In one of the closest and highest-quality heptathlons ever at the US Olympic Trials – part of the IAAF Combined Events Challenge – Barbara Nwaba came out on top, scoring 6494 to take the title on Sunday (10).
In the event at which she is the world junior champion, Kendell Williams posted the fastest 100m hurdles time in the opening discipline of the heptathlon, running 12.99. Nwaba’s 13.65 was only the 10th fastest of the day, but it kept her on course for a good score.
Nwaba moved up to third on the leader board after clearing a personal best of 1.90m in the high jump. Williams jumped 1.84m to maintain her lead, while Erica Bougard remained in second place overall.
The standings changed again after the shot put. Sharon Day-Monroe produced the best mark of the competition with 15.19m, taking her from seventh to second. But it wasn’t quite enough to catch Nwaba, whose 14.16m throw propelled her into first place overall.
Williams, who threw 12.95m, dropped to third, while Heather Miller-Koch crept up one place on the leader board to fourth after throwing a personal best of 14.13m.
A 24.17 clocking in the 200m meant that Nwaba would be the overnight leader. Day-Monroe dropped to fourth, while Williams – the fastest of the day with 23.67 – and Miller-Koch each moved up one place.
At the end of day one, fewer than 100 points separated the top five women.
Williams regained the lead after the long jump, the opening event of the second day. Her 6.20m leap moved her ahead of Nwaba, who managed just 5.86m, and was enough to hold off Miller-Koch, who jumped 6.32m. Bougard was the top performer in that event, leaping 6.33m.
But Bougard’s hopes of challenging for a top-three finish came to an end after throwing just 29.74m in the javelin. Nwaba, meanwhile, stayed on course for victory thanks to a 49.19m throw. Williams boosted her chances with a PB of 42.21m, while Miller-Koch landed a solid 41.02m. Day-Monroe was a few metres shy of her best with 45.52m.
Going into the final event, the 800m, there were four women in contention for the top three spots, the big battle being between Williams and Day-Monroe for third place. Day-Monroe had to finish 5.41 seconds ahead of Williams to make it on to the Olympic team.
Nwaba clocked 2:11.71 in the 800m behind winner Miller-Koch, bringing their scores to 6494 and 6423 respectively. Day-Monroe finished ahead of Williams but only by 4.44 seconds as Williams clocked a PB of 2:15.31. It meant that Williams took third place overall with 6402, 17 points in front of Day-Monroe.
Chauntae McMillan also produced the run of her life to clock 2:14.46, finishing fifth with 6326.
It was the first time that three women had scored more than 6400 points at the US Trials.
“After day one, seeing how high everyone’s marks were, I thought ‘oh this isn’t going to be as easy as I thought’,” said Nwaba.
“It set in when I took my victory lap and I ran to my mom, who I didn’t know was here, and that’s when all the waterworks came down,” she added. “She didn’t want me to be distracted or worry about where she was, so when I saw her I couldn’t believe it. I was just so happy to share that moment with her.”
Miller-Koch, 29, has one of the more unusual stories on the US team. She participated in athletics at a small college, never competed in a heptathlon until she was 21, and never scored more than 5239 points until 2012. She worked part-time as an operating room nurse at a hospital before spending the past year at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, where she was coached by her husband.
“At last year’s US Championships, I finished fourth and missed making the team for the World Championships,” said Miller-Koch. “This year the mentality was just don’t get fourth place. It’s been a steady climb.”
Roy Jordan and Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF