I’ve attended several World Series, Olympics, numerous NCAA Final Fours and NCAA Championships but the Drake Relays always holds a fond spot in my heart.
Feature photo: Jenny Simpson and Mike Mahon ©Jim Kirby-2013
First and foremost it’s the oldest and best sports tradition in Iowa. There’s no other sporting event in the Hawkeye state where fans can see annually the best athletes in the world, including numerous Olympic gold medalists, perform in front of them forming memories to last a lifetime.
Any native Iowan who has achieved success in track and field on the international level — Rex Harvey, Rick Wanamaker, Randy Wilson, Natasha Kaiser, Kevin Little, Joey Woody, Kip Janvrin, Kim Carson, Lolo Jones, Al Feuerbach, Shelby Houlihan — will be the first to tell you that participating in the Drake Relays as a prep was their first exposure to big time track and field ultimately giving them a career goal to achieve.
This weekend will mark my 46th Drake Relays so to pick one favorite Drake Relays moment is impossible.
I served as media coordinator for the Drake Relays for 22 years (1989-2010) which also paved the way for me to serve as a press officer for numerous U.S. Track and Field teams at the international level including the 1992, 1996 and 2004 Summer Olympics.
I was able to develop friendships with numerous Olympians who competed at the Drake Relays.
I was fortunate to serve as chairman of the Drake Relays executive committee in 1996 which was special because Michael Johnson – voted the Drake Relays Athlete of the Century – was inducted into the Drake Relays Hall of Fame that year.
On that Saturday session of the Drake Relays the Olympic torch had landed in Los Angeles from Athens, Greece – the birthplace of the Olympics – to begin its long cross country torch run eventually to Atlanta where the Olympics would be held later that sumer.
Johnson made it no secret that he would attempt to be the first sprinter ever to win the 200 and 400 at the same Olympics. His historic quest would began with his season outdoor opener running the invitational 400 at the 1996 Drake Relays.
He shattered the Drake Relays 400 record, winning in :44.41. The race helped put Johnson on a course to the Atlanta Olympic Games where he solidified his No. 1 world ranking by winning the gold medal in the 200 in a world record :19.32. For frosting, Johnson won the 400 in :43.49 – an Olympic record.
“It was my first 400 of the season and I’m pleased,” said Johnson, while saluting the Drake Relays fans. “They love track and field and make you feel appreciated. These people know the difference between a :44.30 and a :$5.30. You don’t see that often in the states. “
Johnson would return to the Drake Relays one last time – the following year – after being named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1996.
Drake Relays fans had vivid memories of Johnson’s heroics in the 1996 Atlanta Games as well as his unbeaten record in Drake Relays individualindividual events.
This time he arrived in a limosine entering Drake Stadium along the Clark Street entrance before a standing room only crowd. The weather was near perfect and the track side gauge showed zero wind. It was dead quiet as runners came to the set position. The gun cracked and the crowd roared
Wearing gold shoes, Johnson won the invitational 200 in :20.05 – another Drake Relays record.
He took a victory lap, raising both arms, but he was unable to complete it as he headed down the final straightaway being mobbed by fans.
We made eye contact and he sprinted with me to the southwest tunnel where he was able to savor the moment before conducting a press conference.
During his Drake Relays career Johnson won four invitational 400s, two invitational 400 and led Baylor to two victories apiece in the 4×200 and 4×400 relays.
At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece where I introduced myself to Nawal El Moutawakil, who was in the mixed zone at Olympic Stadium as a member of the International Olympic Committee.
As a freshman at Iowa State in the 1984 Drake Relays, she set a national collegiate record of :55.37 in the women’s 400 hurdles. Later that summer she would win the inaugural women’s 400 hurdles event at the 1984 Olympics, becoming the first Moroccan and the first woman from a Muslim majority country to win an Olympic gold medal
When Nawal found out I was associated with the Drake Relays, she hugged me and became emotional with tears of joy telling me she owed all of her success in track to the Drake Relays. She told how she passed down her Drake Relays watch to her oldest daughter.
I fondly recall the first Drake Relays I attended as a sophomore in high school watching Brigham Young’s Ralph Mann setting a Drake Relays, American and national collegiate record in the 440 yard hurdles of 49.4 seconds at the 1970 Drake Relays.
He returned a month later to Drake Stadium setting a world record at 1970 NCAA Outdoor Championships in :48.8 – the second of three straight NCAA titles. He would go on to earn a silver medal at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
Here are some other magical moments from my Drake Relays memory bank.
—In 1977 the Drake Relays invitational 800 featured former world record holder and two-time Olympian Rick Wohlhuter, Kenya’s Mike Boit, who won the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympics; and Oklahoma’s Randy WIlson, a native of Knoxville, Iowa.
The taller Wilson, who had earlier anchored Oklahoma to a sprint medley relay victory, surprised Boit and Wohlhuter in the final meters to win in 1:46.06. Boit was second in 1:46.13 and Wohlhuter third in 1:46.14.
A year later Wilson outdueled Boit again with his long strides shading Boit at the tape in a record 1:45.86— that still stands today.
Boit returned to Drake Stadium in 2009 being honored as one of the top 10 Drake Relays Athletes of the Century. I set up a surprise reunion of Wilson and Boit with the rivals meeting each other for the first time in more than 30 years.
—Steve Scott running the first sub-4 minute mile in Drake Relays history in 1979 in 3:55.26, the first individual sub-4 minute race in 70 years of Drake Relays competition.
He had emerged as America’s top miler in the 1970s. He had promised to run in the 1978 Drake Relays but was injured. He did come to Drake, however, and told the crowd over the public address that he would return in 1979 “to break that record.”
Now it’s 1979 and Scott was back, but as he stepped onto the track he murmured, “Oh, no!” as he felt wind gusting to 32 miles per hour. But he took charge running the first 440 in a crisp :57.6 followed by a 1:59.5 that got the crowd into the race. Booming sound followed him throughout the final leg, the sub-4 in sight. Fans were on their feet yelling, ignoring a Relays tradition of remaining seated so all could see.
He came off the final curve in a long hard sprint to the finish. He broke the tape, looked back at the scoreboard and raised his arms, grinning widely.
—Nine-time Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis made his Drake Relays debut in 1994, winning the invitational 100.
—Gwen Torrence became the all-time women’s victory leader at eight during the 1995 Drake Relays after winning the invitational 400. After the race she delighted the crowd by tossing her shoes into the stands.
Torrence, who closed out her Drake Relays career winning the 200 in 1996, won a won a combined three gold medals and three silver medals at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics.
—WIth victory laps becoming a long Drake Relays tradition, I have to admit it was emotional to see Bob Ehrhart’s 31-year reign as the longest Drake Relays director come to an end at 5:33 p.m. on Saturday April 29,2000 when he took a ride in a golf cart around the track saluting the fans for their support in making the Drake Relays “America’s Athletic Classic.”
His first Relays as director in 1970 attracted 2,763 athletes; by 2000 9,185 athletes competed in Ehrhart’s farewell Relays. That meet was the 34th Saturday sellout – 31 under Ehrhart’s direction.
—Who can ever forget Mark Kostek’s first year as Drake Relays director in 2001 when four records were set within a 50-minute stretch around the entire configuration of the track.
Behind the quartet of twin sisters Jenny and Susanna Kallur, Camee’ Williams and anchor Perdita Felicien, Illinois opened the Saturday afternoon portion of the Drake Relays setting a meet, national collegiate and world record in the women’s shuttle hurdle relay of 56.04.
Twenty minutes later across the east side of Drake Stadium Kellie Suttle became the fourth woman in the world to clear 15 feet in the pole vault and the first at Drake, setting a meet record at 15-0 1/4.
Fans had trouble shuttling between the final stages of Suttle’s vaulting and the high jump at the north end where two-time Olympian Amy Acuff made a conspicuous Drake Relays debut soaring 6-3 3/4 for another meet record.
If that wasn’t enough, completing a full circle around the track, on her sixth and final throw Terry Tunks drew a roar from the crowd setting a Drake Stadium record in the women’s shot put at 63-0 1/4.
—The 2003 finale at the Drake Relays had never seen a closer finish as Arizona State won the men’s university 4×400 relay by one-hundredth of a second, 3:02.81 to Baylor’s 3:02.82. Baylor’s anchor Jeremy Wariner would go on to win the gold medal in the 400 at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
—Alan Webb breaking Steve Scott’s prized 30-year-old record in mile at the 2007 Drake Relays in 3:51.71 – the fastest time ever record in the mile in the month of April in track history with the mark still standing today
Webb’s opening 1:55.4 for the first-half mile got fans into it. Webb’s rhythmic, confident strides carried him to a 2:55.9 clocking after three quarters. He accelerated off the final curve “feeling” the booming support of the sold out crowd. He hit the finish line and checked the scoreboard, his final quarter in 57.6.
Three months later Webb would eventually break Scott’s 25-year-old American record in the mile, running 3:46.91 in Brasschaat, Belgium.
—Iowa’s Anthuan Maybank named outstanding performer of 1993 Drake Relays after becoming first person ever to run sub 45-second 400 and long jump over 26 feet in same meet.