By Ken Stone
An NCAA runner-up at San Diego State (as Allison Reaser), 2014 graduate Halverson hopes to qualify for the 24-woman heptathlon field at the August 2020 Games.Her path to Olympic glory would be a rarity, though — as a member of the Armenian Olympic team.
Halverson once looked down on athletes who switched national affiliations. But with only three spots available on the U.S. Olympic team — and two of them likely going to Erica Bougard and Kendell Williams — she decided on a route via the former Soviet republic.
“I’ve never been to Armenia, you know, but then I’ve been thinking about it,” she said. “I’d rather compete for another country and be there” instead of miss the U.S. team despite being one of the world’s best. “If I’m there, I deserve to be there.”
So last month Halverson and her “100% Armenian” mother (maiden name Stepanian) drove to the Armenian Consulate in Glendale, presented proof of nationality and applied for a passport.
“Everything went very smoothly and they told me … they will mail [forms] to Armenia,” she said. “After that in a month I will receive a tracking number by email.”
Her passport (and thus citizenship) could be ready in six months, but she’s hoping to expedite approval with help from Robert Emmiyan, president of the Armenian Athletics Federation and a former Soviet long jumper with the fourth-best mark in history.
Emmiyan was excited when Halverson told him she’s half-Armenian and wanted dual citizenship.
“He said: ‘I’ll take you anywhere. We’ll go to all the meets — the European championships” and other meets where she’ll be able to rack up world rankings points — a change in the Olympic qualifying system that once relied on “A” and “B” standards and a top-three finish at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
She’s confident the Nationality Review Panel of the International Association of Athletics Federations will give immediate approval — instead of making her wait three years for having been a member of a U.S. national team. She’s competed in Europe, but not at certain Team USA meets.
“If everything works out with me representing Armenia, I will be sad I won’t get to compete at the [U.S.] Olympic Trials in the new Hayward Stadium, but I have already competed in two Olympic Trials so it’s OK.” (She was 15th in 2012 and 11th in 2016.)Halverson has a best of 6144 points, but the Olympic qualifying standard is 6420 (which would have taken fifth at Doha). But another way of making the Tokyo field is via the new IAAF world rankings. At the end of the 2019 season, she was 54th.
Rankings points are easier for Europeans to chalk up, however, giving Halverson hope she’ll be in the top 24.
“I always dreamt that I would be in the top three at the Olympic Trials and get the Olympic standard at the meet, but now since the Olympic standard is so high and it’s not a guarantee that you will go to the Olympics even if you are top three, I think my odds are better competing for another country,” she said.
Americans changing nationality for Olympic sports isn’t uncommon.
According to IAAF records, nearly 100 U.S. citizens have been granted permission to compete for other nations, including Armand “Mondo” Duplantis, the Louisiana pole vault phenom who won silver for Sweden at Doha.
New York-born Félix Sánchez — raised in San Diego (attending University City High School and San Diego Mesa College) — represented the Dominican Republic when he won gold in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2004 and 2012 Olympics. His parents were Dominican.
Only once before has an American track athlete switched allegiance to Armenia — former Western Washington University sprinter Alex Donigian won IAAF approval in August.
Duplantis came in for criticism for “abandoning” Team USA — some saying he betrayed the American system that paved his way.
But major American track observers doubt Halverson will face similar grief.
“No, because she isn’t as high profile of an athlete,” said Becca Gillespy Peter, a meet director and activist in USA Track & Field.
“I think most people don’t know who she is, so there will be little criticism,” said Weldon Johnson, co-founder of letsrun.com.
How might she deal with disapproval?
“There will always be critics,” Johnson said via email. “Do what you think is right and best and keep your head high. The most popular president in the United States will be hated by 30% of the people. The point is you can’t make everyone happy.”
Said Peter: “Don’t let the patriarchy get you down.”
If Halverson marches with Armenia in Tokyo, it might be only the second-biggest change of her athletic career.
Alli, as she’s known to most, played soccer and was a distance runner at first, running a hundred 5Ks between ages 10 and 13 — entered along with her dad, Rick, every weekend in the road races.
During her soccer days, she used to jump over trash cans, she says. So the transition to hurdling at El Segundo High School was smooth. She “three-stepped” between barriers in her first race instead of the five steps some beginners use.
Noting her potential, Rick Reaser hired technique guru Chuck DeBus as her private coach. She was only a high school sophomore when she began heptathlon training.
Female Athlete of the Year at El Segundo High School in 2008, Reaser in 2010 won the national Junior Olympic title in the hep, an event that crowns the best female all-around athlete. She set eight school records.
As the No. 5 prep heptathlete in the nation, she was recruited by 60 universities, including South Carolina, Louisiana State, Iowa, Iowa State, Duke, Harvard, MIT and Princeton.
She chose San Diego State — “where I was meant to be” — over UCLA, her “dream school.” (DeBus and her club coach discouraged her from being a Bruin because the school didn’t have the proper coaching for her.)
Under coach Shelia Burrell on Montezuma Mesa, Halverson set school records in the heptathlon and indoor pentathlon. Her second-place finish in NCAA came in 2014.
Two weeks after the NCAA meet, she took seventh in the USATF national championships — where her 5,917 points would have been good enough to win the event at the NCAA Division 1 meet in Eugene, Oregon.
Halverson was disappointed this year when USATF suddenly changed its team-selection rules for the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. Based on her No. 2 U.S. ranking of 2018, she was told June 26 she was on Team USA. But on July 20, she was notified that she’d been taken off.
Now Halverson sees that snafu as a blessing. Had she been on the Pan Ams team, she would have had to wait three years to change national affiliations.
With her mother having her baptismal certificate, Halverson is eligible for Armenian citizenship. “But I have to pick up my passport in Armenia, which is going to be awesome,” she said.
She’s looking forward to traveling to the capital Yerevan.
According to family lore, Halverson’s maternal grandfather came to America after World War I.
“One of the documents we found — his mother wrote this letter or note that during the Armenian genocide, they dressed up my grandpa as a little girl — because they were killing boys,” she said. “They said he was 5, even though he was 7, and they got him on a ship that went to Ellis Island.”
Halverson actually pondered an Armenia switch ahead of the last Olympics — in Rio de Janeiro.
“I went to the consulate in 2016,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
They turned her away because “You really didn’t come prepared.” Even so, she considered 2016 her best season ever and was invited to compete in the Pan American Combined Events Cup in Ottawa, where she took second. “My confidence level was (high).”
In 2017, she was second at the Thorpe Cup in Dusseldorf, Germany — an annual meet between United States and Germany — after taking sixth in the USATF championships.
Halverson trained with Kris Mack at the former Chula Vista Olympic Training Center, but is now back with coach Burrell, a two-time Olympian in the heptathlon.
Not competing in the Persian Gulf state this week has a silver lining for Halverson — she was able to take a needed two-month break before hitting the track and gym hard for Tokyo. Doha competitors won’t have that advantage.
She started formal training Monday at San Diego State.
“It is great to be back — not just back practicing but back at my alma mater,” she said. “Monday I did sprint drills, Tuesday I did 12×200, Wednesday I did a pool workout, and (Thursday) we did a circuit.”
If she makes it to Tokyo, her family will be her biggest fans. They include mom Adrienne, Raytheon engineer dad Rick — a volunteer coach at SDSU and major cheerleader — her twin sister Amy, older sister Robin, brother Rick and husband Nic. Also the athletes she trains as a professional coach — youngsters with the Arête Elite Track Club and older adults with the Balboa Track Club.
Next spring, she hopes to compete in as many ranking meets as possible, including an opener in Lana, Italy. “I know I can get a solid score.”
She’s also learning to speak Armenian — starting with 100 flash cards.
But “I won’t learn how to write it, probably,” she said, noting its alphabet of 36 letters.
“I’m really excited, yeah,” she said.
More thrilling would be doing the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200 meters (Day 1) and long jump, javelin throw and 800-meter run (Day 2) in Tokyo on Aug. 5-6, 2020.
“Yes, I have been looking at the heptathlon results (from Doha),” she said Thursday, “but looking at today’s results … no one has done as well as Day 1. I think the long season is finally hitting them.”
Halverson says the Olympics has been her dream since age 12.
“When I played soccer and track, everyone was: ‘Oh, Allison, are you going to the Olympics?’ Yeah, … I can do it. I have this confidence because of my friends and family — they just believe in me. They made myself believe in myself.”
She also wants to say she’s been to the pinnacle of the sport — at age 27, which she considers statistically the prime age for heptathletes.
“I’ve been really grateful for just the journey I’ve been on,” she said. “I’ve competed at the Olympic level. I’ve trained with the best athletes in the world. I’ve done so many cool things. But it would be really nice to get those Olympic Rings.”
Updated at 11:48 a.m. Oct. 6, 2019
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