Track earns top finishes at prestigious Drake relays

By Kathryn Stewart

At a meet that featured some of the best athletes in the world, women’s track distinguished itself with a number of top performances.

After a successful third-place finish at the conference meet, nine Maroons made their way to Des Moines for the Drake Relays, a mega-meet which draws collegiate teams of all divisions. The meet also boasts a significant number of big names in track and field, including Olympic high-jumper Amy Acuff and 400-meter phenom Jeremy Wariner. In their first sojourn at Heptathlon Field since head coach Chris Hall took over the program four years ago, Chicago proved to be one of the most formidable Divison III squads at the event. The women brought four impressive relay teams including the 2006 Indoor All-American Distance Medley Relay (DMR).

Leading the way for the Maroons, the sprint medley relay took their place in the top 10 with a sixth place finish. A strange hand-off pattern had given rise to some mild fretting prior to the team’s debut at Drake, but the worries were soon dispelled once the race started. Second-year Cynthia Lin got things going for the quartet with a strong 200 meters before passing the baton to classmate Nofi Mojidi for the second 200 leg. After third-year Trina Ruhland took a turn around the track for a swift 400 meters, fourth-year Jessica Winter finished off the event with a finishing kick in the 800. The squad clocked in at 4:08.18, edging seventh-place Wisconsin–Stevens Point by .58 seconds.

Chipping in with a pair of solid finishes, the 4×200 and DMR each garnered seventh-place honors. Lin and Mojidi returned for the event, joining first-years Lauryn Nwankpa and Olivia Ndyabagye. Against a tough field, the quartet crossed the line in a respectable 1:44.62, nipping St. Mary’s (1:45.94) and Minnesota–Duluth (1:46.18).

Running together for the first time since their seventh-place performance at nationals, the Maroons’ four All-Americans brought more of the same to the DMR over the weekend. Third-years Jackie Kropp, Nellie Movtchan, and Al Robertson teamed with Winter for another outstanding performance, taking seventh in 12:10.35. The 4×100-relay with Lin, Mojidi, Ruhland, and Ndyabagye ran a season-best 49.12, but stiff competition left them in 12th place, just 2 spots out of the top 10.

While the women’s squad is no stranger to multi-division competition, the Drake Relays offered the Maroons a rare opportunity to go head-to-head with high-quality Division II and III programs in the “college division,” which included teams from regions and conferences outside of Chicago’s normal competition schedule. While dominating their own division, the women found that they could comfortably hold their own against scholarship athletes from across the country.

“We placed second and third among Division III schools in the sprint medley and 4×200-meter relays, which is really amazing to think about,” Ruhland said.

“We placed better than I had expected in all the relays, especially among just Division III schools,” Lin said. “As with any meet, it was a good learning experience. It’s better to figure things out now than at nationals.”

Although the women have three weeks to go until NCAAs, the national meet was on everyone’s mind during their trip to the Hawkeye State. The Maroons used Drake to test their mental and physical fortitude in preparation for the upcoming last-chance meets and nationals.

“This meet put a new perspective on nationals. It makes nationals seem much more doable and accessible,” said Mojidi, who ran the 200 at last spring’s national championships.

“Seeing how fast all the athletes are is motivation to work harder and get closer to their level,” Movtchan said.

Chicago did not compete in any individual events. However, the Maroons saw a fair amount of personal improvement over the course of the four-day meet. Led by a season best time in the 4×100, the women scored some exceptional individual performances in the three other relays. Kropp, who ran the 1,200 portion of the DMR, improved her split from the indoor season by several seconds.

“[Jackie] ran a very competitive race against some of the best Division III and Division II middle-distance runners in the country.” Winter said. “This should let her know that she belongs near the front of any 800- or 1,500-meter race she’s in for the rest of the season.”

Kropp’s fourth-year teammate and captain had her own reason to be pumped for Drake. In addition to running in the DMR, Winter was selected for the final leg of the sprint medley.

“I was excited when Coach Hall told me I would get to anchor the sprint medley relay,” Winter said. “The other runners in that event are the returning members of our NCAA-qualifying 4×400 relay from last year, so I was honored to get to team up with them and I really wanted to run fast to prove that I belonged.”

The All-American ran the third-best 800-meter time of her life during the half-mile leg of the Sprint Medley relay, passing some old rivals and holding her own among some of the best in the nation.

The women proved that even Mother Nature couldn’t keep them from delivering top performances. Rain and wind persisted during the majority of the weekend, leading the University of Florida to bust out its foul weather gear to combat the hostile elements. The Maroons, on the other hand, were unfazed.

“I like running in the rain, I think it’s fun,” Lin said. “The other competitors are running in the exact same conditions, so you can’t really let it affect your race. Of course, if we were trying to run a specific time, the rain would not have helped. However, this meet wasn’t really about running against the clock for us.”

“I think we all enjoyed running in the rain,” Ruhland said. “It added an extra dimension of thrill to the meet. Finishing off the race completely drenched was really quite rewarding.”

Although inclement weather can be refreshing and thrilling, it can still affect performances where fractions of seconds and inches matter. The women are hoping for some sunny days in the coming weeks as they make their bid for a considerable team showing at the National meet in Lisle, Illinois.

“With three more meets remaining before NCAAs, we’re hoping for cooperative weather conditions as we start really focusing on qualifications,” Winter said. “Our 4×100 is about half a second from the qualifying mark, I’m hopefully going to run a qualifying time in the 1,500 this weekend, and we have quite a few others who have a realistic shot of hitting the NCAA standards.”

After a weekend of testing their mettle against the best in the Midwest, the Maroons will head to the Butler Twilight Meet in Indianapolis as they look to close in on NCAA qualifications and add to their slate of PRs and season bests.