At age 39, Robyn Stevens is in her race walking prime. In April, the Tokyo Olympian set American records at three distances in a single race. She’s even the cover girl for the walking page of USA Track & Field.
But her goal of competing at this July’s World Athletics Championships in Oregon is uncertain — at both the 35K and 20K distances.
Diane Graham-Henry, chair of the USATF Race Walking Committee, confirmed this week that Stevens is not on the Team USA roster for 35K.
In an email obtained by Times of San Diego, Henry of Chicago wrote Stevens on Friday:
“In response to your text messages this morning, I’ve attached the selection procedures for the World Athletics Championships. . . . Selection is from the top three place finishers at the selection event (trials). As you did not have a finish time at the trials for the 35k, you are exempt from selection.”
USATF named Stevens its Athlete of the Week for her 35-kilometer (21.75 miles) American record of 2 hours, 49 minutes, 29 seconds in Dudince, Slovakia, where she took fifth in a tough field. (She also set records for 25K and 30K en route.)
But at the 35K trials in Santee last January, Vacaville native Stevens pulled out after about 12 miles with a “tight ass” glute problem.
Days ago, Stevens’ former youth coach, Claudia Wilde, noticed on the “Road to Oregon 2022” page of World Athletics that Stevens was “withdrawn” from the 35K — though she was the only American woman to have met the meet’s qualifying standard of 2:54:00. Wilde contacted Stevens, back in Vacaville.
Michael Roth, a former member of the USATF Race Walk Committee, says Henry applied the wrong rules.
“She is using the World RW Team Championships criteria to exclude a duly qualified athlete from competing,” Roth said via email. “Never in the history of the World T&F Championships, in any event, has an athlete in good standing, who has hit the qualifying performance and who competed in the team selection race, been denied their earned spot on Team USA.”
In reply to Henry, Stevens wrote that she planned to appeal the decision to keep her off the 35K team, where she hopes to become the first American woman to race two walks at a world track and field championships.
Stevens was outraged that the selection procedures PDF that Henry sent her was dated two months after the Santee trials.
“A release date of March 30th for selection procedure is AFTER our January 35km Nationals, so how does that make sense?” Stevens wrote Henry. “Also, it’s the opposite of what we are supposed to represent: fair and equal representation and integrity in our sport.”
But Nick Christie — a fellow Tokyo Olympian and Stevens’ former boyfriend — said Henry was right.
“If you have three finishers ahead of you, those three finishers get priority,” Christie said of Chula Vista’s Miranda Melville, Stephanie Casey and Maria Michta-Coffey at the Santee 35K.
Years ago, it was easy to tell who would make Team USA for the Olympics or World Championships: the first three finishers at nationals or Trials — as long as they also better the Olympic or world meet’s qualifying standard.
But now the global governing body, World Athletics (formerly IAAF), has a world rankings system. And in the women’s walks, the 60-woman field also hinges on world rankings points.
As of Friday, Stevens was No. 25 in the 35K world rankings — ahead of Melville (51st), Casey (56th) and Michta-Coffey (81st). And only Stevens has met the alternate standard on time.
Race walk champion Christie of El Cajon — who expects to race 20K and 35K in Oregon next month — says a similar situation exists in the women’s marathon.
In January, 37-year-old Keira D’Amato broke the American record in the marathon in Houston. But Christie notes D’Amato won’t be competing in Oregon.
(The marathon selection procedure is more complicated, as Jonathan Gault noted last October on letsrun.com. He told Times of San Diego: “Molly Seidel, Sara Hall and Emma Bates are on the team. Seidel had the option to take a spot because she finished top 10 in the Olympics and she took it. And then Bates and Hall were 2-3 in Chicago [Marathon]. Since USATF placed highest priority in place at last year’s World Marathon Majors, they were the first two in line for spots on the team and both accepted.”
Roth, the former race walk official, says a decision to bar Stevens from the Oregon team would be “ground breaking” and likely yield a lawsuit.
USATF, he said, would have to use resources to defend itself against a “poorly thought out and delivered decision.”
“Playing politics, instead of sending the best athlete in U.S. history, one who is 11 minutes faster than anyone in the 35K event, is just a bad decision, and unjustified by any reading of the USATF selection procedures,” Roth said.
“This decision should be immediately reviewed by [USATF CEO] Max Siegel, [President] Vin Lananna and [board chairman] Mike Conley and be overturned in time to do the right thing by Robyn Stevens and any other athlete put in this position in the future.”
Also at stake may be Stevens’ spot in the 20K walk at Eugene.
(At Eugene, the men’s and women’s 20K walk is July 15. The women’s 35K is July 22 and the men’s 35K is July 24 — the final day of the first outdoor world track championships held in North America.)
With Stevens shooting for records in Europe — where she spent recent months training with a Spanish coach — she opted not to race at the 20K national championships earlier that April week in Hauppauge, New York.
Stevens says Henry should have informed her of the possible loss of a Team USA spot.
Stevens also asks why she was able to compete last March at the World Athletics Race Walking Team Championships in Muscat, Oman, where she took 37th in 1:49:14. (That’s nearly 4 minutes ahead of 2022 national champion Melville on April 24.)
Henry didn’t respond to requests for comment, but a former member of her committee said the 35K decision to pull Stevens was fair — “as unfortunate as this is.”
“Robyn is an [Athletes Advisory Committee] rep and knew the selection procedures,” said Patricia “Tish” Johnson Hanna, the ex-committee member. “In fact, it is her job as an AAC representative to let all the athletes understand the rules of selection to worlds.”
Hanna said Stevens set out to break records, “but unfortunately she should have been here for the national championships, which is a requirement.”
Hanna added via Facebook message: “It is by no means the fault of Diane or racewalk or USATF because those selection procedures have been known to everyone, but she felt she needed to train in Spain instead of returning for the required 20K and then flying back. It really is unfortunate because Robyn set her goals on setting some records and she did more — she smashed them.”
On social media, where sides are lining up for and against Stevens, one voice carried special weight.
Ron Daniel, USATF Race Walk chairman from 2013 to 2017, was Stevens’ coach when she was the top under-20 racer in America. He remains a mentor.
He told Times of San Diego that he wanted to study the rules before weighing in on Facebook.
He writes that because the January event in Santee was the trial for the World Team Championships in Oman and the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, “here’s what should have happened.”
“Because qualifying for each of these events had different qualifying criteria, these criteria should have been overtly spelled out to all concerned (especially the athletes) prior to the Santee race (not weeks later),” said Daniel, an internationally certified race walk judge between 1985 and 2010.
He said that USATF’s website early this year said the date for the 20K trial was to be April 16-17 at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, east of Los Angeles. (As a judge assigned to the race, he had started looking into flights from his home in Connecticut.)
“In fact, prior to that date selection, Robyn announced to Diane [Henry] that she (Robyn) would be competing in Europe on April 23. Some consideration for Robyn should have been made when choosing the April 24 date,” Daniel said Saturday.
He noted that when he was committee chair, a trials date conflicted with a USATF activity that former Bonsall resident and three-time Olympian John Nunn needed to attend.
“I was able to change my date in deference to John,” he said.
Daniel addressed the issue of whether one needs to be a finisher of a trials race to make Team USA to the world meet.
“For the 2019 World Championships in Doha, [Qatar] two-time Olympian Maria Michta-Coffey was selected for that team and she did not compete in the trials race,” he said. “Will the same consideration be given to Robyn?”
Daniel later clarified that Michta-Coffey was invited to the world meet thanks to a then-USATF policy that said if an athlete didn’t finish the USATF 20K title race, he or she could still qualify for Team USA if they had met the world-meet qualifying standard by July 28, 2019.
“In doing so, they may not replace any other athlete who finished the USATF 20K Championship who also has the IAAF standard,” he said. “There were no other women who made the standard.”
Updated at 4:38 p.m. June 6, 2022