BY ADAM ROGAN
The first professional competitors have been confirmed for the 2017 Drake Relays presented by Hy-Vee. At a March 22 press conference, Relays Director Blake Boldon confirmed four professional athletes who have already agreed to return to this year’s Relays, which is now less than a month away — April 25-29.
“(The Drake Relays is) the destination for world-class track and field athletes in April,” Boldon said.
Both of America’s best pole vaulters, Sandi Morris and Sam Kendricks, will be back for the second year in a row.
Morris won the silver medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She also set the American women’s outdoor pole-vaulting record after clearing five meters last September.
Kendricks has won four consecutive US Indoor titles and received the bronze in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Morris won the women’s competition at last year’s off-campus Capital Square Vault; Kendricks placed second.
The off-campus event will return to Capital Square this year, hosted by The Des Moines Register and Catch Des Moines. It’s scheduled for 6 p.m. on Wednesday, April 26.
“To be able to (see the pole vault) literally an arm’s reach away is an extraordinary and exciting opportunity for spectators,” Boldon said.
Both Morris and Kendricks are planning on competing in Drake Stadium during the weekend as well.
Morris and Kendricks are among the 60-plus athletes who competed at both the Drake Relays and Rio Olympics last year. Twenty of those athletes medalled, including 10 golds.
The Grand Blue Mile / US Road Mile Championships will take place the evening before the Vault at Capital Square. Those Races are scheduled for 6 p.m. on April 25.
Both of last year’s victors — four-time Grand Blue Mile champion, six-time Relays gold medalist Heather Kampf and two-time Relays gold medalist Chad Noelle — will be back to defend their titles.
Also in distance running, Drake senior Reed Fischer is scheduled to challenge a 39-year-old school record in the 5000-meters on Thursday evening. Last year, he set a new personal record with a time of just over 14 minutes and finished third in the event.
Boldon promised, “more announcements will be coming in the near future,” regarding pro athletes who will be competing at the Drake Relays.
There are a couple changes coming to the 2017 Relays, each aiming to bring in more competitors and viewers.
The Relays will be live streamed on USATF.tv as part of the 2017 USATF Championship Series, but will also be broadcast for two hours on NBCSN on the final afternoon of Relays: Saturday, April 29.
There will also be additional sections of the high school 400-meter hurdles, opening up slots for 16 more young athletes to compete in Drake Stadium.
The high school 3000-meter and 3200-meter races will also be moved to after 6 p.m. Boldon said this change was made so that the student-athletes would miss less school-time and more fans would be able to see “Iowa’s best distance runners here on the Blue Oval.”
The 2017 Drake Relays will be the first under Boldon’s leadership. He took over the position in October after former director Brian Brown resigned in order to take a role at the University of Missouri. Brown had been the Relays director for 11 years before his departure.
Boldon said that following in the footsteps of Brown has been a challenge, but also an honor. Boldon grew up in Osceola, Iowa, and has competed in Drake Stadium several times.
In 1998, he won the 3A high school 1,600-meters on the Blue Oval. He returned as a collegiate competitor from Missouri State and won the 1,500-meters in 2003. In 2007, he placed second in the mile, losing to Alan Webb who set a Drake Stadium record in the race.
That same year, Boldon became the third Iowa-native to run a mile in less than four minutes.
“It’s been invigorating. It’s been exciting. It’s been scary, which I never thought Des Moines, Iowa would be scary,” Boldon joked. “But it’s fantastic to be back.”