NORMAN, Okla. — Ever since he transferred to the University of Oklahoma in January, Riley Masters of Bangor had set his sights on the 1,500-meter title at the NCAA Division I outdoor championships.
The former Bangor High School and University of Maine star never made it to the meet in Des Moines, Iowa.
“Unfortunately, I fell in the last heat of the [NCAA] Regional meet and didn’t end up advancing,” said the 22-year-old Masters.
“It was frustrating and I know I’ll be back next year and give it everything I’ve got to do well there,” he added.
The setback was only temporary. Masters has set his sights on competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the 2012 London Summer Games.
“The NCAAs was the main focus of my season, but luckily I did have the [Olympic] Trials qualifier, so I was able to refocus my training,” Masters said.
It has been a productive season for Masters, who is building off strong performances in high-level competitions that were made up mostly of older, more experienced runners.
On May 18 at the USA Track and Field Oxy High Performance Meet in Pasadena, Calif., Masters ran a personal best of 3 minutes, 37.19 seconds in the 1,500. The effort, which netted him 12th place, met the Olympic Trials “A” standard, set an Oklahoma program record and made him the top collegiate finisher in the event.
Masters elevated his game against stiff competition, slashing 4.61 seconds off the previous PR of 3:41.80 set in April at the Stanford Invitational. It was the second-fastest 1,500 time by a collegiate runner this year.
He also finished ahead of Alan Webb, the American record-holder in the mile.
“To beat a guy of that caliber was a big confidence booster, especially heading into the championship season,” Masters said. “Qualifying for the Trials was something that had always been a goal of mine. I was able to accomplish a lot in one race, which was a big turning point in my season.”
Masters continued his Olympic stretch run last weekend at the Portland Track Festival in Oregon. He finished third in the open 1,500 (3:40.90) against another fast field.
With less than two weeks remaining until the Olympic Trials’ 1,500 preliminary race — scheduled for 1:20 p.m. June 28 in Eugene, Ore. — Masters continues to prepare.
“I’ve been trying to get myself fine-tuned for a quicker pace and so I can make sure I’m feeling comfortable at my race pace, and at a pace that’s going to make me competitive at those championship-style races,” Masters said.
He explained that he used the first 3½ months after his transfer to Oklahoma to work on his strength, which he believes was lacking. He said the results of his efforts are showing.
Masters said he has benefitted greatly from making the move to Oklahoma, where he is pushed more often by his teammates and outside competitors.
“You step on the line at the Big 12 Championships and the caliber of runners is the same you’re going to see at the NCAAs,” he said. “It kind of prepares me for those bigger races and makes me a lot more confident.”
He also is appreciative of the coaching he has received and the friendship and support of his new teammates, who have helped him buckle down and focus on his training.
Masters is well aware the Olympic Trials present a daunting challenge. To earn a spot on the Olympic team, he must finish in the top three and meet the Olympics “A” standard of 3:35.50 — all against a field of 29 other hopefuls.
“I’m still very early in my career, so this is going to be a big learning opportunity for me and a great chance for me to experience the Olympic Trials and an opportunity to qualify for the Olympic Games,” Masters said. “I guess my goal going in is to really compete well and make sure I put myself in it.”
Hitting the “A” standard means Masters must shave another 1.69 seconds off his PR. He feels he has matured not only physically, but mentally, as he approaches what will be the biggest race of his life.
“I know if I had had this opportunity a year ago, I would have been kind of afraid,” Masters admitted. “I don’t know if I would have had the right mindset. Now I think I have the mindset and the training underneath me to compete well.”
Ultimately, he wants to acquire critical, big-race experience to improve his chances of earning an Olympic or World Championship bid down the road.
Regardless of the outcome, Masters is heading south of the border next month for the NACAC (North America Central America Caribbean) U-23 Championships in Guanajuato, Mexico.
He earned that berth by virtue of his PR run in California. The meet will expose him to an international field and provide him with another experience upon which he can build.
“I’ll be proud to be able to wear the USA jersey,” Masters said. “It’s exciting and something I’m really looking forward to. It’s kind of a stepping stone.”
The meet is scheduled for July 6-8 and Masters will be accompanied by former Columbia standout Kyle Merber, the other U.S. qualifier in the 1,500 for the event.
“We’ve become pretty close friends in the last year, so it’ll be really nice to go out and room with him while I’m out there,” Masters said.