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A brief history of the Drake Relays

Photo courtesy of Drake University Archives & Special Collections

It was never supposed to work, but in the matter of a few years, a simple track and field competition in the middle of Iowa became a tradition like nothing else. 

The Drake Relays have been around for 112 years. Fans have come from all across the country to see the elite competition of high school, college and professional athletes on the famous blue oval track. In the Relays’ 112 year history, athletes have set multiple world records,  American records and collegiate records at the event.  The Relays have also seen racial and gender barriers broken along with the countless records. 

The Dream 

Drake University’s athletic director, John L. Griffin, came up with the idea of hosting a track and field event. The first Relays would be held on April 23, 1910, and included Drake students as well as athletes from other Des Moines colleges such as Simpson, Earlham Academy and Highland Park colleges. The first meet would also include local high school boys. 

The inaugural Relays would not come without its own adversity, though. A late-season blizzard hit Iowa the day of the competition.

Orin Dahl’s 1980 book “In Celebration of a Century: Drake University” describes the event as drawing “less than 100 faithful boosters” who “cheered the victors as everyone stood shivering around hastily built bonfires.” According to Dahl, the next year was more successful. 

“The following year in April 1911 fifteen schools sent 300 runners and 78 teams to the meet,” Dahl wrote. “The tradition of the Drake Relays was established.” 

Jesse Owens takes over 

A name synonymous with track and the Drake Relays is Jesse Owens, the then-Ohio State sophomore who would go on to be decorated as one of the top athletes of all time and an Olympic icon. Owens raced in the Relays in 1935. 

Owens dominated the blue oval and was named Drake Relays Athlete of the Half Century in 1959. The Drake Relays will always hold a special place in Owens’ heart. Through the halls of Drake University’s Archives, there is a photograph of Owens presenting awards to the Nash Middle School Relay team in 1959. 

In the Relays 100th edition program, Owens is quoted by saying, “there is something special about the Drake Relays. To me, it’s the bigness and the smallness.”

“Drake Stadium, so uniquely right for track, and the closeness of the people, all 18,000 of them. You know they’re with you,” Owens would continue saying. “For me, Drake Stadium is where I really got my start nationally.”

Fastest woman in the world crosses the finish line at Drake, paving the way for women at the relays

For nearly 40 years, the Drake Relays did not host any women’s events. That would all change on April 28, 1961. This day would mark the first time the Relays would allow women to compete at the blue oval. The races would be headlined by Olympic medalist Wilma Rudolph. 

Racing for Tennessee State University, Rudolph won the 100-meter race by .9 seconds, becoming the first woman to ever win a race at the Relays. Rudolph added to an already stellar resume that included being the first woman to ever win three gold medals in one Olympics which earned her the title “the fastest woman in the world.” 

After her run in the Olympics, Rudolph made sure she would only attend integrated events.  Rudolph was vocal about her accomplishments and what they meant to women’s and African-American rights.

For track star Sydney Milani, those who have come before her have inspired her to become the athlete she is today. Milani is a senior at Southeast Polk High School, earning state records in the 200-meter and 400-meter races. 

“Being a high-level athlete is incredible, but it is far from easy, and I think that having an understanding of those who came before me and those who will come after me is very humbling in ways I can’t express,” Milani said. 

Michael Johnson arrives in style

The Drake Relays have seen historical performances, but one can argue that no athlete has ever had the attention gravitate to them quite like fans did to Michael Johnson. 

The thousands of spectators that filled Drake Stadium saw Johnson grow into a spectacle. Johnson was running for the Baylor track team at the time, and he went pro before running for the Nike track team. 

Fans gathered to watch Johnson dominate the blue oval in college, but once he turned pro, things changed. Johnson would return to Des Moines in a limousine after becoming the first male to win both the 200 and 400 in the Olympics.  

Chuck Schoffner who has covered the Relays since 2006 looked back at that moment. 

“The guy could barely move anywhere,” Schoffner said. “In fact, he even had, you didn’t call him a bodyguard, he called him like an assistant. But this was the former Baylor lineman just because, just to help him get through the crowds.” 

Johnson is responsible for six individual Drake Relays titles and contributed to Baylor University winning four Drake Relays titles. In 2009, Johnson was awarded the honor of the Drake Relays Male Athlete of the Century. 

History to be made 

The 2022 Relays will be held on April 27 through April 30, with more history to come.


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