EUGENE, Ore. – Claudia Saunders was second in the 800 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships on Friday, earning the highest-ever finish by a Stanford woman in that event.
Saunders ran 2:02.92 and teammate Amy Weissenbach was sixth in 2:04.16, completing the Cardinal’s strong representation in the 800. A race earlier, Luke Lefebure ran a personal record 1:47.64 to place sixth in the men’s final.
Three Stanford runners were crowned first-team outdoor All-Americans for the first time: Saunders, Lefebure, and Joe Rosa, who was seventh in the men’s 5,000 in a personal best 13:31.69.
In her first NCAA outdoor championship meet and only two years removed from a 2:18 personal best, Saunders improved upon Justine Fedronic’s third-place finish last year – Stanford’s previous best finish.
On the backstretch of the final lap, sophomores Weissenbach and Saunders moved into first and second, only for Oregon’s Laura Roesler to bolt into the lead with 200 to go. Both Stanford runners tried to respond, but Weissenbach began to fade on the turn.
Meanwhile, Saunders continued to push ahead, not fast enough to catch the meet favorite Roesler, but fast enough to pull away from the rest of the field and finish alone. Moments later, Weissenbach matched her sixth-place finish of 2013, earning her first-team outdoor All-America honors for the second time.
Saunders’ performance is even more remarkable considering that her main event in high school was the 100 hurdles. But her versatility was evident in that she won Ohio state titles in the hurdles and in cross country. For college, she decided to focus on the 800, though she had never trained for the event, and she has dropped 16 seconds in the two years since.
Lefebure, a math and computational science major, earned Stanford’s highest men’s 800 finish since Olympian Michael Stember was fourth in 2001. Lefebure crushed his previous best of 1:48.46, set in Wednesday’s semifinal round, and broke into Stanford’s all-time top-10 list at No. 5.
Also, consider also that Lefebure didn't qualify for the Pac-12 final, but was the conference's top finisher at nationals.
In fact, that Pac-12 failure proved to be a turning point. Lefebure had never reached a Pac-12 final and put too much pressure on himself to do so, he said.
“I had the wrong mindset,” he said. “I was feeling a lot of pressure to make the final. I felt if I didn’t make it, it would be a huge disappointment. I realized I needed to change that kind of thinking, and not worry about the expectations and just go out and race.”
Without that pressure, and without thinking about the talent on the starting line next to him, Lefebure indeed began to race.
Good thing, because if Lefebure chose to dwell on season-best times or personal records, he might have had reason to feel intimidated. Among the pre-meet personal records of the nine finalists, Lefebure had the slowest by a substantial margin. Lefebure was ranked No. 39 on the season NCAA Division I list, with none of the other eventual finalists lower than No. 26.
However, that ranking was deceiving. since the fall, Lefebure has been in outstanding shape, but just never got a chance to run in a really fast race. His best chance came in the top section at the Payton Jordan Invitational on May 4. But when a runner fell, Lefebure was forced to sidestep him, throwing off his pace.
“I had to believe that I was good enough to compete against them,” he said. “I knew I was way better than my PR. I had to get in the right race to prove it. I think I did that.”
Rosa was patient in the 5,000, holding back while the past three NCAA cross country champs – Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka, Arizona’s Lawi Lalang, and Oregon’s Edward Cheserek -- took the pace out quickly.
As Rosa moved up in the chase pack, he helped drive it toward the leaders. The pack caught the front group with 2 ½ laps to go, only for Lalang to again push the pace, with only Cheserek to follow. Rosa’s pack fell back and the Stanford junior was unable to mount a kick that would move him up in the field.
Still, it was an improvement over his strong 13:33.56 effort at the Payton Jordan Invitational on May 4 and solidified his standing at No. 8 on Stanford’s all-time list.
The four-day meet concludes Saturday with four Stanford athletes in action: Darian Brooks in the men’s triple jump final (12:30 p.m.), Michael Atchoo in the men’s 1,500 final (2:18 p.m.), and Aisling Cuffe and Jessica Tonn in the women’s 5,000 final (3:24 p.m.).
The meet can be seen on ESPNU at 2 p.m.
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800 (final) - 6, Luke Lefebure 1:47.64 (personal record; Stanford No. 5 all-time).
5,000 (final) - 7, Joe Rosa 13:31.69 (personal record; Stanford No. 8 all-time).
800 (final) - 2, Claudia Saunders 2:02.92 (personal record; No. 3 Stanford all-time); 6, Amy Weissenbach 2:04.16.