To be even a small part of something historic is a remarkable feeling. Laura and I felt that Saturday in Eugene, Oregon, after the KU women’s track and field team won the first national championship for the women’s track and field program, and the first for all KU women’s sports. The triumph wrapped up one of the most enjoyable trips for the two of us in some time.
As the team flew into Portland on Monday and drove the two hours south to Eugene, everyone knew the battle for the women’s title would primarily be fought between Oregon and Kansas. Key performers needed to meet pre-championship projections. One or two exceeding expectations would mean victory.
Sitting in the back seat of our rental Ford Flex was one of those key performers, Olympic gold medalist, Diamond Dixon. Along with teammate and relay reserve runner, freshman Rhavean King, the two were absolute delights. While they chatted away asking Laura and I all sorts of questions and sharing their unique insights on KU life, I kept my eyes glued to the road during Portland’s evening rush hour traffic. I felt the pressure of transporting one of KU’s most esteemed athletes.
The flow was less stop-and-go and more get up to speed and then suddenly stop. The first time I pressed the brakes hard, we heard the simultaneous click of two seat belts behind us. While we all joked over Dixon’s and King’s efforts to do this without discovery, I had to gently chastise them for not having their seat belts on from the start. They, in turn, joked that we were driving a “chipmunk car”, as did KU’s head coach, Stanley Redwine.
The boxy Flex did look like an over-sized Scion, which in television commercials features chipmunks driving the equally boxy mini-wagon. We reminded them that the seating was still way better than that of the others packed into 12-passenger vans for the journey.
Once freed from our driving demands upon arrival in Eugene, Laura and I dumped all our gear that always makes us the butt of many team jokes for our expedition size loads of camera gear along with our clothing bags. We were off to Prince Puckler’s, the outstanding home-made ice cream store just a block away from Historic Hayward Field, the mecca of the track and field world.
Sitting outside with our ice cream cones, the beautiful late-evening weather was just a foretaste for a week of the best weather ever experienced for a championship in often-soggy Eugene. Sunshine and brilliant blue skies reigned instead with not a drop of rain. The setting of the Oregon campus surrounded by hills enveloped with wondrously green trees was picture perfect and truly enticing to everyone without allergies. For the not-so-fortunate, June is the worst month of the year and the sunny skies and gentle breezes did little to relieve visitors in the media tent that bore the red hue of tissue-wiped noses as they sneezed their way to and from the track. Amazingly, we both easily survived.
As the four days of competition began on Wednesday, sadly one of the victims was our car mate Dixon. Having already helped KU qualify in the 4×100-meter relay, Dixon fell too far behind early in the 400-meter race to make up the distance with her usual final kick. She did not advance to the final.
That loss was more than made up for by one of the most remarkable performances over the next two days from Lindsay Vollmer. The sophomore from Missouri set personal best marks in six of the seven events in the heptathlon. She exceeded expectations by such a margin that she took home the KU women’s first outdoor national championship. In so doing, she also sent a message to the educated track fans of Oregon that their beloved team was about to see an end to what they hoped would be a Duck Dynasty.
Having already won the cross country and indoor titles, where KU finished second, the Ducks were priming for the triple crown with the outdoor championship on their home pond. By the end of the third day though, KU’s point totals started to indicate the trophy would be flying southeast for the summer.
Meanwhile, the trip allowed me to share time with some of my former teammates and head coach from the early Capital-Journal years. We started with a dinner at the home of Carl and Kim Davaz, a newspaper alum of the highest order. Years in Topeka prepared him for success as the photo editor first in Missoula, Montana, and then over many years at the Eugene Registar-Guard, where he is now number two in the newsroom of one of the best photographic newspapers in the country.
Davaz has taken on the mellow vibe of life in Eugene. We dined on salmon he caught in the Columbia River, cooked perfectly by his son-in-law Nat, a chef specializing in the cuisine of Northern Spain. The best strawberry pie ever capped the dinner thanks to the skills of Davaz’s food critic wife and the juicy flavor of the berries picked earlier in the day.
Our contribution for the long evening of wonderful conversation on their patio was the first bottle of wine. In Kansas the debate rages whether grocery and convenience stores should sell hard liquor. Buying wine in a Target store just does not seem right. Even though screw-on caps are now deemed worthy of a fine wine, buying such a bottle in Target screamed Boone’s Farm. Our selection of a corked Pinot Noir was a big hit and disappeared quickly.
Keeping the small reunion going two nights later, our esteemed boss Rich Clarkson hosted a dinner at one the fantastic restaurants in Eugene, where there is a recycled life for everything from the old buildings to utensils. On a menu bursting with local fish options, my halibut flaked tenderly as we all took time to once again thank Clarkson for his remarkable leadership.
George Olson drove from his home in Portland to share in the fun that ended with even more hours of reminiscing and updates on life at Davaz’s home. Olson, once the College Photographer of the Year as a Washburn University student, shared his rich black and white images from a recent trip to Italy, all shot with film in his ancient Leica that dates back to his newspaper days in Topeka in the late 60’s and early 70’s. We both are very proud of the fact we are the only true Topekans to ever work as staff photographers when that small Topeka paper was the runaway best in photojournalism.
We ate very clean throughout the week, save the ice cream and our trip to Voodoo Doughnuts. This Oregon bastion of caloric overload is nationally known and did not disappoint. Not a big fan of goo-filled pastry, I kept my selections pretty simple. Laura did not disappoint though. Gorging on their classic voodoo doll filled with “raspberry blood,” she followed it up with a gigantic Cap’N Crunch-encrusted gut bomb. I watched in wonder.
The many meals at the track always offered vegan options to make up for any gluttony. While enjoying a quinoa wrap, the photographer and video folk from Arkansas kept us enraptured with their tales of Fayetteville’s annual “Walmartian” invasion. Strange creatures from around the world swarm the campus taking over dorms and the huge Bud Walton Arena while buzzing everywhere in legions of golf carts.
Seems Wal-Mart knows how to throw a party. Their annual convention of top executives and shareholders from around the world dominates the landscape of a university made lush by Walton family money. Golf carts chauffeur executives everywhere. Cleaned dorms provide housing. A tent city, one mile square, erupts on campus with states and foreign countries holding forth, exchanging pins and breaking into mass cheers. Security for the very top executives rivals that of the President.
What goes on in Bud Walton Arena, lovingly called the “Basketball Palace of Mid-America”, is what really amazed us. Here were some of the guests for this year’s event: concerts by Elton John, John Legend, Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson; addresses from Tom Cruise and the cast of Duck Dynasty, and Hugh Jackman serving as host. A former Badger now coaches the Arkansas football team, but “Wolverine” served as host for the Wal-Mart extravaganza.
Ah, but they did not have Bruce Hornsby. That was our privilege. As the crowd flowed into Hayward Field on Saturday morning for the final day of competition, the gifted pianist delighted us with his skills in an extended set that culminated with his playing the National Anthem.
The rest of the day belonged to the Jayhawk women. From the first day, when KU piled up 17 points, the team steadily raced forward. On Saturday senior Paris Daniels made sure they never needed to look back. Running the lead-off leg of the 4×100-meter relay, Daniels came back quickly to run the 200-meter dash and then anchored the 4×400-meter relay. The points in those three races blasted away any Oregon hope as Texas A&M moved past them for second place.
However, a look at the point scoring for KU shows how a complete team effort led to the remarkable total of 60 points and a 16 point dominating lead over the second-place Aggies.
Andrea Geubelle (16 pts: 2nd-place long jump and triple jump)
Lindsay Vollmer (10 pts: 1st-place heptathlon)
Natalia Bartnovskaya (8 pts: 2nd-place pole vault)
Paris Daniels (6.75 pts: 4th-place 200m, 5th-place 4x100m [1 pt], 6th-place 4x400m [.75 pts.])
Alena Krechyk (6 pts: 3rd-place hammer throw)
Jessica Maroszek (5 pts: 4th-place discus)
Heather Bergmann (3 pts: 6th-place javelin)
Diamond Dixon (1.75 pts: 5th-place 4x100m [1 pts], 6th-place 4x400m [.75 pts])
Denesha Morris (1.75 pts: 5th-place 4x100m [1 pt], 6th-place 4x400m [.75 pts])
Tianna Valentine (1 pt: 5th-place 4x100m)
Taylor Washington (.75 pts: 6th-place 4x400m)
I am old enough to have seen the last great KU track and field team that dominated the NCAA’s in 1970 with a powerful trio of shot putters. Known as “the Pachyderms,” Karl Salb, Steve Wilhelm and Doug Knop swept the NCAA podium. KU had only one individual champion this year, but the “team” coach Stanley Redwine brought to Eugene was just as powerful.
Again, we know we are just a small part of the team Redwine assembled, but he and the women of KU make sure we feel every bit a part of it, just as they do for their excellent communications contact, Brad Gilbert. As proud as Redwine is of his team performance, I am just as proud of the job we did documenting those great moments.
As we readied Saturday for the celebration to come, Laura knew before I could even speak that she needed to get up high in the stands to make sure we covered every angle. The photograph she made of Redwine finally drenched in a water bucket shower was the crowning achievement for us.
As Bruce Hornsby sings on the refrain of his most famous song, “That’s just the way it is.”