Four track relays set to tear it up at Drake

By Kate Fratar

With nothing at stake and no pressure to perform, a few Maroons can just run for fun as they go up against the best of the best in track and field.

Hosted by Drake University, the Drake Relays attract thousands of fans every year with an all-star roster of Olympic-bound athletes pacing some of the finest collegiate runners from throughout the nation. Today and tomorrow, nine Maroons will be among those who gather at Heptathlon Field in Des Moines, as the 10th-ranked women will have teams toe the starting line in four different events. The 4×100, 4×200, sprint medley, and distance medley relay squads will get the chance to tear up the track. This weekend marks the first women’s team’s visit to Drake since Chris Hall took over the reins as head coach of track and field five years ago.

With hand-picked competition and diehard fans in the stands, the Drake Relays will give these few selected Maroons a once-in-a-lifetime track experience.

“The Drake Relays are probably one of the two of the most famous meets in the country,” Hall said. “This meet has been sold out, and there’ll be 18,000 people in the stands on Saturday. That type of emotion is really hard to match in anything else in the sport of track and field in the United States. You’d have to go to Europe to find that type of atmosphere.”

Getting a chance to strut their stuff in front of a packed house will be fourth-year Jessica Winter (sprint and distance medleys); third-years Jackie Kropp (distance medley), Nellie Movtchan (distance medley), Al Robertson (distance medley), and Trina Ruhland (4×100, sprint medley); second-years Cynthia Lin (4×100, 4×200, sprint medley) and Nofi Mojidi (4×100, 4×200, sprint medley); and first-years Olivia Ndyabagye (4×100, 4×200) and Lauren Nwankpa (4×200).

“We’re not going to go down and win the Drake Relays,” Hall said. “I don’t think we’re in a position to do that, but I think we’re in a position to compete extremely well against other Division III schools.”

This showcase of track and field talent generally takes place during the same weekend as UAAs. With the league meet moved up a weekend this spring to accommodate finals at several of the competing universities, Chicago found itself in the rare and desirable position of having the opportunity to attend.

Even when the Maroons have the weekend free on the calendar, their participation at Drake depends on season performances. Without a qualifying meet or invitation to Iowa, coaches have to send in petitions for entry to Drake by April 17. Applicatins for spots at the meetmust include verifiable quality performances in a given event along with the athletes’ biographies.

“Pretty much every school in the Midwest tries to get representation at this meet,” Hall said. “If you don’t belong there, it’s very apparent. This is exposure to phenomenal competition. This is how your athletes compete against other great athletes.”

However, the Hyde Parkers may be racing against inexperience as much as they are racing against the strongest field west of the Mississippi. The 4×100 is the only relay squad making the trek that has competed this season.

Lin will lead off the 4×100 for the Maroons before handing it off to Mojidi. Ruhland will take the baton third before yielding to Ndyabagye at anchor. Nwankpa will take Ruhland’s spot for the 4×200 lineup as she, Lin, Mojidi, and Ndyabagye work together for the first time. The DMR squad of Kropp, Movtchan, Robertson, and Winter captured seventh place (12:11.98) at the indoor NCAAs but haven’t worked together since.

One of the hardest events to prepare for will be the sprint medley as Lin, Ruhland, Mojidi, and Winter will have to work out baton passes in the unusual 200, 200, 400, 800 setup.

“We’re not going to change our training for this meet, but we better work on these exchanges and get these taken care of,” Hall said.

Drake may be one of the most popular and competitive meets in the country, but it doesn’t represent the pinnacle of Chicago’s season. The best is yet to come for the squad with nationals looming May 25–27. The trip to Heptathlon Field offers the Maroons a learning experience, a taste of the big time without the pressure that comes with making a postseason drive.

“This is a reward for our student athletes,” Hall said. “When you go to the national meet, you’ve been working for it all year long and you’re fighting to be an All-American, and it’s kind of a culmination of the season. I think you feel a little bit of pressure because you want to meet those goals.”

With a little over a month left until the best of Division III do battle, the Maroons have three meets after Drake to qualify for that showdown. All the South Siders return to the track May 6 for the Butler Twilight Invitational in Indianapolis.

“I think this is a really neat opportunity for to maybe begin to understand how good they are,” Hall said. “It becomes ‘We’ve competed against better,’ and when they go to national championships they feel a lot more confident and a lot more comfortable in their surroundings.”