LAWRENCE — Michael Stigler is a college junior who may one day find himself on an Olympic medal podium. But more than two years ago, he had another position in mind: Defensive back.
Before Stigler, a Kansas hurdler, arrived on campus in 2011, he drew up a master plan. He was headed to KU to compete for conference and NCAA titles in the 400-meter hurdles, but he also wanted to slip on some pads in the fall and suit up for the Kansas football program. He had starred as a high school cornerback back in Canyon, Texas, a dusty little town in the Panhandle, 20 miles outside Amarillo. And really, what college football coach is going to turn down a willing participant with world-class speed?
Turns out KU track and field coach Stanley Redwine wasn’t too enthused about having a prized recruit spend part of his year playing football. The master plan was quickly nixed.
“I came here, coach Redwine was like, ‘No, it’s not going to happen,’ ” Stigler recalled. “ ‘(You’ll be) better off being on the track. It’ll be more beneficial. ’ ”
It didn’t take long to see why. By the end of his freshman season, Stigler had claimed the Big 12 outdoor championship in the 400-meter hurdles, and he hasn’t slowed down since. Stigler now has a new master plan, a two-year path that could lead him to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Stigler has designs on a gold medal, but first he’d like to claim an NCAA title, a goal that eluded him last year, when he finished second at the NCAA men’s outdoor championships meet in Eugene, Ore.
“I need to win a national championship,” Stigler said. “I need to get that under my belt.”
Still, the Olympics are coming fast, and Stigler appears to have the talent and work ethic to push for a spot on the team in 2016. On Saturday, Stigler closed the first Kansas Relays at Rock Chalk Park with a blazing victory in the 400-meter hurdles.
Stigler cruised to a win with a time of 49.35, the best time by a collegian this year and the fifth-fastest time in the world.
“Michael Stigler is a phenomenal competitor, that’s No. 1,” Redwine said. “That’s something you can’t coach, and he just wants it. He’s going to compete until the very end. You get an athlete like that, it’s very easy to train them.”
Stigler’s track legend started at Canyon High near Amarillo, not the most likely starting point for a future Olympian. He won the Texas 4A state championship in both the 110-meter hurdles and the 300-meter hurdles, and earned All-America status at the U.S. Junior Championships. That made him a wanted man on the recruiting trail. Redwine was able to sell him on the family atmosphere around the KU track program.
Redwine was confident in Stigler’s talent, but when he began to watch his training sessions during his freshman year, he knew he had a future star.
“When you get an athlete like that, it’s almost anything you do won’t go wrong,” Redwine said. “Because he’s a competitor.
“The other day, I was just watching him work,” Redwine continued, “and I get excited watching him work out, because the harder the workout, the more excited he is.”
Two years ago, Stigler qualified for the finals at the Olympics trials in Eugene. He had just finished his freshman season, and he was competing against Michael Tinsley — the eventually silver medalist at the London Olympics — and Angelo Taylor, a former gold medalist. He finished seventh, running a time of 50.63. He calls it a learning experience.
“To get that so early,” Stigler said, “and just to see the professionals run and how they prepare … it was great. It was a good experience and it taught me a lot.”
He hopes to parlay some of that knowledge into an NCAA title this June. The meet is back on the same track in Eugene. But for now, the plan is to just keep moving forward, one meet at a time.
“I’m young and I’m still growing,” Stigler said. “I’m paying attention to details. The thing with the 400 hurdles, you learn more about the race as you grow. So Olympic gold medal is in my future, I feel like.”