RCW: Decades of Kansas Relays Memories
With the Kansas Relays enjoying its 90th year of competition this week, it’s appropriate to look back at the many people who have helped make the event one of the most historic weeks of track & field in the United States. The event has attracted a wide spectrum of athletes, ranging from high schoolers to Olympic Champions. As the event has grown over its nine decades of existence, it continues to have a lasting impact on generations both young old.
Seven former competitors from throughout those decades shared some of their fondest memories from their time as a part of the Kansas Relays.
BILLY MILLS – 1950s/60s
Billy Mills is an Olympic gold medalist who was a distance runner at the University of Kansas from 1958-62. He competed in the Relays as a high school, collegiate and professional athlete. His fondest memory comes from when he won the mile race three years in a row in the high school division. These achievements at the Kansas Relays helped Mills start receiving major college scholarship recognition. Although his high school performances served as a stepping stone in his successful career, the rest of his races at the Relays did not go as well as he had hoped.
“College offers started coming in largely in part because of how I competed at the University of Kansas (while still competing at Haskell Indian Nations University). The Kansas Relays played a vital part in the pursuit of my dreams. With that said, I’m hypoglycemic and diabetic, but back then no one knew what hypoglycemic low blood sugar was, so when I started college I saw my own performances starting to dwindle, and some of my worst performances were at the Kansas Relays. I was in incredible turmoil feeling like I had let the coach down, like I let the university down as a scholarship athlete. Even after I won the (Olympic) gold medal, I went back to the Relays to compete in the 5,000 (meters) and I had just had a hard week of training. I just sat on the lead’s shoulders the whole way, and all of a sudden I looked and realized I totally misjudged the finish line, so by the time I responded, he beat me at the finish line. That was my last race at the Kansas Relays post-college competition. So I had bad luck, not able to perform at the Kansas Relays.”
Despite being disappointed in his own performances, Mills still found joy from the Kansas Relays.
“At KU, my fondest memories were watching some of my teammates perform. In a sense, creating magic on the track. Performing like it was poetry. I remember Charlie Tidwell, I enjoyed watching him perform. I loved watching Ernie Shelby, Cliff Cushman. And I also took great joy in watching Bill Dotson, who was a year behind me, (because) we competed in high school, and (it was meaningful) watching him mature and gain confidence to become a world-class athlete. Bill Dotson was the first Kansan to break four minutes in the mile (not at Relays though), when very few people were doing it. And it was one of the magical achievements in sport. So, I did all of this with a feeling of guilt that I could never perform at the level that I wanted to at the University of Kansas, only to find out why after I graduated from college and took a position in the Marine Corps and was diagnosed hypoglycemic and borderline Type II diabetic. When I was in high school, I remember telling my coach at the Kansas Relays I was tired and didn’t have any energy. He asked if I slept well, I said I got a great night’s sleep, but I was tired. And he’d always say, ‘I brought the honey jar, let’s sip on some honey.’ That was keeping me from going low blood sugar. In college, my coach saw me taking honey before the race and took it away from me and said, ‘This is college, we do things differently. This isn’t high school anymore.’ So all of those races at the Relays I was low blood sugar. I always referred to my story as one for those of us who never saw our dreams at the Kansas Relays university division come true. I’m still a big fan of the Kansas Relays. To this day, I would’ve loved if my world record was set at the Kansas Relays. I would’ve loved if one of my five American records was set at the Kansas Relays. I would’ve loved if the races that had me ranked No. 1 in the world were run at the Relays. The Relays deserved that.”
The Kansas Relays may not have been where Mills ran his record-setting races, but it did teach him valuable lessons that helped change his perspective of the world.
“I developed some very close friendships with athletes from other schools at the Kansas Relays. And I don’t remember them competing, but they would mentor me and encourage me. So I gained a sense of what sport meant to me, what the Olympics meant to me, and eventually, more importantly, the empowerment you can give the world. To me that got its birth from the Kansas Relays when I started reaching out to learn about athletes from other countries. We found common ground to bring us together to more positively discuss our differences. It launched me into looking at global unity, through the dignity, through the character, through the beauty of global diversity. Unity through diversity is not only what I started learning from the Kansas Relays, from the Olympic games, from my journey throughout high school, college, post-collegiate; it’s what I feel is the future of humankind. The Kansas Relays helped me understand to use sport as a catalyst to prepare to go beyond sport.”
JIM RYUN – 1960s
Jim Ryun is an Olympic silver medalist who ran for the KU track & field team from 1966-70. The middle-distance runner was the first high school athlete to break the four-minute mile time. He ran in the Relays as a high school, collegiate and professional athlete. As a sophomore at KU, Ryun ran a mile time of 3:54, which to this day, is still the Relays record. Over the years, Ryun has stayed involved with the Relays and attends as often as possible. His memories from the event span from being a competitor, to a spectator, to a volunteer.
“There’s a rich history of amazing athletes at the Kansas Relays and to be part of that history is very, very special. It’s been great to see the tradition carried on, not only of the Relays, but the KU track & field team, both men and women. Coach (Stanley) Redwine has done a great job, so it’s always encouraging to see how the teams have stayed together. As an example, last year when we did the memorial service for Coach Bob Timmons, the different athletes that came in from all over the country to honor Coach Timmons. Pat Timmons, his wife, told numerous stories of various things that took place throughout the years. I reflected one point on my last time to run at the Relays in 1972. It was an Olympic year and there was tremendous support. They actually ran out of tickets; I think they sold 35,000 tickets. They finally opened the doors and said, ‘Just come in,’ because it was a very special moment. And another one (Relays) that I would reflect on would be in 1967, which was the first year my wife-to-be, Anne, was there. On that particular day I ran a mile time that is still the Relays record of 3:54, so those are just a couple of the highlights through the years.”
In addition to competing at the Relays while at KU, the coaches and athletes back then also played a role in helping set up for the event.
“At that point in the history of the Relays, Coach Bob Timmons had a dual hat to wear. He had the team to prepare, but he had to also do all the preparation in terms of inviting teams and making sure things went smoothly. Probably one of the more interesting incidents that happened was in 1967; it was a rainy day. Coach Timmons, because the track was so wet, went to the Kansas Turnpike authority and was able to get these big asphalt driers from them and brought them out on the track to dry it out as much as possible so that we would have a good meet on Saturday of the Relays. So he had many hats to wear, and at the same time always wanted to make sure that those of us who were athletes would be ready to run the best we possibly could. I would call him (Timmons) a God-gifted man in terms of goals and inspiration and motivation along the way. As athletes, we did have some responsibility (to help with the event). Often minor, maybe it was helping get the pole vault pit ready or the long jump pit ready. In those days you did whatever you could. It wasn’t a lot of responsibility, but nevertheless it was all hands on deck when you got to the Relays to make sure you really were ready. There was a tremendous amount of volunteers – I would pause here for those that are reading the story – the Relays really mean a lot of individuals from the state of Kansas that participate by being starters, setting up hurdles, organizing the various age groups, various events – so it takes a lot of personnel. And again, that’s one of the things that as Coach Timmons watched over, but it took a lot of volunteers and it is amazing the number of people that would just set aside that week in April to be there and do whatever they could to help.”
Not only is the Kansas Relays a special event for Ryun himself, but it has become a significant meet for the rest of his family, too.
“I’ve had the privilege of running there, but our children ran in the Relays as well for Lawrence High School. And it was a great thrill for them because they had grown up watching the Relays and interacting as volunteers for Coach Timmons. Then they had the opportunity to participate running for the Lawrence High Lions, so it was very exciting for them to go through being a volunteer to being participants and then as the years have gone on, to continue to follow the Relays. We’ve been back (for the Relays) a number of times. We’re looking forward to coming this year. Our son, Drew, and his family will be coming up from Texas and our daughter, Catharine, has been there. We’ve had a tremendous amount of family visit for the Relays throughout the years. It’s an event for us that we’ve grown up with. When we lived in Lawrence, of course then it was every year that we were at the Relays helping Coach Timmons. In fact, I’ve been talking to Milan Donley and he has me starting a bunch of races this year, so I’m looking forward to being able to help in that sense. Another thing is at the Relays, you could always count on Pat. She had kind of a hooting sound that she would always (use to) cheer the athletes who were running. My wife, Anne, has more or less copied that hoot and you can hear it all over the stadium. So the athletes knew that Pat was there or Anne was there cheering them on. Those are some of the traditions that are rich and will be there forever.”
CLIFF WILEY – 1970s
Cliff Wiley was a sprinter for the KU track & field team from 1974-78. He has participated in the Kansas Relays as both a collegiate and professional athlete, as well as a high school coach. Wiley is a world-class athlete and was a member of the 4×100-meter relay team that set a world record in 1977. He made the 1980 Olympic team, but was unable to compete when the U.S., decided to boycott the Olympics that year. In 1981, Wiley won a USA National Championship and World Championship in the 400 meters. He credits the Kansas Relays for serving as a springboard into his professional career.
“A lot of meets have come and gone over the years and it’s great to have competed in an event that’s still around so people can say, ‘Oh you competed in that event?’ or I can say, ‘I competed in that event,’ and there’s a real nexus, especially with the young athletes. You know if you said, ‘Oh I competed in the Mount Washington Relays,’ well, that’s been gone for 50 years and nobody knows what that is. But if you say, ‘I competed at the KU Relays,’ well, if you’re a high school student you know you can identify with the fact that, ‘Oh he competed in the Relays? I competed in the Relays,’ so that really joins the experience. I competed very well my junior year of college (at the Relays) and that was a major event in my track & field career. I was stepping onto the stage as a potential world-class athlete and sending a message that I was someone who was going to have to be dealt with amongst the ranks of the top sprinters in the country, and maybe in the world. That was ’77, my junior year, I won the 100 (meter dash) and the 200 (meters) here. That was the first time that I had done that at a major invitational meet anywhere in the country, so that was pretty big.”
Although Wiley’s 1977 Relays served as a major stepping stone in his career, history might have been different without an important phone call from one of Wiley’s teammates.
“I can tell you that in ’77 I was still laying in the bed up at McCollum Hall, and I get a call from Kevin Newell, who ran on the relay with me, and he said, ‘Cliff! The trials of the 100 (meters) are getting ready to go off in like an hour.’ And I’m in McCollum Hall and you know we didn’t have cell phones in those days. So he reaches me at my girlfriend’s dorm room and I’m like, ‘What’s up man?’ and says, ‘You know the semis of the 100 are getting ready to go off in like an hour.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness!’ I had to run down there because I didn’t have a car. I’m not sure how great I would have been at that meet if I had been there in time to rest because when you run from McCollum Hall down to the stadium and then you have to jump in the blocks and run again, it takes a little energy.”
After completing his undergraduate degree, Wiley attended law school at the University of Kansas and continued to compete in the Relays.
“I came back my first year in law school, in 1981, and I won the 100 meters and the 400 meters at KU Relays. So I’ve won the 100, 200 and 400 at the Relays. I’m not sure that anybody else has ever done that before. And that was important because although I made the Olympic team in 1980 in the 200 meters, it was my first year in law school I really wasn’t feeling like I was in good enough shape to go and compete in the event that I was best in, the event that I had made the Olympic team in (200 meters). So I thought I’d try my hand at the 400 that year just for the fun of it, and it turned out that that was kind of a new beginning, a second coming out, because I went on that year to – not only was I the outstanding athlete of that year, the ’81 Relays – but I did go on that year to win my first USA National Championship in the 400 and I was world champion in the 400 that year. That kind of set the stage for the last quarter of my career as a 400-meter runner. I’ve won two national championships, outdoors and another one indoors, in the 400. So a lot of people know me as a 400-meter runner, but really I made the team in the 200 and was on a 4×1 world record team. So the Relays were really kind of a special event to me.”
Just as the Relays served as two coming out parties, the event also marked the end of Wiley’s professional track career.
“I ran here in 1985, so I ran almost a decade here. I ran here in 1985 and I was running the 100 meters. (I) was running really, really well, was leading by a bunch, and I ripped a quad. And that was about it for the career. So the Relays kind of giveth and they taketh away. I guess it was kind of like the weather at the Relays; some days you got a really good day, and some days you got a day that wasn’t very good. So I was on both sides of the coin there.”
While his running days are over, Wiley still makes a point to attend the Relays every year.
“Rock Chalk Park is just incredible and I wish I would’ve had an opportunity to have competed there. I don’t think we even had a video board when I competed here. So to see what they have, it would just make you run faster I would think. I really look forward to coming here, not only to see the high school kids run, especially having been a former high school coach, and to see the college kids run, but I’m primarily looking at KU guys and really cheering them on. I follow them – most of them don’t know me from a hill of beans – but I’m checking out their times and I look in the paper to see what they’re doing. The Relays will give me an opportunity to see the current team up close and personal. I also hope to get an opportunity to maybe speak to a few of them on the side and kind of get their feel for their performances and that kind of thing. I always thought that it was great when one of the alums, who had competed at KU while I was here, would be at the Relays and I’m like, ‘I know that guy was really good when he was here.’ And just to acknowledge that he knew who I was, I thought that was so cool. I’m not sure whether I’ve done as good of a job as those guys did, or whether it means as much to those guys (now) that an old guy like me will say to them, ‘Hey man, great race,’ or something like that, but I always thought that it was a great experience for me to have one of these old ‘Hawks come up to me.”
TUDIE MACKNIGHT – 1980s
Halcyon ‘Tudie’ MacKnight is a former long jumper for the KU track & field team. She competed for the Jayhawks from 1979-83. The three-time All-American owns the Memorial Stadium long jump record and she held the Kansas Relays record for 25 years. In 1995, the Relays long jump event was renamed the “Halcyon ‘Tudie’ MacKnight-Blake Women’s Long Jump” in her honor. MacKnight currently lives in North Carolina, but she stays up-to-date with news about the KU track & field team and still feels strongly connected to the program. She looks forward to the Kansas Relays every year and has fond memories from her time competing at the event.
“During my time at KU, the Kansas Relays was a huge event. I mean we had USA vs. Russia and the Russian athletes trained with us. It was really big and we had a fantastic time getting to know and meet people from different countries. For me, I looked forward to the Relays every year. I saw a lot of my old friends that I had made, some from high school that had gone to other schools in the Big Eight (Conference). And a lot of the records I’ve set are still standing because it’s the Big Eight and you don’t touch them. But I really, really enjoyed it. Especially if you ran a relay and the announcers are announcing as people run. If KU would win an event people would just scream. It was truly unbelievable and we used to have sellout crowds.”
One of her favorite memories is from when she ran on the 4×400-meter relay team.
“I would say for me, my first favorite memory is when I ran that 4×400-meter relay against Nebraska. I was able to anchor and we were awesome. We beat Nebraska twice – at the KU Relays and again at the Big Eight Championships. The second one (favorite memory) is when I won my fourth title in the women’s long jump. That day did produce a lot of pressure because everyone was coming back to see if I could do it a fourth time. So the pressure was on, but I set the KU Relays record that day. I had a lot of good memories, but those I would say stood out to me.”
When MacKnight was told the long jump event was being renamed for her, she was shocked.
“I never expected it. When they called and told me what they were doing, I cried. KU track & field has a rich tradition, so to have something named after you says that your peers thought enough of you to do that and they felt that I did something spectacular and I contributed to the university. For me it was a great honor, it’s still a great honor and when I die it will continue to be a legacy that I was a part of KU track.”
The year that the long jump was renamed after MacKnight, she was coaching the Pine Forest High School track & field team in North Carolina and she brought them to compete in the Kansas Relays.
“I was training my high school athletes like college athletes, so that if they went to college they’d be prepared. I got permission from the state of North Carolina to bring them to compete in the Kansas Relays. Needless to say, they showed up and performed well. So that was encouraging and I enjoyed that because my athletes got to see, ‘Hey, Coach really was a good athlete.’ So I was really, really proud. I mean, I just can’t tell you how proud I am to be a Jayhawk. I always will be a Jayhawk until the day I die.”
MacKnight believes the Kansas Relays is an event that can show athletes their true greatness and potential.
“The Kansas Relays can do two things for you. One, it can show you how good of an athlete you can be. And two, it can give you something that you can cherish for the rest of your life. It can say that, ‘Yes, I was a part of something great.’ You know, it can validate you. You can say, ‘I ran at the Kansas Relays and I was good enough to take second or third, or I ran my best time,’ and it proves to you that when you got recruited it wasn’t a fluke. I measured myself against other athletes that were good enough and I stood toe-to-toe or shoulder-to-shoulder with them. I was a part of KU history. When you compete in the Relays, you are part of history.”
Unfortunately, health issues have prevented MacKnight from traveling to see Rock Chalk Park in-person since the venue opened in 2014, but she is delighted with the new venue.
“My friends have sent me videos (of Rock Chalk Park) and it was great. I wish they had that when I was there. I will tell you, when it was built and I finally saw the final product, I won’t lie, I cried because I was so proud to see how far we’ve come. Then, on top of that, I was so proud to see how well the women were doing. I was happy that we were able to get that built, to have that, to have our own (facility) and to be able to do as well as they’re doing now. They’ve made a lot of us proud.”
The lessons learned through track and competing at the KU Relays have continued to impact MacKnight’s outlook on life as she undergoes chemotherapy treatment.
“My athletic career has taught me a lot of discipline. I think, had I not been an athlete, the battle I’m in with ovarian cancer, I don’t know if I’d still be here. There’s no ‘quit’ in me and I attribute that to my athletic career. I’m a fighter, I’m a winner and I’m going to beat this.”
SCOTT HUFFMAN – 1980s
Scott Huffman is a former collegiate and Olympic pole vaulter who is best known for inventing the Huffman Roll, where pole vaulters use a one-legged straddle (like a high jumper) to get over the bar. He was a member of the KU track & field team from 1984-88. Huffman achieved his lifelong dream of making the Olympic team in 1996. That same year, he set an American record that stood for two years after clearing a height of 19-7 ft. As a Lawrence native, Huffman attends the Relays nearly every April.
“I’m just a small farm town kid from western Kansas and never thought I’d even be good enough to compete at this level. It’s very cool and it’s very special (to be part of KU track & field and Relays history). I’m just really amazed that it happened. I don’t know if I’d put myself in the same category – there are some legendary names that competed there like Billy Mills and Jim Ryun, I could go on and on – (who were) really elite athletes. But hey, if people want to think that I can be mentioned with them, cool.”
Huffman remembers the buildup of excitement in anticipation of the Relays.
“It was always a lot of fun and very exciting to compete at home, at the Kansas Relays, in Memorial Stadium. I always got really amped up, but I didn’t feel any added pressure just because it was so much fun to compete there. I think it helped me do really well.”
In fact, most people don’t know that the infamous Huffman Roll actually got its birth at the Relays.
“In the pole vault community throughout the world, people know the Huffman Roll. I still sign autographs at what we call the Pole Vault Summit in Las Vegas. I did okay in my career, but it’s not like I ever got the gold medal. But I am famous for the Huffman Roll and it all originated at the Kansas Relays. One year I’d never tried 18 feet and boom – I did this weird technique. My coach and I both looked at each other because we thought it was just an anomaly. But then I started using it and it all started there, in 1985. I didn’t make the bar, I almost made it, but that’s when it (the Huffman Roll) started and I did it throughout my career.”
In addition to the history-making vault at the 1985 KU Relays, Huffman has several other favorite memories from the event that he enjoys reflecting upon.
“In 1983, the Soviets came to town. I was there competing as a high school senior and I was just in awe watching the Soviets jump against two of my idols – Jeff Buckingham, who held the American record and was a Kansas All-American, and Doug Lytle, who was an All-American from K-State. These guys all jumped over 18 feet. In fact, a couple jumped over 18-4½ ft., but that particular Relays was a major international thing for the Soviets to compete in the U.S., right during the middle of the Cold War. It was unbelievable. That has to be one of my favorite memories of all-time. Then I’ll never forget the year Joe Dial broke the American record, which is still the stadium record of 19-0¾ ft. That was incredible. That’s still one of the top marks in world history. And lastly, I’d have to say, I’ll never forget the year I won the college division on Friday and turned around and won the open division on Saturday. They gave me – I still can’t believe this – they gave me the outstanding performer of the meet (award). I was like, ‘Wow.’ I think maybe they wanted to give it to a KU guy, but I’ll take it. It was a lot of fun.”
To this day, Huffman looks forward to attending the Relays every year and enjoys the team’s new facility in West Lawrence.
“I’ve been to nearly all of them since I retired from professional sports at the age of 33. I haven’t missed too many. It’s fun to go and catch up with the track team. And I think Rock Chalk Park is very cool. I’ve been a big proponent of that new stadium, simply because it helps the athletic department not have track & field at the football stadium. I see the need to change things and have our own stadium. It helps the track team and it helps the football team. A lot of guys my age and older were really against it because of the tradition of Memorial Stadium, but I really love it. It’s one of the best track & field venues in the nation and I’m glad it’s here.”
DAVID JOHNSTON – 1990s
All-American David Johnston competed for both the KU cross country and track & field teams from 1990-94. He grew up in a KU family and attended the Relays every year as a young boy. The event is so special to him that he even has a display case of Relays memorabilia in his office at the KU Alumni Association, where he serves as vice president of marketing & digital media. Johnston is not the only member of his family who has a Relays watch, and one of his favorite memories involves earning one for his mother.
“My father, Don Johnston, graduated (from KU) in 1956, and he was the president of the student Relays committee. So he didn’t run, but he was involved with the Relays and by virtue of being the head of the Relays committee in ’56, he got a Relays watch. And those coveted Relays watches were only given to those who won an event at the Relays, so that was a pretty prestigious award and I always admired his watch and wanted one of my very own. I grew up wanting to run for KU and a lot of that was instilled in me by coming to the Relays as a boy. My senior year (at Kansas) I was part of two relays. I ran one on Friday and one on Saturday; we lost the one on Friday and I had a really hard time sleeping that night because it’s your Senior Day, it’s your one and only home meet and my last chance to win a Relays watch. I was desperate to win one because I was fortunate enough to win one early in my career at KU, so I got mine. But my mother had been a Relays official for years; I was desperate to win a watch for her and I only had one more chance to do it. It’s kind of tough when you’re in a situation where it’s win or nothing. I was fortunate to anchor a winning relay in my last race and that was my last time I wore a KU uniform on a KU track, at the Relays. I was very proud of that moment and it’s a very special memory.”
In addition to his beloved time competing as both a high school and collegiate athlete at the Relays, he also has memories from all the years he spent as a spectator that he still cherishes.
“I’ll always remember when Al Oerter came to town. If you were to ask many Olympic historians who is the greatest Olympic athlete of all-time, somebody would say Michael Phelps and that’s fair, I suppose, since he’s won more gold medals than anybody. But a good case has been made for decades for Al Oerter. He, for a long time, was the only person to have won four Olympic gold medals in the same event in successive Olympics. That’s a 16-year span of dominance. That’s insane. He’s an incredible competitor. He was originally from New York and I don’t know where he lived after KU, but he rarely came back. I was thrilled one year when I was there and got to meet him and shake his hand. I just remember shaking his hand for the first time as a young boy and his hand was enormous. But he was the most gentle, nicest guy you’d ever want to meet. He was just incredibly warm and personable and gracious and grateful to be back at KU. He obviously had special feelings for KU and considered himself a Jayhawk, even though he couldn’t get back to Lawrence very often.”
One of the crazier events he remembers watching at the Relays was a 4×800-meter relay featuring who Johnston calls, “Shoeless Jon Joslin.”
“So (in) one of these races there was a KU relay (team), and of course I cheered pretty hard for KU to win, as I still do. The poor KU runner, during the exchange, had somebody step on his heel and he lost his shoe. So the question that all runners face when that happens is, ‘Do you stop, go back and put it on, or do you run without it?’ Well he was just getting the baton and he had to run an 800, so he had to run two laps. But KU was locked in a tight race for the lead and it was the Kansas Relays. So he of course does not stop to put his shoe back on, even though losing his shoe made him stumble a bit, so he lost the lead. He got right back after it and tore after the leaders. I remember thinking with the people that I was watching with, ‘He’s trying to make up too much at once. He’s going to tire himself out because he’s going too hard after these guys, plus he’s got one shoe. He’s never going to make it.’ Well, he caught them, stayed with them and passed them. We won the relay because he maintained the lead running with one shoe. I just remember thinking that was the coolest thing because I wanted KU to win, then he loses his shoe, but it was obvious he wanted to win as badly, or more badly, than I wanted them to win because I’m sure that wasn’t easy; but he did it.”
The anticipation of what the next extraordinary performance will be lures Johnston back to the Relays year after year.
“Part of the appeal of the Relays is not merely the tradition and the incredible performances in the past, it’s the allure of the history that has yet to happen. Every year you can count on history-making performances that you don’t want to miss and that’s why I keep going back.”
SCOTT RUSSELL – 2000s
Scott Russell is a former javelin thrower who was on the KU track & field team from 1997-2002. While at Kansas, he was a six-time All-American and two-time NCAA Champion. He continued to train at Kansas throughout his professional career until 2012. In 2008, he represented Canada in the Olympics and placed 10th. Russell always performed well at the Kansas Relays, breaking his own meet record multiple times. He still attends the Relays, now as a high school track & field coach for Basehor-Linwood.
Out of all the memories Russell made during his time competing, two years jump out to him when he thinks about his favorite Relays experiences.
“I think it might have been the last year I set the record, it was like 32 degrees out – absolutely freezing. I was questioning whether to throw or not because of injuries, but it was like without a doubt I was going to compete because it was the KU Relays. I come down the runway on and I throw a decent throw and I’m like, ‘Oh that’s pretty solid.’ (It was a record-setting throw.) But I end up straining my groin and ended up injured because of the throw. But I set the Relays record when it was 32 degrees out. And again, it just goes back to wanting to compete at the Relays and wanting to continue to be part of that experience and making that experience memorable for fans who are out there watching the event. I think that’s one of the main reasons I would love to throw in the new facility, is to be a current part of the new history that’s going on. But that’s one of the competitive memories that really stands out. A second one (KU Relays favorite memory) would be the 2004 Olympic year. I had trained so hard and just couldn’t put things together the week leading up to it and I just felt flat. I had written my own training for the first time in my career that year and I’d never felt stronger, I’d never felt fitter, I’d never felt more explosive, but I just couldn’t put throws together. I basically just did warmups that week and then I come to the Kansas Relays after warmups and I warmed up over the Olympic standard. I didn’t put it together in the competition, but I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. There’s a reality that I could be an Olympian.’ And it only took me four more years to make that happen, in 2008. But it’s (2004 Relays) another one that stood out because it was my first year of actually writing my own training plan and then making it happen, warming up over the Olympic standard I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. How easy was that?’ So those ones really stand out.”
Another moment from the week of the KU Relays that is special to Russell is when he had the opportunity to meet one of his idols, Al Oerter.
“One of my biggest memories of the Relays is in 2001. The Relays were just getting started back up after the renovation of the football stadium. I had the opportunity to sit down with Al Oerter and our current coach at the time, Doug Reynolds, and I got to hear Al Oerter talk about his time at KU. Sitting with a four-time Olympic gold medalist, who was another guy that wore the same uniform that I’m sitting there wearing, was kind of that ‘ah-ha’ moment of realizing how great being part of the KU athletic department, and being a Jayhawk, is. It was just such a cool memory to be able to sit with a hero like him.”
The environment at the KU Relays was a key factor in helping Russell continue to produce stellar performances at the meet, especially during his professional career.
“It’s such a relaxed environment and it was always my first meet of the professional season. I kind of looked at it as a glorified practice, but I was always like, ‘Can I bump up the Kansas Relays record again?’ It was always this opportunity to kind of show my ability. For me, because people were there to see me compete, it was an opportunity to just hang out with people and talk through the competition. Obviously, you turn the switch on and off as you get on the runway, but it’s probably one of the more relaxed environments I’ve ever competed in. It was always this personal challenge of, ‘Where can I start my season at? Can I make it better than I’ve ever started before?’ It was just such a great opportunity to compete. I’m insanely jealous of where the athletes get to compete now. I just wish I had a body that was still in one piece to be able to compete one time at Rock Chalk Park because what the KU athletes get to compete in and train in every day is heads and tails above where the program was at and the facilities were at when I was at KU.”
Russell is in awe of the number of world-class athletes that continue to show up for the Kansas Relays each and every spring.
“There’s a lot of crazy stuff at Kansas Relays. The Olympic champion in the shot put is going to be in the downtown shot put this year. He’s the Olympic record-holder, like the best that’s ever done it in Olympic history, and he’s going to be at the Relays. Some of the athletes who are coming to the Relays even this year are the best that have ever done their sport. The best. Not the best Jayhawk, not the best collegiate athlete, but the best who have ever done the sport. That’s mind-boggling that that’s happening at the Relays every single year.”
HEAD COACH STANLEY REDWINE
Stanley Redwine has been the Kansas track & field head coach for the past 17 years. He recognized how special the Kansas Relays were as a college athlete running for the University of Arkansas. The Razorbacks came to the Relays his freshman year and he ran against professional teams.
“I do remember running here. I thought it was an honor. We had a really good 4×4 (4×400-meter relay) at the time, and we were put with some professional teams. I recall the Philadelphia Pioneers specifically because they were a big-time pro team and I was a freshman. So I was kind of nervous to race against professional athletes as a freshman in college, but we did well. I don’t think we did great because they kicked our butts, but we beat the collegiate teams at that time. So it was an honor and we got a Kansas Relays watch and we went back (to Arkansas) and were really excited about it. So just the whole experience of being able to race professional athletes as a freshman was really good.”
With the move from Memorial Stadium to Rock Chalk Park in 2014, Redwine reminisces about the old Relays’ atmosphere at Memorial Stadium, but he is thankful to have a new facility.
“The setting of Memorial Stadium was totally unbelievable. You look up and see the Campanile Hill, and it was just an unbelievable setting. I wish we could duplicate that setting (at Rock Chalk Park). But the Memorial Stadium track was a 440-yard track, and as time evolved everyone got away from having 440-yard tracks, so we were not able to host big events because you can’t do it on yard tracks anymore. Unfortunately, we couldn’t expand, so we did move out, which was a great idea. I’m really thankful to the Fritzels and Dr. Zenger for giving us a track that we could have bigger meets on, host things at and do (compete) differently on. But the setting at Memorial Stadium was unbelievable. I can recall having the Gold Zone, which was a big rebirth to the Relays, having elite athletes like Marion Jones run, Maurice Green run, all those athletes. It was really phenomenal to watch. I feel honored to have those people come in and race at our track. You’re talking about the best of the best track athletes in the U.S., and some other countries, they ran at the Kansas Relays. So that was always good. Moving forward from there, we have Rock Chalk Park and then we have the quad competition now. So that’s kind of evolving and getting better and better as we go along. But when you’re talking about Kansas Relays, just because of the history, there were way more years at Memorial Stadium than at Rock Chalk Park. So that’s what the generations of people probably remember most, but Rock Chalk Park is a great place. We’re honored things are going well there, we’re able to host bigger meets there, we can do way more things there, so it’s just a much better setting for us.”
As the head coach of the Jayhawks, Redwine prepares his athletes for all of the teams’ meets, both indoors and outdoors, each year. But he does notice a difference when it comes to competing at the Kansas Relays.
“They’re way more excited for it. Anytime you compete at home, it’s an opportunity for your home fans to see you compete and no one wants to lose at home. With every generation of athlete, they want to show well at home. So our athletes are really excited to compete well at home. We’re fortunate enough, because we have Rock Chalk Park, to have multiple meets there, so we’re able to do more things at home, which is exciting to me. This year we’re hosting the Big 12 (Conference Outdoor Track & Field Championship) competition (May 12-14), which will be a huge meet for us also.”
Among all the moments Redwine has experienced as a coach at the Relays, he is unable to identify one as his favorite.
“I’m excited for all competition. I guess, anytime we’re at home I do get excited. Just like the athletes get excited to compete at home, as coaches we get excited to coach at home because we don’t want to be the best-known secret away from our campus. We want to show well at home. But every athlete has put in their blood, sweat and tears in order to do well at home. So, to say a ‘favorite’ one … I appreciate every athlete for what they’ve done at the university and every team that we’ve had. Each team may bring different memories, but I don’t say that one is better than the other because I appreciate them all.”
As everyone from volunteers to student-athletes to coaches and alumni prepare for another edition of the Kansas Relays, there have been countless memories already made at the historic meet held each spring, which is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year. What will make 2017 a memorable meet for competitors and fans alike? Join us at Rock Chalk Park this week to find out! This year’s Kansas Relays events kick off Wednesday, April 19, and continue through Saturday, April 22.