday, the gifts will finally be unwrapped.
Nine of the top contenders to make Team USA for the 2024 Games took time from their pre-race preparations to share their thoughts on how they got here and what they hope to accomplish on the streets of The City Beautiful.
“I think it’s going to take an A-plus day” to make the team, said defending Trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk. “But I’m really grateful [to be among] some of the best women America has ever had in an Olympic Trials, so I’m super-excited.” Since her Trials victory in 2020, Tuliamuk has given birth to a daughter, Zoe, and thanked the women who came before her who paved the way to both prove it is possible to be a mother and a professional runner and to make their path easier. “We can now see that being a mom is a strength; it is not a weakness. I’m really glad I live in this time.”
Echoed Keira D’Amato, a 39-year-old mother of kids ages 7 and 9: “I do believe that being a mother has made be a better mother and being a mother has made me a better runner.” Betsy Saina, who finished 5th for her native Kenya in the 2016 Olympics at 10,000 meters and now has a 2-year-old, said this Olympics would be special to her “because I have a little son … running for the USA and running for my son will be really amazing.”
Emily Sisson, the American record-holder (2:18:29) at the distance, said she’s been training in Orlando for the past three weeks, time enough to learn that the weather has been different every day so the
athletes should be prepared for anything. “I’ll be out there trying to have an A-plus day,” she said, harking back to Tuliamuk’s prediction.
Hometown favorite Jenny Simpson, the 2011 World Champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist at 1,500 meters, will be making her marathon debut just miles from where she grew up in Oviedo. As a child, Simpson got her first pair of running shoes from Track Shack and ran often at their events.
“When you have a kid, you hope they meet good people along the way,” said Simpson. “I got to meet Jon and Betsy early and those are the types of people you want helping raise your kids, so thank you to them. The people who are going to be out on the course, my high school coaches, high school teammates, people like that who have watched my career from afar, it’s going to be really, really special to do an event in front of them and bring the show to Orlando.”
Sam Chelanga, the fourth-fastest man in the field who retired briefly in 2018, also said he’s running for others.
“I’m here to show people that if you keep showing up every day and surround yourself with people who want good things in life … If you keep sticking your head in the game, one day you might make the Olympics. Saturday that’s my hope; I hope I shine for those people.”
The fastest man in the field, Conner Mantz, recently disclosed that he had “a big scare” with a stress reaction to his femur after his personal best 2:07:47 performance at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in October, said he’s ready to go. “In a way it gave me a mental reset, so think I’m in a good spot.”
His training partner, Clayton Young, also ran a PB (2:08:00) in Chicago and is using that performance as a springboard in more ways than one.
“The way I’ve approached this marathon, I knew that if I could replicate my performance in Chicago that I had a good chance at making the team. As the discussion started after Chicago of ‘who’s everybody’s Top 3, who’s making that team,’ I quickly realized that I was not making people’s Top 3 and I kind of embraced that underdog mentality and I’m going to take that all the way to finish line.”
Mantz and Young are the only men who have run faster than 2:08:10, a time that has “unlocked” two Olympic spots for American men (although both have to finish in the Top 3 to claim the spot for themselves.) A third spot will be guaranteed if another man runs that time or faster tomorrow. Asked how that scenario might affect tactics, Scott Fauble said he doesn’t think it will change a thing, especially with a forecast of temperatures that are unlikely to slow the race.
“I think tomorrow it will take under 2:08:10 to make the team,” he said. “I think the level of competition is high enough and the conditions will be such that we’re going to have three people in Paris.”
That confidence and determination reflected the remarks of Max Siegel, CEO of USATF.
“As you know, a marathon is not just a race; it’s a testament to the human spirit, a celebration of endurance and a showcase of unparalleled athleticism,” he said. “And while this event is about a spot to represent Team USA in Paris, it’s also about the Olympic values. It’s about friendship, respect and it’s about excellence. As we watch the runners navigate the course, remember that the real victory lies in the pursuit of greatness and the spirit that defines our athletes.”