A statement race can take many forms in track and field.
In many cases, these moments can come by virtue of a big win, or a fast time.
But in the case of Darius Kipyego this past Sunday in Miramar, Florida, at the USA Track and Field U20 National Championships, his statement wasn't so much about either of those factors.
As the youngest male athlete entered within the competition, the Rhode Islander accomplished a task he didn't even plan for until the final weeks of the season.
The St. Raphael Academy (RI) sophomore qualified for the Pan American U20 Championships at 800 meters, running to a career best time of 1:51.26, which was just five tenths faster than the third-place runner, Jonah Hoey, and nearly a second faster than the time secured from the reigning Brooks PR champion, AJ Green.
Sophomores over the last 10 years have run faster. Few have qualified for an USATF U20 team.
"I see it as a big accomplishment, especially getting my name out there to some of these colleges," Kipyego said. "And I'm very grateful and glad to make this team against some of these college kids. There were some great athletes out there."
Maine's James Olivier, who finished fourth in the preliminaries, found the winning touch late in the final 100 meters to win in 1:50.67 -- just read this breakdown of how he went from a 2:10 half-miler in 2018 to a 1:50 U20 champ.
Kipyego wasn't far behind. And ultimately, a few variables made the difference.
The first came on Saturday, when one of the field's top seeds, Daniel Maton, didn't make it through to the final. Competing in the first heat, Kipyego finished third overall, behind Green and Bobby Poynter.
Five out of 12 entrants were high schoolers; three made the final. Another collegiate athlete, Jason Gomez -- a former CIF champion at 800m -- dropped out of the final.
On Sunday, the Rhode Island harrier let his strategy do the work.
"Coming in, I knew I was one of the slower ones," Kipyego said, "so I wanted them to do all the work in the front until that last 100 meters right when everyone was dying."
But Kipyego also had to keep contact throughout, which meant not making his move too early -- not an easy task.
Then, as others faltered late, he had to will himself to the line.
"Every race me and my coach look over it and see what we can do better," he said. "This race and the past two races here, I just kind of stuck in the back of lane 1 before I brought out this kick."
While Kipyego had signed up for his spot in the field long before the month began, it wasn't until his performance at New Balance Nationals Outdoor a week prior that he truly believed he was in a position to challenge for a spot on the team.
In Greensboro, North Carolina, he finished seventh in the championship round of the 800m at NBNO, scoring what was then a new-personal best of 1:52.54.
"Right when they came out with the date, we pointed at this meet," he said. "We really wanted to try to make this team.
Here was another important key: Over the past two seasons, the sophomore has been willing to go outside Rhode Island to race.
In March, he battled at New Balance Nationals Indoor, placing fourth in the 800m. The following April, he ran well at The New York Relays, finishing behind Matthew Rizzo and Noah Tindale.
In June he won his first state title in Rhode Island. A week later, he was runner-up bid at the New England Championships, just behind state record holder Conor Murphy of Classical.
Many athletes can't successfully double back in consecutive weeks, let alone four, and continue to put down PRs. Green was a casualty of his fourth straight week of racing.
Kipyego, somehow, managed it. "It's huge," he said.
So far, it's been a fruitful journey for the sophomore. As a freshman, he made the decision to give up football, a game he had been playing since he was four years old.
"I loved it as a passion," he said. "To give it up was a sacrifice for me. I had to look at what I would be more efficient in. Rhode Island, we're a small state with little competition, so running I could kind of go big.
Kipyego's sophomore journey isn't done just yet. He has an opportunity to go after the Rhode Island state record of 1:50.43, which was set by Murphy in May.
From there, he's set his sights on a variety of potential statement-making races.
"Try to win a New Balance title and Brooks PR title," he said. "To get under 1:49. That's my plan."
So far, so good.
- USATF U20 Championship Coverage