By KATIE SIMPSON
Every year, Drake Relays brings elite, international athletes to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. From the first year of this one-of-a-kind event, Iowa high school students have also had the opportunity to race alongside their track and field idols. For many, this is the biggest meet in which they will ever compete. Generations of athletes cite the Relays as a highlight of their high school careers and strive each year to qualify to run at the famous “Blue Oval.”
Spencer High School, found in the heart of Northwest Iowa, has a deep history with the Drake Relays. Two current Spencer High School track coaches, Kurt Bauermeister and Randy Barrick, competed in the 4×800 meter relay in 1980 and set a record that stood for 30 years. Bauermeister recalls that there were not many events geared toward high school students when he ran. The competition was focused primarily on collegiate athletes.
“I remember at that time it was still on the old track,” Bauermeister said. “We saw [track star] Steve Scott, and I think [former NFL player] Herschel Walker was running the 100-meter dash at the time, so there were a lot of great athletes. It was a huge, huge race. A lot of excitement.”
Barrick was a sophomore when he competed, but as a freshman, he attended the Relays to support a teammate who had qualified. At the time, Barrick said they were too young to appreciate or understand the magnitude of what was happening.
“The following year, we were fortunate enough to have our 4×800 team, that was kind of highly ranked in the state, put it together, and we ended up going down to the Drake Relays,” Barrick said.
He remembered that going into the competition, they knew they would be running against talented athletes but did not let it get in their heads.
“One of the things I’ve thought over the years that probably helped us more than anything was that we were all kind of naïve to the whole experience,” Barrick explained. “We were just really running in Northwest Iowa for a couple of years, and we knew we had some good athletes and good teams, but when you go down there and can compete at that level, it was just very special.”
Throughout his career, Bauermeister has coached athletes who followed in his footsteps and successfully qualified for Drake Relays, including his son and two daughters, among many others. He mentioned that competing at the Relays impacted his future as a teacher and coach.
“It’s hard to explain to the kids how much excitement is down there and what an honor it is to make it,” Bauermeister said. “You know if you can make it down there, the atmosphere is great, the competition is great, and I think everybody in Iowa who is a track fan appreciates what goes on.”
According to Bauermeister, every athlete or relay must meet a “cut off” set by Relays officials near the beginning of the season. Then, depending on each event, a certain number of entries is accepted based on qualifying performances.
One event that made the cut this year was Spencer High School’s 4×100 meter relay. After years of hard work, goal setting and countless hours of practice, the team comprised of seniors Kailee Hopkins, Ashlyn Nissen, Katelyn Nissen and Nadine Johnson qualified for the 110th Drake Relays.
When asked about the honor of reaching this tremendous milestone, Hopkins said “I feel this gives us an opportunity to prove to others how hard we are working. I think it gives our relay a lot of confidence to be able to say we qualified for the Drake Relays, and it gives us the motivation to get the best times possible.”
In 2017, Hopkins, Ashlyn Nissen and Katelyn Nissen also qualified in the 4×100 meter relay. They did not take that experience for granted and used the lessons they learned to drive their training so they could qualify again. The girls said that they were excited to return to the Relays and perform with two years of growth under their belt.
“Coming from a small town, I never would’ve thought it was possible to run in one of the most important track meets,” Ashlyn Nissen said. “Running at the Drake Relays was a huge learning experience. [I loved] seeing the other amazing competitors, dreaming one day, I can be just as successful. Drake has made me realize that it takes hard work to qualify, yet, it is one of the most rewarding meets I could have been a part of.”
Katelyn Nissen shared similar feelings to those of her teammates.
“Being a senior and being able to participate in the Drake Relays is very rewarding to me individually and athletically,” she said. “It is a privilege to be able to run at Spencer High School where girls’ track is very successful. With the support of our track coaches, we get to experience memories that we will have forever.”
Nissen went on to say that the program is built around ensuring that every girl is successful but also has fun.
“I never thought that my track career could bring me to the events [that] I’ve been to, the people that I have met and the joy it brings,” Katelyn Nissen said.
Nadine Johnson is the only member of the team who will be running at Drake Relays for the first time this year.
“The thing that I am most excited about is being a part of the team and the environment,” Johnson said. “I am excited to experience it for my first time and experience it with my other teammates that I have been running with for six years now.”
Throughout his tenure at Spencer High School, head girls’ track coach Al Pierce has seen tremendous success with his athletes. In his experience, Pierce feels that Drake Relays is one of the most important weeks for high school track and field and uses it as a chance to motivate his team to perform their best.
“Having your athletes line up on the same track as some of the greatest athletes in the nation and world is pretty cool,” Pierce said.
He added that once a student gets a taste of the Relays, they fight that much harder for the chance to return and improve on their past performances.
“It’s an award to the athletes for all of their hard work, talent and dedication to the sport of track,” Pierce explained. “Running against talent, like what qualifies for Drake, motivates kids to train hard and make commitments few other athletes have to do.”
Barrick urges for hard work and a level of commitment to their sport. No matter the year, race, event or result, one thing remains the same for every veteran of the Relays: the tradition of excellence.
“Don’t be satisfied with just making it,” Barrick said. “Go down there and compete. Go for your best times and get out and run with the leaders. Get up towards the front. Really enjoy the experience, and make sure you take advantage of it. You go one year, but who knows when you will get back again. Go down there and race your best and compete at the highest level.”
Hopkins and the rest of her teammates are taking the advice in stride. Since their first appearance, they have been hungry to get back to Drake for another chance to prove that they belong with the best high school athletes in Iowa.
“Our relay of seniors is excited to make our last mark at the Drake Relays,” Hopkins said. “We are really looking forward to seeing what we can do.”
The team ranked 27 out of 90+ teams.
Photo courtesy of Katie Simpson