ONLINE EXCLUSIVE ARTICLE BY ADAM ROGAN
Like most every year, the 2016 Drake Relays featured some of the world’s top athletes on the Blue Oval and in the field, and – yet again – they didn’t disappoint.
Kirani James – Men’s 400-meter
Probably the best individual performance on the day came from Grenadian Kirani James in the men’s 400-meter. James, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist, broke his own Drake Relays record with a time of 44.08, just .34 seconds behind the personal best he set in 2014 and only .14 seconds slower than the time he won the Olympics with.
Two weeks ago, James raced in the Bahamas and was more than a quarter second slower, showing fast-paced improvement.
“I’m just happy with the time, happy with the performance and just happy to be here at Drake,” James said. “I’ve always had a good experience here. All is well.”
James’ time was also the fastest recorded yet in 2016, confirming the notion that he is a favorite for the Olympics this summer. James beat out American and 2008 Olympic gold medalist LaShawn Merritt in the heat by less than two-tenths of a second.
“It just shows I’m in great shape, but it also shows how competitive the whole field is,” James said. “It just shows how deep our field is, the type of competition, the type of times it’s going to take to really be competitive … At the end of the day, as long as the fans are out here, the athletes are competitive, that’s all it needs to make a good track meet.”
The only negative that James mentioned was the weather, as he isn’t accustomed to the Iowa cold with temperatures dropping into the mid-40s, high humidity and wind gusting up to 14 mph.
“My toes felt frozen,” James said. “I couldn’t push like I wanted to.”
Shawn Barber – Men’s Pole Vault
Canadian Shawn Barber won the pole vault for the second time in a week on Friday evening, after winning on Wednesday in the Atrium at Capital Square. He cleared 18 feet, 8.75 inches indoors on Wednesday and finished at 18 feet, .5 inches in Drake Stadium on Friday.
“To come away with a win on both is a motivator,” Barber said. “It’s something that I can look back on and gain some confidence from.”
American Sam Kendricks tied Barber at 18 feet, .5 inches, but Barber won the flag by recording less total fails throughout the competition. For right now however, Barber is focusing on preparing for Rio rather than recording wins.
“(This) is the first meet that you can really judge yourself on,” Barber said. “I’ll have to wait and see how I do at a meet a couple weeks from now and judge between the two.”
Barber praised the atmosphere of the Drake Relays as well, saying that the crowd support is part of what brought him back for the second straight year.
“It’s great to see younger kids getting interested in the sport and getting involved,” Barber said. “Those (kids) are the future of track and field for us and those are the people that grow to be lifelong fans of the sport.”
Nick Rogers – Paralympic 200-meter
The Paralympic 200-meter dash is now in its second year at the Drake Relays. Despite featuring three veterans from last year – David Brown, Paul Peterson and Marko Cheseto – a newbie took home the gold
Many expected Brown, a blind runner who races tethered to his guide Jerome Avery, to win the event after placing third last year with a time of 23.06 behind Richard Browne and Felix Streng, neither of whom returned in 2016. Brown finished Friday’s race in 22.45. Newcomer Nick Rogers, a double leg amputee competing in his first event of this caliber, surpassed him with a time of 22.07
“I went out there, just tried to run my race, and have a lot of fun while I do it,” Rogers said. “I’m an emerging athlete. It’s my first time being in an event like this. I almost really didn’t know what to do … I signed an autograph for a little girl. It’s very, very exciting and different for me and it’s out of this world really.”
A big part of why Rogers has decided to pursue a career in track is to try to inspire others to pursue their dreams, to remember that “all things are possible” as he puts it. Rogers currently runs for the Never Say Never Foundation, a non-profit that aims to help youth with physical disabilities work around and past their impairments. And if Rogers’ speed is any testament, it appears that it’s working, as the foundation is who gave Rogers his running blades.
“I saw somebody run, that’s how I got started in this, a man named Regas Woods, he is an above-the-knee amputee so I saw that and was like ‘Wow, I really don’t have anything holding me back,’” Rogers said. “All things are possible, you just have to go out there, work hard, don’t let people get to your head and have fun doing it. It pays off, hard work pays off.”
Looking ahead, Rogers hopes to qualify for the Paralympics in Rio this summer, but is focusing on his upcoming meets as he continues growing accustomed to the world of professional running.
“I’m going to keep this momentum going. I have a couple more track meets until I go to nationals here in June … (where I can) hopefully make the team and then go out and medal at the Paralympics,” Rogers said. “We are a very young sport. We are trying to grow the brand and try to get awareness like this to find more disabled athletes and get them … more out there and really show them that they can go out and do these things like an abled body could, and I’m proud to be somebody that they can look up to and see that it’s possible.”