U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials 2024

Behind NCAA Champion Shane Cohen's Swift Rise In The 800m

Behind NCAA Champion Shane Cohen's Swift Rise In The 800m

FloTrack sat down with University of Virginia half-miler Shane Cohen, this year's NCAA champion, to outline his quick emergence and U.S. Olympic hopes.

Jun 19, 2024 by Cory Mull

One of the great stories of the NCAA Outdoor Championships was Shane Cohen

The University of Virginia fifth-year graduate student came out of (seemingly) nowhere to win the NCAA title at 800 meters, clocking a winning time of 1:44.97. 

That performance ultimately bumped Cohen up the pecking order of the U.S. half-mile contingent and put his name in the ring heading into the U.S. Olympic Trials -- he's currently the seventh-ranked American man at the distance. 

Cohen will in fact have a shot at making the U.S. team when the Trials kicks off on Friday, with the opening round of the men's 800 meters set for Thursday, June 27 at 4:30 p.m. EST. 

Cohen's been training in Oregon since his win at NCAAs, so FloTrack caught up with the Pennsylvania native to go over his career timeline, including his history at Lower Moreland High School and the University of Tampa, before his eventual rise at the University of Virginia. 

Check out more content ahead of the U.S. Olympic Trials on FloTrack. 

After Winning An NCAA Title, Cohen And His Teammates Went To Bend, Oregon

The mission wasn't complete after the NCAA Outdoor Championships. 

Even after scoring a national title in the 800m, Cohen and a few of his teammates -- Wes Porter, Gary Martin, Nathan Mountain and Yasin Sado -- traveled to Bend, Oregon to maintain training and prepare for the U.S. Olympic Trials. 

Cohen said his coaches told him: "Business is in three weeks."

After running a lifetime best of 1:44.97, the Philadelphia native didn't want to rest on his laurels.

"I took a few days to really soak it all in," he said. "It hasn't got to me yet, that I actually am the national champion, running under 1:45." 

Traveling just east to Bend, the Virginia group level-set and focused back on the next objective. 

"Getting back to business, kind getting to re-set," Cohen said. "Being ready for the trials. And hopefully being top three and hopefully getting the Olympic standard to be able to book my ticket to Paris." 

Cohen Was A HS Basketball Player Who Was On Low Mileage In High School

Cohen's dream coming out of Lower Moreland High School was to play college basketball. 

That's why, he said, he put most of his effort over the fall and winter months playing hoops instead of building toward the track season. He had some interest at the NCAA Division III level. 

In the spring, he ran about 10-15 miles per week, mostly through workouts. 

That being said, Cohen still reached the PIAA Outdoor Championships in 2019, clocking a time of 49.64 in the first round of action. He ran a career best time of 1:58.37 in the 800m.

"Track ... I was good at it, so I did it," he said. "That's what made the transition going to college and the University of Tampa, it made the jump a lot more dramatic because I was able to start putting in the mileage in, that's why I went from 1:58 to 1:48, just in two years after high school. 

He Was A Walk-On At Tampa Who Had To Run A Time Trial To Make The Team

It was a stroke of good fortune that Cohen even made his way to the University of Tampa.

His family knew a friend in the Clearwater area, which prompted the family to visit the school, which was situated right off the Hillsborough Bay. 

In a touch of irony, Cohen met the track coach -- Tampa was a NCAA Division II school --  while he was on campus for the first time. But over his first semester, Cohen chose not to run. 

"Decided this was the school I wanted to go to," he said. "I decided I didn't want to run there either; I literally just went down for academics, the warm weather, the beaches." 

Things changed in the fall, however, when Cohen missed the camaraderie of a team. "I reached out to the track coach and asked him, 'Can I try out?'"

Needing to hit times of either 23-point in the 200m, 53 in the 400m or 2:04 in the 800m, Cohen trusted his talent. He had been training with the distance team in the interim.

"I had my choice to pick," he said. 

But during the day he was set to Time Trial, no one was there to pace him in the 400m. Cohen ended up running the 200m with other sprint walk-ons. 

"I ended up winning the time trial in 22-high or 23-low," he said. 

Two weeks later, the COVID shut-down happened and everyone went home. Once students and Cohen returned, he slipped right back with the middle-distance group. By his sophomore year, after running a 1:49 in the 800m, he was put on scholarship.

The First Time Shane Knew He Had Something Special, He Clocked A 1:49

It was a Tampa Tri-Meet, and Cohen was lined up against Shane Bracken, an 800m runner from St. Leo University who eventually transferred to Ole Miss. 

Cohen had his move thoroughly planned out, then executed. 

"He was trying to run 1:50," Cohen said, "and I was only coming from a 1:57. I just sat on him and I was able to out kick him with 100 meters to go and I was able to run 1:49." 

Training In Tampa Prepared Cohen For What It Took To Be Successful At Virginia

Training in the hot climate and humidity of Florida was an adjustment for Cohen, who hailed from Pennsylvania. 

But he figured out how to adapt.

"6 a.m. practice every day," he said. "That definitely taught me a lot of things about sleeping, time management, making sure I have the right nutrition before running." 

Once Cohen transferred to Virginia in 2023, the traits he developed at Tampa ultimately served him in Charlottesville. 

"Our practices were at 7:30 in Virginia," he said. "Sometimes, guys would complain. I'm like, 'Guys, this is nothing.' 

Virginia Coach Trevor Dunbar Recruited Cohen As A Fifth-Year, He Took One Visit To Charlottesville And Was Sold

Experiences matter. 

For Cohen, who was recruited by Virginia assistant coach Trevor Dunbar, then flown out to Charlottesville to check out the Cavaliers' distance program, experience campus and look-in on a potential graduate program, it only took one time to know UVA was the place to be. 

He was sold.

What helped, he said, was the fact that Virginia bet on him even though he was injured over his senior season at Tampa.

"I fell in love," he said. "I fell in love with the team. Obviously, Gary Martin, we have a very good middle-distance program between Conor Murphy, Wes Porter, Nathan Mountain in the steeple, Yasin (Sado). We have such a well-rounded group of guys. I did my official visit and fell in love. I didn't visit any other schools. I said this is the school I want to go to for graduate school." 

Cohen Said His Defining Race Before NCAAs Was The ACC Final

Aha moments can appear in losses. 

Cohen said his race in the ACC final in May made him realize what was possible in the 800m. 

"I definitely know I can do this," he said. "That was my first time breaking 1:47. I ran 1:46-high. I beat a lot of high-level people." 

Even though he finished third, he knew he could improve on his tactics and generate more in another situation.

"I had more gears left in the tank," he said. "I knew I could run faster." 

After Running 1:44, He's Had Conversations About His Professional Career, But Cohen Says He Might Still Come Back To Virginia

A national title will do wonders for anyone's career, but for Cohen, it also opened the door into a possible future in the professional ranks. 

His time of 1:44.97 put him on the U.S. stage and into the company of some of the best half-milers in the world. 

He said he did not have thoughts of a professional career before NCAAs, but those conversations began shortly after. 

"Definitely have been brought up a lot more," he said. "A lot of people have reached out." 

Cohen, however, leaned on Virginia Director of Track and Field and Cross Country Vin Lananna.

"Coach Vin has done this plenty of years with a lot of high level people," Cohen said. "It's nice to have him in my corner, to have someone I can talk to and get advice as my coach and as a mentor really. Me and him decided, emotions are high after NCAAs. Everything is still settling in. He had the advice of letting things settling in. I totally agree. I think that's the smartest thing."

"I didn't want to make any irrational situations based off of hype right now," he said. 

He said he's going to sit down with Coach Vin to outline what the best plan might be going forward. 

Cohen said he isn't even taking taking his final year of eligibility at Virginia out of the equation. He has one more year left in cross country and indoor track and field, while his graduate program is two years -- and Cohen is only in the first year of a public policy and leadership track.

Interview Segments: 

  • Rewinding to the NCAA Outdoor Championships (1:00)
  • Shane talks about how his high school experience shaped him (2:30)
  • On how the University of Tampa came to be (4:40)
  • On being a late-kick artist (9:00
  • What prepared Shane for the jump in the 800m distance (11:00)
  • Training in Florida (12:50)
  • Critical shaping experience at Tampa (14:00)
  • The story of how Shane made his way to Virginia (16:30)
  • Biggest takeaway in Charlottesville (20:00)
  • His defining race ahead of NCAAs (21:30)
  • The first thing his parents said to him after his title (22:40)
  • On what's ahead for Shane after his NCAA win (24:50)
  • On what he's looking for in a potential professional group (27:00)
  • The final dream (28:30)

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