The IAAF changed the competitive landscape for elite youth athletes when the organization announced in August that it would no longer host a world championship for U-18 athletes after the 2017 event in Nairobi, Kenya. I reached out to Lisa Morgan, a five-time Team USA coach at the World U18 and World U20 level, to get her take. Watch the above episode of Sub 4 to view the interview clip, or read the full transcription below.
Jojo: What was your first reaction when you found out that the IAAF was canceling the world youth championship?
Lisa: It was absolutely a complete shock. I had never thought that an event of that magnitude would ever be canceled for any reason. It's such a great platform for our young athletes. The games in 2015 in Colombia were absolutely amazing. From turn-out of the fans, from the athletic performances, from the organization of the Colombia Federation, it was amazing. To be told that after Kenya these games would be canceled, I was completely shocked.
The biggest athletes have come from the world youth championships: Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix, the two biggest athletes of these Rio games. They were once world youth champions. I've watched the growth and progression of so many young athletes and you can go back to Usain. They showed him several times [in Olympic coverage] when he was a youth and how he did in his younger days in his career. Allyson and many other American athletes have come from this platform. You look at the other countries, like the Japanese who did so well in the men's 4x100m. I've watched these kids grow through this program. I'm completely shocked, definitely shocked.
Team USA coach Lisa Morgan embraces Candace Hill after the Ga. native won the women's 200m in a world youth record of 22.43 at the 2015 IAAF World Youth Championship in Cali, Colombia.
IAAF President Seb Coe said that U18 athletes would be given more opportunities for regional-based competition in lieu of worlds. Why do you think they made that decision?
The only thing that I can think of is possibly funding, if I had to say anything. I don't understand what we would do as a federation regionally. We already have things like high school nationals. This was our international platform to expose our athletes to our international competition, the culture, the people and that level of competition. I really don't have any words for it.
Why is it necessary to have both an under 18 world championship and an under 20 world championship?
You have to think that the under 18 are your 16- and 17-year-olds, your 15-year-olds. That under 20 championship, you're dealing with a much older population. You have your college freshmen that are competing against your high school sophomores so that range and that variation of athletes is really wide.
When you start them on this platform at a younger age, your 16-, 17-year-olds, it gives them an opportunity at this international level and it's paid off. Look at Sydney McLaughlin. Sydney McLaughlin went from world youth champion in 400m hurdles to being the youngest Olympian in track and field. It's been 40 years. It's a grown sport. You look at her as a 14-year- old - she actually made my world junior team in 2014 but she was too young to go. In the next year in 2015, she was old enough to compete in the youth championships and she went and she won.
It gives our younger athletes that platform, it prepares them to handle international competition. It's those things like teaching them the going through the process of trials, going through the process of the call room, checking in, going through the process of handling media before and after your races, the mixed zone, dealing with Candace Hill having to do IAAF press conferences. The youth championships prepares our kids for that.
Lisa Morgan poses with Tara Davis after the Calif. star won the long jump at the 2015 IAAF World Youth Championship.
When they get rid of the youth meet, will younger athletes be allowed to go to the junior meet?
That's something that they have to look at because you look at someone like Tia Jones who was just on my junior team. She was young and just barely made that cut. We have a lot of up and coming young athletes that are probably going to lose out once these championships are cut and we have to find another avenue for them to get this international exposure. It pays huge dividends for the U.S.
Why is an international championship experience so crucial to athlete development?
I absolutely believe it is the initial building block because you're at that age, at that youth age, at 16-, 17-years-old when you're old enough to drive, you're old enough to handle the travel and the international experience and understand it. Sometimes as a youth, it helps you to get those jitters out.
Performing at that level where a camera is constantly in your face. Performing at that level where you have to do a media interview before your race. And the key part of having the experience of running rounds. People don't realize how important that is even from the junior level to the Olympic level because at the Olympic level you have to run your final every time. You have your high level elite athletes that can cruise through. You had some people who thought that they can cruise through at our trials, slow down and not make the team. Running rounds and getting this experience of running rounds and taking your body 110 percent every time, every round, there's no other experience like it. With all of the things that you're competing against like I said the meals, the change in time zone, the culture, the pressure of representing your country, the pressure of doing well, the pressure of wanting to medal, the different pressures that come along with it.
Can you give me a few specific examples of athletes whose experience at world youth really catapulted them to the next level?
Noah Lyles. That youth championship in Ukraine changed his life. Noah didn't actually make my team. I knew his capabilities in running and he just missed qualifying automatically for his event so he was taken as a part of my relay pool. He actually ended up running the 200m because Kenzo Cotton got hurt and Kenzo Cotton was my athlete for the one and the two and Kenzo gets hurt, Noah fills in and Noah doesn't even make it out the semis.
You're looking at a kid who in 2013 ran 21.20 and comes back this year and goes 20.04 and finishes fourth at our U.S. Olympic trials.
He really saw what's like and said, 'you know what, I want to represent my country again. I'm going to train.' That was his stepping stone to the Olympics. You see the red, white and blue. You get on the stage and you hold your flag. You represent your country and it changes your outlook, your mentality, your confidence level.
You look at Keturah Orji. We have never done well in the jumps. She placed third that world youth championship, [first ever American to medal] and then she comes and she gets fourth in Rio. I know that his world youth platform helped her because it showed her how to jump. How the international women jump. How the culture is. How international competition is when you have to warm up. The pressure of dealing with a camera in your face at all time in a huge stadium.
How do you see this affecting future Olympic teams?
Hopefully, we'll find something that will benefit the American teams but I do [think this will affect Olympic teams]. I started with Usain and Allison. They're at the pinnacle. Now you have Jaheel Hyde from Jamaica coming up. You have our American athletes in Noah Lyles, in Ryan Clark. When you take away a championship like this that gets them prepared, it can affect it.
I look at Sydney. As great as she did in a great year, I really wish she had participated in our world junior championships. I think it would've given her that last bit of practice, that last experience that she needed of dealing with media attention, cameras in her face all the time had she come over and done the junior championships and went on to the Olympics. I think that the world youth is a great stepping stone for our Olympics, which is the pinnacle of our sport.
Look how we did so well in the balance of medals that we got in Rio - in all events, on the field, in the distance events. I look at our 1500 meter girls [Jenny Simpson won America's first women's 1500m Olympic medal, Christina Aragon won America's first 1500m medal for either gender at World U20]. There's going to be plenty of Christina Aragons, there's going to be plenty of Alexa Efraimsons that are coming up. Alexa is one who came through with a medal at the youth championships and she's one of our future 1500 meter runners. We have a balance of medals with everyone coming up through the system. When you take that away, I think it can hurt.
How often do you see fatigue or burn out from youth athletes?
You won't see burnout if you're trained properly. Those coaches who know how to write a workout plan and plan their athletes to peak, they won't burn out. Those that are burnt out don't usually make the U.S. team. Those athletes that are burnt out peaked at nationals or, for the junior team, NCAA Championships. They won't make the national team.
I don't see a long term burn-out situation for something like this. Look at Usain and Allyson. Are they burnt out? No, they're at the top of their game many, many, many years later because they've had great coaches that have come through a great system and they've gotten the job done very well. There are so many more that are going to follow them, our next generation, that are going to take their places. We have them right here on U.S. soil and something like a world youth championship helps to build that. I see them coming up. I see the progression like the Candace Hills, the Lauren Rain Williams's, the Christina Aragons, the Tia Jones's. You see those athletes that are going to be your next ones, your next Olympians, your 2020 Tokyos, your 2024 Olympians.
Some big-name junior athletes like Donavan Brazier (skipped junior trials, didn't make Olympic team), Kaylin Whitney (skipped junior trials, didn't make Olympic team), Candace Hill (only ran 100m at junior trials, didn't make Olympic team), Sydney McLaughlin (won junior trials, skipped world juniors) didn't go through with the full junior experience this summer. How do you think it would have helped them?
In my opinion, looking as one of the head coaches of the team, there were certain people that I was looking for. You look and you say 'OK looking at this one and that one and that one' and I was looking at Donavan. I was hoping that he would come to the trials and the same with Sydney, who did come to the trials but not the championships [in Poland]. Looking at Candace Hill, who only ran the 100m. I wish she had run the 200m as well to get her ready.
You have to also respect that athlete's decision and that coach's decision and at the time I don't know where their training was or anything. It's not hindsight because it's something that I said prior to. In reference to Sydney, I'm thinking about this in April. I'm looking at when she races for the Olympics and I'm looking at the finals of the juniors. I'm looking at the window and I'm saying it can be done but I don't know everything that she had to endure with. She had Gatorade [National Player of the Year Awards], she had other personal like things that could've effected that decision. I don't know. I just honestly think that the juniors would've been a great tune up for that next stage because she would've been a premiere athlete on our junior team, she would've had some IAAF press conferences. She would've had the media, she would've had autograph signings, people coming up to her as she walks through the athlete's village and through the hotels and all of those things, all of those things that are deterrence that can be distractions for you that you have to still remember the purpose that you're there but be able to handle those things as well as perform to the level that you're needed to perform.
Sydney McLaughlin's win at the 2015 IAAF World Youth Championship helped catapult her to an Olympic Games berth this summer. At 17 years old, she is the youngest track and field Olympian for Team USA since 1972.
There's a trend of track and field athletes turning pro as high schoolers or early in college. It's interesting to see whether they choose the junior worlds or the senior worlds and it often seems like a split decision. How do you think they decide?
We had some, like Kaylin Whitney, that chose not to come. You had Candace Hill, who chose to come to those events. That's all on the coaches' plan for that athlete and the decisions that they make and their training plan and in that training plan, you have your race plan. It's ultimately their choices that they made to attend or not to attend and some feel like that's the right decision to make for that athlete at that time.
Does it hurt the quality of the youth championships if the top pros decide not to run?
Do I think it's going to take away from the youth championships, not to have the best young pro athletes? No. Look at how we've done. Kaylin wasn't on the 2015 team. We still won [Candace Hill won the 100m and 200m]. Jayla Kirkland who stepped up to the plate [third place]. You had Lauren Rain Williams who also went 22 seconds in the 200 [second place]. Just because our top, top or those athletes that turn pro decide not to go through the age group things, you had dozens of other age group athletes coming up. The U.S. is great and rich with talent and tradition of producing great athletes. I think we're on the rise from watching the youth from 2011 to now we have some very, very extremely talented athletes that are coming through the ranks that they fill in. I don't think we've missed a beat not having these people.
I look on our men's side in the 4x400m this summer. That 4x400m at the junior level they didn't expect us to win that with that team. We had Michael Norman and Noah Lyles, who did not run. We didn't have to use them to win. Those guys got out there and they ran. We are extremely talented. Sydney McLaughlin didn't come to the world juniors this year but Anna Cockrell stepped up and had her day [and won the 400m hurdles gold]. It was amazing. I loved that for her. That was amazing to see and watch our athletes step up. Christina shocking Alexa in the 1500m. We have our athletes that step up to the plate when our "big dogs" don't come through. Without Donavan Brazier, we still put a finalist in the men's 800m [Brian Bell]. We still did what we needed to do in those events where our "stars" or big names didn't show up. We're the United States and there's a wealth of talent and our youth coaches, our high school coaches, our college coaches, if we all get on board and get educated, more educated and doing great training and picking our athletes and setting goals, we can dominate the next Olympics as well and those after that.
Team USA coaches Lisa Morgan and Brandon Jiles pose in the front row of Team USA photo at the 2015 IAAF World Youth Championships in Cali, Colombia.
Any positive in your mind about no longer having an under-18 championship?
Like I said, we're the United States and I think we have some great, great coaches in our country. We always step up and make a way. There are many age group platforms that they can run. It's unfortunate to take away that international platform but who's to say what they're creating right now? Some coaches may get together and say 'we have to create something.' I know I'm thinking that way. I can call my friend Brandon Jiles [fellow Team USA coach] and say 'what can we do to fill this void?'
There are plenty of well-versed, knowledgeable coaches right here in the USA that can come up with something that will fill this void but it's definitely not something that we are going to let get us down. We're USA strong and I'm confident in the coaches that we have. I'm confident in the science that we have. I'm confident in the talent and the athletes that we have and produce here in this country that we can keep this thing going. However, world youth championships weren't always around. We'll prosper and keep the USA on top in those medal counts at big international championships, world championships, Pan Am championships. Like I said, our youth coaches and our high school coaches will just have to continue to coach, get knowledgeable and continue to produce champions the best way we can.