On a Monday in March, Kansas track coach Stanley Redwine stood in a hallway at the White House with a dozen members from the KU women’s track team. All around them was history — paintings of old presidents, regal rooms they had heard about on television.
They had been NCAA champions for nearly nine months. The celebratory billboard on Interstate 70 had been up all fall and winter. The NCAA women’s outdoor track and field title banner was now hanging in the Anschutz Pavilion on the KU campus. Now they were one of 19 NCAA championship teams to be honored in a ceremony with President Barack Obama on March 10.
So as Redwine and Lindsay Vollmer, the individual NCAA champion in the heptathlon, waited to shake hands with the president, they experienced the twin feelings of accomplishment and motivation.
“Just to walk throughout the White House and see the history,” Redwine said.
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Last June, they had captured the first NCAA women’s title in KU history. But as another outdoor season loomed, Redwine began to think about how his women’s program could keep its run going.
When Redwine was an assistant coach at Arkansas in the 1980s under legendary coach John McDonnell, the Razorbacks racked up NCAA championships and started a dynasty. McDonnell and the staff had a saying.
“You never forget what got you there,” Redwine said. “It’s harder to stay there than it is to get there, and so we were able to stay there at Arkansas.
“I think it’s the coaches motivating the athletes and reminding them what it takes to be successful.”
This week, motivation takes the form of a home meet in a brand-new million-dollar facility. The Kansas Relays began in Lawrence on Wednesday and will continue through Saturday. But for the first time in the event’s 87-year history, the relays will not take place inside Memorial Stadium on the Kansas campus.
The defending NCAA champions will take to the track at Rock Chalk Park, the new $39 million facility that also includes new venues for the KU softball and soccer programs. Construction continues on softball and soccer stadiums, but after a long, harsh winter, the track is ready for its test run.
“If you would have been here a year ago, you would have said: ‘This can never happen — the Kansas Relays this year,’ ” Redwine said. “If you would have been here six months ago, you would have been certain that it would never happen. And it’s happening.”
The Kansas women entered the week ranked No. 11 in the latest NCAA rankings, the 25th straight week the program has appeared in the top 11. The Jayhawks lost seven All-Americans off last year’s team, including Andrea Geubelle, who finished second in the long jump and triple jump at the NCAA meet.
But they return five All-Americans. The list includes Vollmer, who won the heptathlon at the Texas Relays earlier this season, and 400-meter specialist Diamond Dixon, who claimed a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics Games in London. Redwine also makes sure to mention senior Jessica Maroszek, who finished fourth in the nation last year in the discus.
“We’ve definitely been able to gain a little bit of respect,” said Vollmer, who will compete in some individual events this week but will sit out the heptathlon. “Just coming off of that amazing season that we had before, people obviously know that Kansas is a good, quality team now. They can’t ignore us anymore.”
In Redwine’s view, his men’s and women’s programs should be at close to midseason form this week. But many are focused on peaking for the Big 12 outdoor championships, which begin on May 16 in Lubbock, Texas.
The NCAA outdoor championships begin June 11 in Eugene, Ore., the site of last year’s championship. The Jayhawks are a little younger this year. In some events, Redwine says he’s replaced fifth-year seniors with freshmen. But the potential is still there, and the championship could have residual effects on the recruiting trail.
“You have more people listening, and I think that’s really good,” Redwine said. “You’re talking to the top recruits and they’re starting to listen.”
After last year’s championship, Vollmer spent the last few months working on the 800 meters, her weakest event. In the heptathlon, it’s not about dominating a few events, Vollmer says, it’s about being consistent and versatile. The same, she says, is true about team success.
“You just have to be solid across the board,” Vollmer said. “It’s not all about talent. It’s about working hard and wanting it, and doing everything possible to make it happen for the team.”