When Kansas was the Center of the T&F Universe

I was feeling a bit nostalgic this week about the impact that Kansas has had on track and field and cross country running, so I took a journey back about 60 years ago to when our state rightfully laid claim to a huge slice of the running universe.

That lands us near the year 1964, when Wichita East junior Jim Ryun clocked 3:59.0 at the California Relays to become the first high school athlete to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Before Ryun's stellar high school career was over, he had broken 4 minutes four times, including 3:58.3 at the 1965 Kansas High School state championships - the only sub-4 minute mile in a high school event.

By age 19, Ryun - then a freshman at the University of Kansas -- set world records in the mile (3:51.3) and half-mile (1:44.9) and was named Sportsman of the Year bySports Illustrated, Athlete of the Year by ABC's Wide World of Sports, and was recognized byTrack and Field News as the world's best track and field athlete.

Also in 1964, Billy Mills - who had attended high school at the Haskell Institute prior to the University of Kansas - shocked the world, rallying from behind in the last half lap to win the Olympic 10,000 meter run with a mad sprint from lane 4.

To this day, Mills is the only American ever to win Olympic gold in the 10,000 meter run.

This is not, however, a story of Ryun and Mills. Those two guys are well known, and it doesn't take much more than a Google search to figure out how wildly successful they have both been as athletes and as human beings.

A decade before Mills and Ryun made their mark, Thane Baker of Elhart, Kan. turned an opportunity to walk on to Kansas State University into four NCAA All American honors. Then, he won silver in the 200 meters at the 1952 Olympics; and in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, he won gold (400 relay), silver (100 meters) and bronze (200).

Not to diminish anyone's accomplishments, but Baker won twice as many Olympic medals as Ryun and Mills combined. Still today, Baker is K-State's most decorated Olympian.

In the late 1950s, Emporia State cross country and track and field became a dominant force in the NAIA under head coach Fran Welch. The Hornet cross country team won the 1958 NAIA championship, the first national title ever by an Emporia State team.

By the time Welch - a former football star at Emporia State -- retired in 1965, the school had won four NAIA cross country championships, one NCAA small college cross country national championship, and one NAIA track and field national championship.

In NAIA competition, Welch's athletes won 18 individual national titles - more than any U.S. school up to 1965. The four team titles in cross country was the most by any NAIA school, as well.

Welch was born in Hartford, Kansas, graduated from Emporia State in 1918. When World War II began, he took a leave of absence from Emporia State and served as a captain in the U.S. Army.

During his career, Welch coached numerous international teams, including the 1960 U.S. Olympic women's track and field team. The football and track and field stadium at Emporia State is appropriately named "Welch Stadium."

Half a state away, there was another cross country and track and field dynasty that had just formed at Fort Hays State University. Throughout the 1960s, it was hard to argue the fact that the greatest cross country rivalry in the United States during that decade was located smack dab in the middle of the Sunflower State.

By the end of the 1960s, Fort Hays and their own legendary coach - Alex Francis - had become the standard-bearer of excellence in the NAIA. The Tigers won NAIA championships in 1963, 1965, 1968 and 1969 - as well as four runner-up finishes around the same time.

From 1958 to 1969, Emporia State and Fort Hays State had won 8 of 12 NAIA championships. Nobody else in the NAIA had ever won more than two national championships at the time.

Francis was another Kansas boy-done-good. He was born in Oberlin, graduated from Fort Hays State and eventually returned to his alma mater to coach. In addition to four NAIA cross country titles - which at the time tied Emporia State for the most of any U.S. school - Francis coached 139 All Americans, had 28 top two conference finishes in track and field, and won 27 conference titles in cross country. At one point, Fort Hays State won 33 consecutive dual meets.

Francis was known for a simple phrase: "Go beat somebody."

I did quite a bit of research on Francis for an upcoming book that publishes in June, a biography of Dr. Joe I. Vigil, who built the Adams State College cross country and track and field programs into an NAIA dynasty in the 1970s and 1980s (that program continued its success in the NCAA Division II ranks, having won 56 NAIA or NCAA national titles in the past 52 years).

Francis, I learned, was one of Vigil's mentors. In 1967, Francis nominated Vigil to the U.S. Olympic Committee, setting off a career in which Vigil served many national assignments, including two stints as head coach for the U.S. Olympic distance runners. Vigil also founded the USA Track and Field coaching education program, which has trained more than 40,000 U.S. coaches since 1981.

So, yes, the 1960s were quite a decade for track and field and cross country in the state of Kansas. Ryun and Mills were the headliners, but the influence and success of Emporia State and Fort Hays and numerous individuals contributed to our state being standard-bearers of excellence in these two sports at the time.


Continuing with the history theme, it was 20 years ago this year that former Marysville High School and Kansas State University standout Kendra Wecker won the javelin throw at the NACAC Under-25 Championships in Athletics, held in Monterrey, Mexico.

Wecker, the U.S. high school record holder in the javelin at the time, threw 174 feet, 6 inches to win by nearly 20 feet over Ana Guitterez of Mexico.

Wecker was more renowned as a basketball player, having teamed with Clay Center's Nichole Olde to lead the Wildcats to a Big XII championship, a Sweet 16 appearance, and four straight trips to the NCAA tournament. She was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 WNBA draft.


Ten years ago this week, there were some pretty remarkable accomplishments in Kansas track and field, as well.

Kearsten Peoples of Ottawa threw the shot put 49-7 to win the Shawnee Mission North Relays. At the Topeka City Championships, Machala Wesley of Topeka West clocked 11.61 to nip Abreanna Parker of Shawnee Heights, who was timed in 11.72.

Parker, though, had an incredible City meet. She later beat Wesley for the 200 meter title (clocking 25.57 to Wesley's 25.81), and flew 19-4.75 to win the long jump - more than a foot better than any other Kansas athlete that week.

Jamillah Bonner of Wichita Southeast won the triple jump at the Derby Invitational with a leap of 40-3. Bonner won 8 of 9 meets that season, including the class 6A state championship.

Among Kansas boys, some of the top performers from 10 years ago include Morgan Burns of Trinity Academy and Joe Fisher of Valley Center, both of whom clocked 10.47 for 100 meters at separate meets. Burns also ran 48.70 for 400 meters at the Hesston Invitational, and Fisher clocked 22.01 to win the 200 at the Goddard Invitational.

Luke Arnold of Bishop Carroll cleared 15-8 to win the Goddard Invitaitonal, and Macauley Garton of Mill Valley threw the javelin 206-6 at the Shawnee Mission North Relays.


Five years ago this week,Wumi Omare of Blue Valley North pulled off a great double at the Shawnee Mission North Relays, winning the 200 (25.40) and 400 (57.17). At the same meet, Christi Lemunyon of Blue Valley West cleared 13-0 to win the pole vault.

Kurt Loevenstein of Mill Valley made a huge statement at the 2015 Shawnee Mission North Relays, winning the 800 in 1:53.97, and the 1600 in 4:13.85 - the top time in Kansas that season. He beat DeSoto's Travis Hodge in the 800 (1:55.36) in a great race; the two later became teammates at Kansas State University.

The Shawnee Mission North Relays were rockin' that year - Tanner Green of Olathe South clocked 48.26 in the 400 to beat Marcus Blake of Turner (48.50). Willie Morrison of Leavenworth dominated the shot put (66-3.5) and discus (180-11) and teammate Jared Belardo jumped 24-6 in the long jump.


Let's finish with another legendary race in Kansas, one which we talked briefly about a couple weeks ago. It also happened at the Shawnee Mission North Relays, though just three years ago.

Cailie Logue of Girard recorded the No. 1 time in the United States to that point in the season in winning the 1600 meters in 4:45.00. She beat another pair of Kansas standouts, Shawnee Mission Northwest's Molly Born (4:48.87) and Lawrence Free State's Emily Venters (4:49.36). All three times landed the trio in the top 10 of the U.S. rankings into the first week of May.

All three of those runners have since earned NCAA Division I All American status in cross country.

Some highlights from that same meet three years ago:

* Hunter Krom of Lawrence won the javelin with a throw of 186-7;

* Clifford Robinson of Leavenworth clocked 10.79 in the prelims and 10.75 in the finals to win the 100 meter dash;

* Noah Green of St. Thomas Aquinas won the 300 meter hurdles in 37.40;

* Four girls cleared 5-5 in the high jump, but Morgan Thomas of Mill Valley got the win based on fewer misses.

* Dana Baker of Olathe North won the javelin with a toss of 164-2;

* Abigail Kelly-Salo of Shawnee Mission Northwest cleared 12-6 to win the pole vault.