Kansas Relays' Rich Tradition Continues This Week
April 18, 2011
LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Kansas Relays will write another chapter in its storied history this week as it opens up its 84th year of competition with events stretching from Wednesday through Saturday at Memorial Stadium and in downtown Lawrence.
Memorial Stadium opened 90 years ago and has hosted each Kansas Relay since it began back in 1923. “I think it speaks to the rich history of the event,” said Relays and Kansas track and field legend Jim Ryun. “If you look at all the athletes who have come through and all the races they competed in, it’s a real tribute to the men and women who put this event on year in and year out.”
While the many names of competitors have changed over the years, like Ryun and the runners who have come after him, their legacies live on in the events some of them are named after.
Below is just a glimpse of some of those men and women who have left an indelible mark on one of the nation’s most prestigious athletic competitions.
Wes Santee (Men’s 1,500 Meter Run)
-KU Cross Country/Track & Field (1950-54)
The 2011 Relays will be the first in over 60 years without legendary track and field and cross country star Wes Santee. Santee passed away last November at the age of 78. The Ashland, Kan. native was a three-time U.S. outdoor champion and was one of only a select few runners who was considered to be a serious threat to break the four-minute mile barrier before Roger Bannister accomplished that feat in 1954. Santee set the world record in the 1,500 meters on June 4, 1956, when he was timed in 3 minutes 42.8 seconds at the Compton Invitational. He set the indoor mile world record twice (4:04.9 in 1954 and 4:03.8 in 1955), and the indoor 1,500m world record once in 1955 (3:48.3).
“Wes was one of those unique individuals who told you what he was going to do and then he went out and did it,” said Ryun. “He was always a very colorful individual who would always live up to the expectations that he had and that the media had of him.”
Santee won the NCAA outdoor mile title in 1953, the NCAA 5,000m crown in 1952, the NCAA cross country title in 1953 and the national indoor mile champion in 1955. He also captured USA Outdoor 1500m/mile crowns in 1952, 1953 and 1955 and won silver in the 1,500 meters of the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico City.
Glen Cunningham (Men’s Mile Run)
-KU Cross Country/Track & Field (1931-34)
Known by many as the ‘Kansas Flyer’, Cunningham gained nationwide recognition during his time in Lawrence. In 1933, the Elkhart, Kan. native was named the top amateur athlete in the U.S. by receiving the James E. Sullivan Award. Cunningham broke the world record in the mile twice in 1934. He also placed fourth in the 1932 Olympics in the 5,000 meters, and second in the 1936 Olympics in the 1,500 meters. He is the only performer in the track annals of the Big Six and Big Seven conferences ever to win two American Olympic berths. He once held simultaneous world records for both the indoor and outdoor miles and was the first NCAA track champion in Kansas history, winning back-to-back titles in the mile during the 1932-33 seasons. Cunningham still holds the Kansas Relays 1,500-meter record at 3:53.3, which he established in 1933 and is considered by many to be the greatest American miler of all-time.
Billy Mills (Men’s 10,000 Meter Run)
-KU Cross Country/Track & Field (1958-61)
While at Kansas, Mills was a two-time NCAA cross country All-American, the 1960 Big Eight Conference cross country champion and a member of the 1959 and 1960 NCAA Championship track teams. The Pine Ridge, S.D. native won gold in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, setting a new Olympic record of 28:24.4 and marked the first and only time an American has won the 10,000-meter run. Mills was inducted into the United States National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1976 and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984 and was the subject of the 1984 film ‘Running Brave’, which chronicled Mills’ amazing run at the 1964 games. Mills is also of Oglala Lakota (Sioux) descent and is the national spokesman for ‘Running Strong for American Indian Youth’ an organization aimed at improving the future of American Indian youth.
Bob Timmons (Men’s Two Mile Relay)
-KU Head Track & Field Coach (1965-88)
During his 24-year stint has head coach at KU, Timmons guided the Jayhawks to four NCAA championships, 13 Big 8 outdoor track and field championships, and two conference cross country championships. He also had the honor of coaching KU track and field standouts Al Oerter (four time Olympic discus gold medalist), and Jim Ryun (Olympic silver medalist and former world record holder for the mile).
“It was a wonderful privilege to run under Coach Timmons,” Ryun said. “He was a visionary who told me that he thought I could become the first high school boy to run a four-minute mile before I even came to KU. Within two years of me getting here (Lawrence), I was on my first Olympic team, so I owe him a great deal.”
In total, Timmons coached seven Olympians, 16 world record holders, 77 NCAA All Americans, and 24 NCAA champions during his two dozen years at the helm of KU’s track and field program. He also donated ‘Rim Rock Farm’ to the endowment association in 2005, ensuring that it would remain KU’s home cross country course for years to come.
Al Oerter (Men’s Discus)
-KU Track & Field (1956-58)
Oerter was one of most decorated discus throwers to ever come through the KU program. He is also the first man to throw a discus over 200 feet and was a two-time NCAA champion while at KU in 1957-58. In 1958, Oerter was the captain of KU’s NCAA Outdoor Championships runners-up team. The New York City native broke the world discus record four times and his Olympic gold medals in 1956, 1960, 1964 and 1968 make him and Carl Lewis the only Americans to ever win gold in four Olympic Games in the same event.
Jim Ryun (Men’s 1,600 Meter Run)
-KU Track and Field (1966-69)
During his career at Kansas, Ryun claimed world records in the 880, 1,500, mile and two-mile runs. Outdoors, he established new marks in the 880 yards, 1,500 meters, mile, two-mile, three-mile and the 5,000 meters. At the NCAA Championships, he captured five titles (four indoor, one outdoor). To this day, he still holds 13 Jayhawk school records. Ryun, who was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in 1966, was also named the winner of the AAU Sullivan Award for the top amateur athlete in America during that same year.
“To be a part of the Relays was just such an honor,” Said Ryun of his experience. “I remember as a sophomore in high school during my first opportunity at the relays in 1962, I was pleased to make the team and was able to run and win in the open mile. I was just thrilled because that event represented the best of the best no matter which class you were in.”
The Wichita, Kan. native was a three-time Olympian and won the silver medal in the 1,500 meters in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. In 1982, he was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. After representing the University of Kansas on the track, he went on to represent the state of Kansas in the senate, as he was elected to the United States Congress in 1996, where he served the second district of Kansas which includes portions of Douglas County, until 2007.
Bill Easton (Men’s Four Mile Relay)
-KU Head Track and Field Coach (1948-65)
Easton coached the KU track and field teams for a total of 17 years. During that time, his Jayhawks won national titles in cross county in 1953 and outdoor track in 1959 and 1960. During his time as KU head coach, his squads won 39 conference championships, including a stretch of eight years straight where Kansas won both the indoor and outdoor conference team titles. Easton coached KU track and field legends such as Wes Santee, Bill Nieder, Al Oerter and Billy Mills. His athletes set four world records, four Olympic records, 14 U.S. records, 14 intercollegiate records, seven NCAA records and two freshman records. Easton was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1975.
Charlie Tidwell (Men’s 100 Meter Dash)
-KU Track & Field (1958-60)
In Tidwell’s sophomore year at Kansas, he won his first of five NCAA titles. His first in 1958 came via the 220-yard hurdles in 22.7 seconds which was a new world record. In 1959 and 1960, the Independence, Kan. native was the centerpiece of back-to-back NCAA titles for the Jayhawks. At one point during that stretch he held four world records. Tidwell also won the Kansas Relays in the 100-yard dash in 1959 and 1960. In ’59 he finished with a time of 9.9 and won ‘Athlete of the Meet’ honors. Tidwell showed his versatility during his storied collegiate career, matching the American Dirt track record of 6.7 for the 60 indoors. In 1962 the track star signed a contract with the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, but unfortunately never suited up for the Purple and Gold. Tidwell was inducted into the Kansas Relays Hall of Fame in 2005.
-KU Track & Field (1957-58)
Although Chamberlain does not have an individual event named after him, the “Big Dipper’s” legacy lives on in the events he competed in, which included the high jump in the 1957 Kansas Relays. Chamberlain most notably known for his prowess on the hardwood made a name for himself on the rubber as well. The Philadelphia native ran the 100-yard dash in 10.9 seconds; shot putted 56 feet, triple jumped more than 50 feet, and won the high jump in the Big Eight track and field championships three straight years.
Candace Mason (Women’s Heptathlon)
-KU Track and Field (1995-99)
Candace Mason competed in the heptathlon, pentathlon and pole vault during her five-year career at KU. The Nevada, Mo. native graduated in 1999 as a five-time All-American and five-time conference champion. She still holds the Kansas records in the heptathlon (5,674 points) and pentathlon (4,053 points). Following her graduation, Mason became an assistant coach in 2000 with the track and field team. Before her collegiate career even began, Mason started to make a name for herself at Memorial Stadium as she won four events in the 1995 Kansas Relays, when she was a senior in high school. Mason now known as Candace Dunback after her marriage to former KU Track and Field athlete Chris Dunback, can be found inside the historic halls of Allen Fieldhouse as the Director of Traditions with Kansas Athletics, where she oversees the Booth Family Hall of Athletics and the K Club, the association for former letterwinners at KU.
“This has always been a great event that high school, college, junior college athletes and now professional athletes compete in,” Ryun said. “But some things have changed from my days competing in the event. For instance, we used to always have grass on the infield and now we have artificial turf, same thing with the track, which is now also artificial. Those, along with the huge jumbo-tron screen (at Memorial Stadium) are a few of the things that have really transformed this event into what it is today.”
Ryun will be easy to spot during the 2011 edition of the Relays as spectators can see him down on his familiar perch, the track at Memorial Stadium assisting with the 2011 Adidas Jim Ryun Dream Mile for high school girls and boys.
The 85th edition of the Kansas Relays begins Wednesday evening, April 20th in downtown Lawrence with the shot put events and continues through Saturday, April 23rd inside historic Memorial Stadium.
Ticket and meet information is available at www.KansasRelays.com.