Cracked eggs don’t count.
“So you go and try to smash somebody else's eggs,” Nikki Larch-Miller said. “They get pretty intense, even when we’re 20 years old and still having Easter egg hunts.”
Some of the pink, purple, green and yellow plastic eggs contained money. Some contained candy. Twins Nikki and Taylor Larch-Miller tried to fill their cloth Easter baskets, embroidered with their names, and they definitely kept score.
“They were full-contact, and if you could steal out of someone’s basket, it was yours,” said Helen Larch-Miller, their mother. “I call it disfunctionally competitive.”
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The Larch-Millers describe this scene with smiles and laughs, shaking their heads at the silliness of it all. That is the way they grew up, arguing over Monopoly games, playing Wiffle Ball in their back yard with neighborhood kids and always wanting to be the best. Starting Thursday, the Larch-Miller sisters take their competitive spirit to the NCAA West Preliminaries in Austin for Wichita State’s track and field team. Both will run the 100-meter hurdles and in the 400-meter relay. Nikki, who has already qualified for the NCAA Championships in the heptathlon, will also compete in the long jump; Taylor in the 100-meter dash.
In their third seasons at WSU, they are standout performers, although their careers didn’t unfold as expected. At Torrey Pines High in San Diego, Taylor starred in the hurdles and drew most of the recruiting attention. Nikki ran track under mild protest. She excelled at volleyball. When it came to roller-skating or riding a bike, Nikki jumped on and Taylor learned from watching her sister.
“I kind of hated track,” Nikki said. “I wasn't good. There was no fun in it. I was doing it because Taylor was in it and my parents liked to watch me.”
Taylor finished sixth in the 300-meter hurdles in the California Division I meet with a time of 42.75 seconds, a time that wins the Kansas meet almost every year. Nikki didn’t run the hurdles in high school because the family agreed that kind of competition could be unhealthy for the twins.
“In high school, I ran a 24.55 in the 200,” Nikki said. “Besides that, I didn't really do much. The only reason I'm at a DI school right now is truly because of Taylor.”
When college coaches called to recruit Taylor, the Larch-Millers told them they were a package deal. Coaches agreed and they considered schools such as San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara and Sacramento State. They ended up at Wichita State when Helen’s chance conversation with a Wichitan veered toward her daughters and track and field. The Wichitan told her they sounded perfect for WSU’s program. They met assistant coach John Wise in California, soon visited WSU and delighted in the team atmosphere and coach Steve Rainbolt, who reminded them of their first track and field coach, a man they called “Papa.”
“They absolutely fell in love with Bolt,” Helen said.
Taylor appeared to be the prize recruit. Torrey Pines coach Mike Stevens had watched Nikki anchor the 1,600-meter relay team in the state prelims and run her career-best time of 54 seconds in 102 degree heat. He watched her run good times in the hurdles with little practice. He saw Nikki as a versatile athletes with potential in the multi-events, so at their senior banquet, he stood up and told the crowd that if Nikki Larch-Miller wasn’t an All-American by her junior year, fault her college coaches.
“Nikki was a gamer,” he said. “If you asked her to do it, she did it.”
Stevens was right. Nikki, with 5,812 points, ranks second on WSU’s career list for the heptathlon. She won the Missouri Valley Conference pentathlon in 2014 and finished second in 2015. In 2015, she also set the WSU record in the 100 (11.38 seconds), 100-meter hurdles (13.08) and in the 200 (23.23). She earned the Most Valuable Athlete honor at the MVC’s 2015 outdoor and indoor championships.
“Nikki has progressed remarkably,” Rainbolt said. “I would like to think that we have provided her with an atmosphere where she really has fun with track and field and enjoys the process. She’s loved doing this. She was already talented.”
Lukewarm on track in high school, Rainbolt’s coaching style pulled her into the sport totally at WSU. She loves to train. She loves to talk track with Rainbolt, looking at other schools and performances by their athletes. She wants to run after college.
“Nikki is blossoming because of Rainbolt,” Helen said. “He had trust in her when she did not trust herself.”
Taylor’s career at WSU is now reaching its potential. In her first weeks at WSU, she stepped in a hole while running the slope at Cessna Stadium and tore the brevis tendon in her left ankle. Ankle injuries, heart palpitations and a sprained right knee wiped out her freshman season and limited her training and meets as a redshirt freshman.
In 2015, she stayed healthy. She finished second in the 100 hurdles at the MVC meet with a personal-best 13.21 seconds and second in the long jump (20 feet, 1 1/2 inches). On April 9, Nikki set the WSU record in the 100 hurdles with a time of 13.29 seconds. Less than a month later, Taylor broke that mark with her time of 13.19 seconds, a prelude to Nikki’s run in the MVC meet in late May.
“Things have finally gone the way I wanted,” Taylor said.
While Taylor struggled with injuries as a freshman, she pondered giving up the sport and returning home. Sundays in their room on the third floor of Fairmount Towers became a time for Nikki to counsel and lecture Taylor, trying to save her college career in a way only a sister could.
“She can say the things that coaches and teammates can't really say to you because they're trying to be nice,” Taylor said. “I lost the path I was headed down and started partying and got out of hand. I don't think I would be here if wasn't for her.”
Nikki looks at those times as evening the score. WSU recruited her because of Taylor. It was her duty to keep Taylor at WSU.
“Sunday would come around and I'd finally see her,” Nikki said. “I’d say ‘What are you doing? Why aren't you taking care of yourself?’ She wasn't making smart decisions to get back healthy.”
Nikki found her love of track at WSU. Taylor rediscovered her love of the sport when she got healthy, pushed by her sister, and began to perform at a high level. Together, they are pushing each other to better times and more good times. At a practice before the MVC meet, Taylor told Rainbolt she was going to run an all-out 200. Nikki said “Not as fast as me.” Taylor replied “Faster.”
“In the end, we’re sisters,” Nikki said. “Now that she’s doing well, it’s more fun for us because we can go back and forth. The competitive atmosphere between us is very intense, but also light-hearted.”
NCAA West Prelims
Where: Myers Stadium, Austin
What: Athletes with the top 12 performances and the top 12 relay teams advance to the NCAA Championships in Eugene, Ore., June 10-13. Wichita State qualified 17 athletes in 20 events for the prelims.