Orlando Shines in Record-Setting Olympic Trials Debut
By Barbara Huebner
Fans by the tens of thousands lined the sunny streets of Orlando on Saturday to witness the first U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon ever held in the state of Florida. Most are undoubtedly hoping it won’t be the last.
In the men’s race, training partners Conner Mantz and Clayton Young finished one-two, appearing to soak in their success in the last miles together as they neared the Lake Eola finish line and their first Olympic teams. Mantz took the win in 2:09:05, just three seconds off the Trials record, with Young just one second behind in 2:09:06.
As the saying goes, looks can be deceiving. “I was just trying to get to the finish as quick as possible, as I thought I might collapse,” said the 27-year-old Mantz, a two-time NCAA Cross Country Champion who recently finished sixth at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon. “I think Clayton was enjoying it more.”
The battle for the final spot on Team USA offered more drama, with Leonard Korir – who finished a disappointed fourth at the 2020 Trials to just miss the team – put in a monster late surge to pass two runners in the last mile and secure third place in 2:09:57.
For the women, 25-year-old Fiona O’Keeffe became the youngest-ever woman to win the Trials and the first woman to do so in her marathon debut when she took the victory in 2:22:10, smashing the Trials record by more than three minutes. She was followed to the line by American Record-holder Emily Sisson (2:22:42) and Dakotah Lindwurm (2:25:31).
As she neared the finish, O’Keeffe said she felt both excited and nervous. “I started to hear people saying ‘You’re going to Paris! You’re going to Paris!’ There were so many strong women behind me that I was running scared a little bit.”
Sisson and Lindwurm became the second- and third-fastest women in Trials history; all together, the top seven women ended the day among the Top 10 fastest ever in the event. In finishing fifth in 2:26:06, 40-year-old Sara Hall set a new U.S. masters record in her eighth Olympic Trials going back to the 5,000 meters in 2004.
“The event was amazing and so was the Central Florida community,” said Jon Hughes, race director and co-owner of Track Shack. “They came out and showed their support to make this one of the best Olympic Trials ever. Today was not only a lifetime achievement for many of the athletes who competed, but also for the team that organized this race.”
For the men, racing began in earnest at 15K, when Zach Panning began to press the pace. Panning, who finished 13th overall as top American in the 2023 World Athletics Championships Marathon, led a pack of eight through the halfway point in 1:04:07; that pack was down to eight by 25K – with two-time defending champion Galen Rupp among the men dropping back. Rupp would finish 16th, falling short in his quest to make a fifth Olympic team.
It looked like it would be a three-man race when Panning, Mantz and Young broke away at 30K, but Panning soon began to fade. With just over a mile to go, the 28-year-old from Michigan was passed by Elkanah Kibet, whose Olympic dreams were quickly short-circuited by a monster push from Leonard
Korir, who passed both Panning and Kibet to nab the last spot and avenge his fourth-place finish from 2020.
This time, it was the 40-year-old Kibet who would finish fourth, just off the podium but breaking the U.S. master’s record with his time of 2:10:02. Panning wound up sixth in the race but first in the hearts of Mantz and Young.
“My heart breaks for Zach to finish sixth,” said Young, “because he’s [the one] who made the race happen today.”
Despite his gargantuan effort, Korir may have to wait until the world rankings are sorted out on May 5 to know for sure if he is going to Paris.
The women’s race went out fast from the gun, spearheaded early on by Keira D’Amato, the second-fastest American woman in history. By 5K, there were already no more than a dozen women in the lead pack, which was still largely intact when she led them through the half in 1:11:43.
O’Keeffe would take the lead at Mile 14 and break away five miles later, her 4-second lead at Mile 19 ballooning to 40 seconds by Mile 25.
Lindwurm, 28, would finally lay claim to third between miles 24 and 25, making her first international team.
“It almost doesn’t feel real,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pictured holding this American flag. I don’t think I’m ever going to take it off.”
Downtown Orlando echoed the athletes’ joy.
“It was absolutely amazing out there and the support, honestly …,” said O’Keeffe. “Thought it might be really quiet in some stretches and that was not the case at all. It was absurdly loud in the city center and it was full of support the whole way.”