Maatoug's 5th-place finish the highlight as Duke track and field closes 2023 season at NCAA Championships

Sophomore distance runner Amina Maatoug finished fifth in the 5,000m, setting a personal best in the process.
Sophomore distance runner Amina Maatoug finished fifth in the 5,000m, setting a personal best in the process.

Some endings aren’t dramatic. Most of the time, really, things just come to an end.

A monumental track season for Duke had that anticlimactic close this weekend. Down in Austin, Texas, the Blue Devils went for one last lap around the track at the NCAA Championship meet before sealing their season and settling, finally, into summer break. From Wednesday through Saturday, the best collegiate athletes in the country gathered in the Mike A. Myers Stadium to fight for national titles — which went, ultimately, to the Gator men and Longhorn women. The small Blue Devil squad, for its part, held its own, but came out of the weekend still hungry, disappointed not to see another meet on the horizon.

“Our young group needed to see … what that competition is like so they can dream big,” said head coach Shawn Wilbourn after the close of his third season. “And down the road, hopefully, win — or at least be on the podium.”

At a meet like this, the Blue Devils had to reckon with being small fish in the biggest collegiate sea. Even with an uncontestable ACC title, Duke ultimately couldn’t compete to the same level on a playing field with this largess. So, while sophomore Megan McGinnis’ 400m personal best was good for an all-time Blue Devil record, it was not enough to qualify her for the finals, let alone put her on a podium.

The story was the same for graduate thrower Robbie Otal, whose discus arm went nearly undefeated in the regular season, earning him an easy ticket to the national stage. Alas, even his 60.07m throw was not far enough to put him near the top of the finals, and he finished in 10th place.

“Sixty meters has never not made the finals at the NCAA Championships,” said Wilbourn. “So that just speaks to the quality of the meet and the competition this year.”

Perhaps the biggest upset for the Blue Devils came with the women’s 4x400m, a race that has become a part of program history as much as any singular event can be. Though Wilbourn pulled out every stop with this lineup — setting McGinnis up for success with teammates Lauren Tolbert, Julia Jackson and Madison Mulder — the group fell to eighth place in the finals, running 3:28.65 to come in more than a second slower than they proved themselves capable of a few months ago.

“I think we just ran out of gas,” Wilbourn said. “The other teams ran incredibly well, too, so some of the other teams had some season bests at the right time. We ran fast, but I don't think we ran what we're capable of.”

Perspective, though, is necessary here. McGinnis and Otal, heroine of the track and hero of the field, did not win their events, or even really come close to doing so. Still, they both landed spots on the All-American second teams for their respective events, Otal threw the second-farthest throw in program history, behind his own first-place record, and McGinnis broke two records. Based on numbers alone, the Blue Devils pulled out an incredibly successful performance.

“They're all going to be hungry,” said Wilbourn. “All the ones that got there that have eligibility left are hungry to get back there next year and to make the finals.”

One competitor found the success she was looking for. Sophomore Amina Maatoug has promised talent alongside grit all season, and a late-night Saturday event allowed her to deliver on both of those things. Her 5000m time of 15:48.22 earned her a highly coveted fifth-place finish in the event finals, a personal best and a program record. Hat trick.

Despite being a member of the sophomore class, this year was Maatoug’s first with the Blue Devils and with American collegiate track. The Leiden, Netherlands, native jumped right into the fray in August to start her career off with cross country, which she followed with two seasons of track. She blew all three of her inaugural seasons out of the water, finishing each one of them with an All-American accolade to her name after putting out nothing but speed in the NCAA finals of each respective season.

“She's extremely tough and motivated and competitive and talented,” Wilbourn said of Maatoug.

This story does not have much of a denouement. What Wilbourn — rightfully — declares to have been “the best season in Duke women's track and field history” wrapped up on a half-baked note.

It won’t be long until the program picks back up in January for another indoor season, and on the women’s side, at least, every superstar has a chance to come back and take another stab at the big leagues.

“I'm excited for where we're headed … We're young, and our recruiting class coming in is fantastic. So the future is extremely bright,” Wilbourn said. “My goal for the program is just to elevate to where we are one of the top-10 best programs in the NCAA.”


Sophie Levenson | Sports features editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.

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