When Robyn Stevens race-walked to 24th place in the 20-kilometer event at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon, her cheering section included her Spanish coach, former youth coach, nephew and parents.
Also on Team Stevens: her lawyer.
His presence Friday was unassuming, but it signaled the potential for a stunning shake-up in how Team USA track teams are selected for the Olympics and world meets.
Wearing a fancy black suit on a warm day, attorney Paul DeMeester handed out press releases decrying USA Track & Field for not having Stevens on the 35-kilometer team.
“USATF left her off the team in favor of athletes who managed only 3:00:18, 3:01:55 and 3:07:31. How did that happen?” the release said of Stevens, the American record-holder in the 35K event (2 hours, 49 minutes and 29 seconds).
He said USATF is fielding its B Team in the women’s 35K.
“Had it followed its own bylaws that state that USATF competition eligibility criteria shall not be more restrictive than those imposed by World Athletics, USATF would have fielded its A Team, headed by Robyn, the only U.S. athlete, male or female, to have met the stringent World Athletics entry standard for any Eugene 2022 race walking event.”
The U.S. women’s team for the 21.75-mile walk around a 1-kilometer loop course is 17-time national champion Maria Michta-Coffey, 2016 Olympian Miranda Melville of Chula Vista (35th in the 20K walk — 12 1/2 miles) and Stephanie Casey, a family medicine physician. That event steps off at 6:15 a.m. Saturday in Eugene, Oregon.
They qualified the traditional way — finishing in the top 3 at the Santee trials in mid-January. (Stevens dropped out with an injury but recovered to set records in Europe.)
So how did Vacaville-native Stevens, who didn’t compete in the so-called U.S. selection event, make the 20K team?
A USATF spokeswoman revealed Wednesday it was part of a deal growing out of a grievance 39-year-old Stevens filed in June.
“The parties entered into a confidential settlement agreement, wherein Robyn voluntarily accepted being named to the 20K team,” USATF’s Susan Hazzard told Times of San Diego.
Hazzard, the U.S. governing body’s director of public relations, may have opened a Pandora’s box with that admission, however.
What’s to stop an American sprinter, jumper or thrower who tops the seasonal list but can’t compete at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials from cutting a similar deal?
That would upend the much-vaunted American practice of a do-or-die track meet or road race.
But DeMeester argues that USATF’s system for creating Olympic and world teams goes against its own bylaws. He says world rankings — a points system launched in 2019 — should prevail.
The 62-year-old San Francisco lawyer cites USATF bylaw article 3(B)(12).
Under “PURPOSES AND DUTIES,” USATF establishes “eligibility criteria for participating or competing in athletics [including the Olympics] … that are not more restrictive” than criteria set up by World Athletics, formerly the IAAF.
Hazzard, the USATF rep, disagrees with DeMeester’s premise.
“World Athletics permits every nation to select a team in the manner the member federation chooses,” she said via email. “USATF selection procedures are not more restrictive than World Athletics.”
Stevens Sets New Goal
After Stevens finished her 20K walk — the second-oldest entrant after 42-year-old Inês Henriques of Portugal — she said she was disappointed about not being in the 35K but was happy to achieve her Oregon22 goal: bettering her 33rd-place finish at last year’s Tokyo Olympics. (She also went faster: 1:36:16 compared with Tokyo’s 1:37:42.)
“I pretty much wanted to smash it out of the park for the U.S.,” she said in the mix zone near the course outside the University of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium. “My whole goal was just position.”
She avoided getting disqualified, a common occurrence in race-walking. But she was warned twice — once for “lifting” (appearing to have both feet off the ground at the same time) and once for a bent knee (which has to be straight upon landing).
Stevens said her new goals include “a better selection process.”
Asked about the status of her grievance, she said: “I can’t talk about that. I’ll leave it to my lawyer.”
DeMeester had more to say in coming days. He said others athletes can take his argument and say: “Hey, you’re right. Look at that bylaw. I should be selected — not one of the top three (finishers).”
“What happened in the race walk is but one example of how maybe the whole system needs to be called into question,” DeMeester said Wednesday in a phone interview.
Lawyer vs. Lawyer
He also shared his email response to a USATF lawyer that he considered a professional violation.
“I am in receipt of your July 19, 2022, letter of intimidation (ethics referral) and threat
(state bar complaint) on behalf of USATF,” DeMeester began, defending his July 15 press release as not breaking confidentiality rules because it didn’t refer to the grievance.
“The press release was a comment on the unlawfulness of the March 30, 2022, 35km race walk event selection procedures for Oregon 2022, in that it required athletes to have finished a race conducted two and a half months before the publication of the procedures,” DeMeester wrote USATF lawyer Paul J. Greene.
“The retroactive nature of the 35km selection procedures constitute an independent illegality,” DeMeester wrote. “In addition, to permit athletes who stood to benefit from Robyn’s 35km exclusion to be part of the decision-making process is a third legal hurdle.”
DeMeester also has argued that Michta-Coffey, who had a committee role in pickingtyhe 35K walk team in Oregon, was engaged in a conflict of interest. (Michta-Coffey didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
In her email, USATF’s Hazzard called the conflict claim “a completely unfounded accusation with no basis in fact.”
She said the “objective” High Performance Executive Committee oversees the selection criteria.
“It is composed of the High Performance Chair, the Men’s & Women’s Track & Field Committee Chairs, the Race Walk Committee Chair, the Athlete’s Advisory Committee Chair, the USATF Chief Of Sport Performance (who has no vote) & the USATF Chief Of Athlete Services & International Teams (also has no vote),” Hazzard said “These are also posted.”
In any case, DeMeester says USATF could retain the value of an Olympic Trials by making it attractive for athletes so they could get extra points for world rankings.
He also says USATF could “offer a good pot of money for people in the top three spots. Make more of a monetary incentive as opposed to just selection.”
Now that world rankings exist, with very tough entry standards, he said, “I don’t mind if USATF says we defer to how Americans are positioned in the world rankings. Then put on the national championship, where they can get extra points and qualify by time as an incentive.”
USATF Defends Process
Hazzard says USATF has the most objective selection system in the world “where athletes select themselves.”
She added: “Of course, USATF will continue to seek ways to try and improve on those selection criteria, as well as how we communicate and engage with our athletes on these procedures.”
Those communications also play a role in why Stevens didn’t complete at the 20K race walk trials April 24 in Hauppauge, New York.
Stevens says her European race schedule didn’t accommodate the last-minute selection of New York for the 20K trials.
Others insist the traditional rules applied.
Dave McGovern, a former national champion at 30K, once was vice chair of the USATF Race Walking Executive Committee.
He says Stevens disqualified herself from consideration for the 20K team by not showing up.
“At least in this case there were two empty spots on the U.S. roster since only Miranda Melville (and Robyn) were the only U.S. 20K walkers who met the World Athletics qualifying criteria,” McGovern said, unaware of the USATF grievance deal.
“Since there were, in fact, empty spots on the 20K team, the Race Walk Committee chair, Diane Graham-Henry, named Robyn to that team — although she was under no obligation to do so since Robyn had no ‘performance rank’ at the 20K qualifier.”
McGovern also says a DeMeester contention that qualifying procedures were changed in March 2022 are “without merit.”
As early as Sept. 12, 2021, Athletes Advisory Committee Representative Nick Christie of El Cajon, who races 20K and 35K in Oregon, summarized the procedures in an email to the Race Walk Executive Committee, McGovern said.
Stevens Called in the Loop
Besides being Christie’s girlfriend at the time [they split in January], Stevens was copied on this email, he said.
“Mr. DeMeester referred to the 2019 [Doha world meet] Qualifying Procedures in his letter,” McGovern said. “He stated that an athlete did not have to finish the qualifying event to make the team.”
This is true only under very particular circumstances: when there are fewer than three Trials finishers who are in the World Athletics pool of athletes qualified to compete at Worlds. In most track and field events the US has more than three qualified athletes, but we are traditionally a weak nation in the 20K walks. Not so in the women’s 35K walk. The U.S. has been pushing for years to have a women’s long-distance walk event added to the Olympics and World Championships.
To his credit, Mr. DeMeester was instrumental in getting the women’s 35K walk added to these World Championships. Because of this history, the U.S. is relatively strong in the women’s 35K, so we had several women in the WA pool. This being the case, Robyn needed to not just finish the 35K qualifying race to make the World Championships Team, she needed to beat Miranda, Maria and Stephanie. She failed to do so.
In no case EVER (to my knowledge) has an athlete out of the top three “bumped” an athlete in the top three, who was otherwise qualified…. The U.S. had at least four women eligible, by World Athletics standards, to compete in the women’s 35K at the World Championships. The top three at the Trials race … made the team. Full stop.
So it was made clear to Robyn that she had to be one of the top three athletes at the Trials race who were qualified for the World Championships by either time or WA ranking. Whether she was “on paper” the fastest or slowest athlete in the pool was immaterial. What mattered was how she competed head-to-head in the Trials races, and Robyn did not finish in the top three — or at all — in either qualifying race.
Race walking is an event within track and field/athletics and plays by the same rules. Sha’Carri Richardson (for example) was a World Athletics “automatic qualifier” in the 100 and 200 but failed to make the U.S. team at the U.S. Trials. Robyn’s case is no different.
DeMeester has a differing take on the 35K.
“When, on March 30, the HP Exec Committee finalized the walks selection procedures, they knew the outcome of the January 16 35K Santee race. … They knew Robyn did not finish the Santee race, and they knew Robyn had stayed in Europe after Oman [a world team championships] to compete in some prestigious races (Podebrady 20K, Dudince 35K, La Coruna 20K).
“As a matter of fact, Robyn was doing exactly what [former committee member] Tish Hanna and Diane Graham-Henry had said at the 2021 Annual Meeting race walkers should do for 2022 (train in Guadix; race in Dudince; race in Coruna).”
By changing from the Doha walks selection criteria — no need to finish a trials race as long as an honest effort was made — to one requiring the trials race be finished, USATF’s High Performance Executive Committee “locked in the top three from Santee and made it impossible for Robyn to ever qualify for the Eugene 35K per USATF,” DeMeester says.
20K Trials Date Changed
He says USATF at the end of March set April 24 as the date for the 20K trials, a change from the earlier date of April 17 (to have been hosted by Mt. San Antonio College).
“The committee members were aware that Robyn was in Dudince the weekend of April 23-24 (where she shattered the national 35K record by some 12 minutes). Robyn would have made the race if it had been held on April 17, as originally envisioned,” the lawyer said.
In any case, DeMeester says the Stevens grievance won’t lead to some higher body ruling on whether USATF violated its own rules on not having stricter-than-WA team selection.
“A legal test of that USATF bylaw will have to await a future case,” he said Wednesday. “I am not aware of any pending cases right now.”
Times of San Diego also received extensive comment from a former Race Walk Committee member who didn’t want their name used.
The former official said Stevens should never have been selected to the 20K team but favors USATF adopting the WA qualification procedures.
The official wrote:
During my tenure with the USATF Executive Committee, I experienced a constant struggle when it came time to develop standards for qualifications for international championship competitions.
Within the group there were those who opposed allowing athletes to go with what they considered substandard performances. Both Tish Hanna and also Ron Daniel were two such individuals on the committee who would rather see athletes sit home than compete towards the back of the pack in international races.
That being said, there were many of us who felt that we needed to develop race walkers and one way is to get them international experience. Usually we won out and a lesser standard would be set as the mark which USATF athletes would need to attain in order to qualify and be selected to a team.
Since Diane Graham-Henry was elected the Chair, USATF higher-ups basically told her what they wanted our selection procedure to be and she basically told us that we needed to have a similar or equivalent procedure. The one change was we could set time standards.
Although the dates of the qualifying events were generally known in advance (not always well in advance), the qualification procedures were either produced last minute or produced after the events.
The former official also opposes USATF on selection criteria.
“As for the question of should USATF Selection Criteria be more [restrictive] than WA? I answer 100% NO,” the ex-official said via email. “We no longer have any reason to host championships except to give our athletes chances to qualify by earning rankings points.
“We don’t need selection criteria for World Champs or Olympics as World Athletics makes it clear how athletes will be selected and we should allow those who qualify to go. For the World Race Walking Team Champs and the Pan American Race Walking Cup races — there is still a need and the qualifying procedures should be spelled out.”
(The ex-officials says these are developmental races and “we should send as many athletes as the races allow — that being 5 for the World Team Champs and Pan Am Cup races. Open and Juniors. This year, we didn’t send even one male [under-20] athlete because we have no young men who could meet our self-imposed 46-minute standard.”)
Blast from Ex-Panel Member
The ex-official added:
We also only send 4 athletes max per event to those two competitions because USATF doesn’t want to pay if we aren’t going to win medals. Shortsighted in my opinion. We are already hamstrung because we don’t have any all encompassing High School Race Walking development or college development.
If we had it in every state, and also had it in the [NCAA championships] we would be winning medals just like the sprinters and hurdlers are doing now. Another thing to think about is that it takes a total of 5 or 6 Race Walk Judges to set an American Record, while only taking 3 to set a World Record. Our record procedure is more restrictive than World Athletics.
As for the Robyn Stevens issue – it has been widely known that in our previous selection procedures you had to finish the trials race to go. When John Nunn was given a bye a few years ago it was because he had competed in the Olympic Games just a couple months before and he had proven fitness. Nobody was anywhere near him.
Robyn was not injured during the January qualifier. I am not saying that her hamstring wasn’t bothering her, but someone with an injured hamstring doesn’t come back just a couple weeks later and blast fast miles and 1,500-meter races (where she set U.S. masters records) – don’t do amazing 20K races a month or so later.
She was fading in the [January Santee] race and she would have been in a lot of pain as “death marching” in race walking is brutal…. She could have finished – she just didn’t want to put herself through the agony, saving herself for another day.
The official called the race walking community a small group but has leaders that “lord it over us” and are “out of touch with what it is to be an athlete.”
“They don’t take into consideration all of the stress, time, training and planning that is necessary these days with WA standards and a diminishing competition schedule,” the official said. “They do not communicate – even though we live in an age that makes that so easy, and they have no plan for making USA Race Walking into a program that may earn medals at some point in the future.”
The former official blamed USATF overall as well as the Race Walk Executive Committee.
“They don’t want our group to succeed,” the former official said. “ALL of them are just helping to wash us down the drain and be done with us.”