Duke track and field earns 8 bids to NCAA Outdoor Championships after difficult East Regional

Ezra Mellinger earned 11th place in the long jump and a qualification for the national meet.
Ezra Mellinger earned 11th place in the long jump and a qualification for the national meet.

Wednesday through Saturday, Duke track and field raced through the NCAA East Regional in Lexington, Ky., with 26 women and 13 men competing for coveted spots at the National Championships in June. Where four qualifiers for the men — all from the field — marks their highest in recent years, the women’s four represents a steep decline from last year’s ten.

“It was awesome to see our men perform at that high of a level,” head coach Shawn Wilbourn said after the first day of the meet. 

High level indeed. In the pole vault, graduate student Simen Guttormsen tied the highest clearance of 5.42m en route to a third-place finish in the men’s pole vault, safely within the top-12 qualifying threshold. Despite a slow start to the season, the Princeton transfer found his footing two weeks prior at ACCs, where he equaled his lifetime best of 5.65m to win the conference title. With All-America honors to his name from NCAA Championships in the past, Guttormsen has both the marks and the experience to score points come June. 

Graduates Aimar Palma-Simo and Christian Johnson were just as dominant in the men’s Hammer throw: Palma-Simo came out on top among the entire 48-member field, thanks to a throw of 69.39m on his third attempt. Not far behind him, Johnson collected a fourth-place finish, spinning his hammer out to 67.29m on both his second and third attempts. 

In the long jump, fellow graduate Ezra Mellinger brought home the men’s fourth qualification of the day, cutting it close in 7.54m for an 11th-place finish. 

“We’re really excited about what our men's team is capable of once we get to Eugene,” Wilbourn said. “We have a lot of scoring potential.”

The next day, it was all Moorea Mitchell in the women’s hammer throw, securing the Duke women’s first national bid of the meet via a personal best and new No. 3 all-time mark. In a true testament to the depth of Duke’s throws team, Mitchell snagged 12th place and the last qualifying spot with her toss of 60.19m to book her ticket alongside Johnson and Palma-Simo.

Come Saturday, no one was in higher spirits than the Blue Devils, with 13 women set to compete in individual events and two relays in qualifying contention. But as they soon found out, 13 is an unlucky number in more ways than one. 

“It’s a tough meet,” Wilbourn said. 

In the women’s 4x100m relay, the Duke squad finished in 13th place, missing the last qualifying spot by only .05 seconds. In their own respective races, senior Charlotte Tomkinson (800m) and graduate sprinter Halle Bieber (200m) stacked on an additional pair of 13th-place finishes, the latter missing out on a golden ticket by a razor-thin margin of 0.02 seconds. Likewise, in the 3000m steeplechase, graduate captain Emily Cole finished 14th in the last race of her college career, narrowly missing out on a three-peat of her last two NCAA Outdoor Championships appearances.

Even with the setbacks of the day, there were some triumphs for the Blue Devils. After earning an automatic qualification to NCAAs through her national ranking in the heptathlon, senior Brianna Smith came back for more in the high jump. 

“It’d be nice to have [Smith] in two events in Eugene,” Wilbourn said.

After breezing through the opening four heights on her first attempt, Smith left it all on the apron, clearing a final height of 1.81m to place ninth among a 48-person field. After a season of steady performances, the Pennsylvania native peaked when it mattered, improving upon her outdoor personal best by nearly one foot to cement herself No. 2 all-time in the Duke record books. 

In the qualifying heats of the 100m hurdles, Skyla Wilson’s future initially wasn’t as clear. With three heats of eight athletes each, national bids aren’t always awarded to the top 12 performances. Rather, the top three times in each heat advance, followed by the next three highest performances overall. So despite running a personal best of 13.01 seconds for fourth place in Heat 2, Wilson had to wait a bit before finding out she’d snagged the top time qualifier to the national meet.

There were, however, no questions about Lauren Tolbert, who took no chances in the women’s 800m. After a tactical first lap, the sophomore star stuck to her guns, edging Harvard’s Victoria Bossong in the final 50 meters to narrowly claim third place and demolish an eight-year-old Duke record. Still, the mid-distance phenom wasn’t done for the day, returning to the track less than two hours later to join her teammates — Bieber and Maddy Doane with junior Megan McGinnis — for the 4x400m relay. Tolbert did not falter — she ran a valiant 51.16 second split on the anchor leg — but it just wasn’t the Blue Devils’ day. Despite a top-24 seed time across the nation, the women finished 15th overall with a time of 3:32.72, more than a second slower than their ACC Championship time a few weeks ago.

“We'll get back and regroup and get our preparation ready for traveling out to Eugene,” Wilbourn said. 

Next month, the eight qualifying athletes will travel to Eugene, Ore., to compete against the best at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.


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