NEW ORLEANS, La. -- Thousands became ten.
Those ten are now three.
The Bowerman Advisory Board named the three women’s finalists for The Bowerman Award on Thursday afternoon following the conclusion of the collegiate track & field season. They are, in alphabetical order: Texas senior Courtney Okolo, Georgia sophomore Keturah Orji and Mississippi sophomore Raven Saunders.
This is the second finalist appearance in three years for Okolo, while Orji and Saunders aren’t only both first-time finalists for collegiate track & field’s highest individual honor — but the first-ever finalists for their respective institutions.
During the 2016 cycle, few women were as dominant on the track as Okolo. The native of Carrollton, Texas turned in a senior year to remember as she captured two individual 400-meter titles and anchored a pair of championship 4×400 teams.
Indoors, Okolo went 3-0 in 400-meter finals against fellow collegians. That included a near one-second victory at NCAAs to go along with the Longhorns’ cakewalk in the 4×4. Speaking of 4x4s, Okolo also chipped in on Team USA’s victory at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in Portland, Oregon the week after the NCAA meet.
Outdoors, Okolo reached a level never before touched by a female collegian. At the LSU Alumni Gold Invitational, Okolo lowered her collegiate record to 49.71 and became the first female collegian to go sub-50 seconds in the 400.
Less than two months later, Okolo completed the sweep of the 400-meter titles with a strong run at Hayward Field (10th fastest time in collegiate history – 50.36) and authored an incredible come-from-behind victory in the 4×400 in which she reeled in a pair of competitors despite trailing by two seconds when she got the baton.
Orji proved there is no such thing as a sophomore slump as she showed why Georgia might be considered her gender’s “Jump U.”
During the indoor and outdoor seasons, Orji went 8-0 against fellow collegians in finals and swept the triple jump titles clean. She also added a fourth-place finish at the IAAF World Indoor Championships in the discipline.
Titles were one thing for Orji, but leaving her mark on the record book was another.
Indoors, Orji landed at No. 6, No. 7 and No. 8 on the all-time performances list and is now the fifth best performer with her leap of 14.14m (46-4¾).
Outdoors, Orji broke the collegiate record at the NCAA East Prelims (14.29m or 46-10¾) and then one-upped herself at NCAAs in Eugene, Oregon when she flew 14.53m (47-8) to establish a new American record.
And in a super-deep field of throwers from which to pick a finalist, Saunders stood out the most — and for good reason.
During the indoor season, the competition had to wait for Saunders to slip up — which she only did once — in order to have a chance to beat her. Saunders went 7-1 in finals during the indoor season (12th place finish at NCAAs), recorded the 12 best throws among all collegians and broke the collegiate record by one centimeter (19.23m or 63-1¼) at the Iowa State Classic in mid-February.
Outdoors, Saunders put her struggles in Birmingham, Alabama in her rearview mirror and dominated the circle. Saunders went 8-0 in finals and saved her best for last at NCAAs when she smashed Meg Ritchie’s 33-year-old collegiate record with a heave of 19.33m (63-5) in Eugene, Oregon.
If Okolo wins The Bowerman Award, it will be the first time since 2011 that it went to an athlete from the Big 12 (Jessica Beard, Texas A&M). If Orji or Saunders win, it would mark the SEC’s second female winner of collegiate track & field’s version of The Heisman Trophy (Kimberlyn Duncan, LSU).
Finalists were chosen by The Bowerman Advisory Board, an 11-person panel of track & field experts from around the country, based on performances recorded during the 2015-16 indoor and outdoor track & field seasons. Only performances through the conclusion of the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships are eligible for consideration.
The Bowerman Award will be handed out in December during the annual USTFCCCA Convention.
The Bowerman, which debuted in 2009, is presented annually by the USTFCCCA to the most outstanding male and female collegiate track & field athletes in the nation. Oregon’s Jenna Prandini and Florida’s Marquis Dendy are the reigning winners of The Bowerman, which is named for legendary Oregon track & field and cross country coach Bill Bowerman.
Past winners include Olympic gold medalist, four-time World Champion and decathlon world-record holder Ashton Eaton (2010), 10,000-meter Olympic silver medalist Galen Rupp (2009), 2011 IAAF World Champion at 1500 meters Jenny Simpson (2009), 2013 100-meter hurdles World Champion Brianna Rollins (2013) as well as 2012 Olympic high jump bronze medalist and 2015 World Champion Derek Drouin (2013).