When your grandparents turn 80, it is a big occasion. In terms of the Kansas Relays, 80 years represents an unparalleled tradition that continues to grow with each year.
The 2007 Kansas Relays marks the 80th Anniversary of the event, a place where names like Mills, Ryun, Oerter, Neider and so many others elevated their track and field resumes to a luminary level reached by few. For members of the University of Kansas track and field teams, the Kansas Relays offer an opportunity not only to compete on the same track as those luminaries, but to do so in front of family, friends and a hometown crowd.
Matt Baysinger, a junior middle distance runner at KU, understands the Relays importance not only to the University and its student-athletes, but to the countless high school participants who travel from around the region to compete in an event that is older than some of their grandparents.
"This will be my fifth year running at the Kansas Relays. When I was in high school, the Kansas Relays were the biggest event of the year, even bigger than state," Baysinger said. "I have always been excited to run in the Kansas Relays because it is not too often that you get to run in a venue as large as Memorial Stadium."
The past two years of the Kansas Relays have produced the second and third-largest crowds in the event's history, not to mention pristine conditions and elite levels of competition. Under the direction of the former meet director Tim Weaver, the Gold Zone was introduced two years ago, drawing professional track and field stars to Lawrence, Kansas.
Elite athletes such as Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin and Kansas City, Mo., native Maurice Green have made several appearances at the Relays, drawing the eye of the international track and field world to Memorial Stadium. And while the presence of such recognizable names certainly helps to draw fans, the Kansas Relays hold a sacred meaning to those student-athletes who represent the namesake of the event.
Kansas track and field head coach Stanley Redwine is in the midst of his seventh year at the helm of a program whose predecessors include national hall of famers Bill Easton, Brutus Hamilton and Jayhawk legend Bob Timmons. He appreciates the foundation these legends created and is proud of what the event offers not only for his student-athletes and coaching staff, but for the University of Kansas.
"The Kansas Relays represent our time as a University and as a track and field program to host an event of such a high caliber," Redwine said. "We travel to others throughout the year, but the Kansas Relays are special because it is our event and that is very exciting to everyone who is involved."
This year, KU brings its usual stack of talented student-athletes to entertain the crowds at Memorial Stadium. Junior Egor Agafonov, the 2007 national champion in the indoor weight throw, will look to improve upon his school record in the hammer throw, which stands at 233 feet Thursday afternoon. He currently ranks fifth in the event in the nation and in the Big 12 Conference.
Aside from the nationally prominent athletes, the Kansas Relays also provides an avenue for local products that have grown up with the Relays, watching its development as some enter their final Relays as a student-athlete. KU senior Melissa O'Rourke of Jenks, Okla., credits the Relays as a large reason for her decision to attend Kansas.
"It means a lot to me to host and participate in the Kansas Relays," O'Rourke said. "I came to the Relays all throughout high school and seeing the tradition and atmosphere that surrounded the Kansas Relays is one of the main reasons why I came to KU."
In fact, O'Rourke's endearment of the event extends to her family, who will make their second-consecutive appearance in the women's open 5k held during Thursday's distance carnival. Last year, she watched and cheered from the sidelines as her mother and sister finished first and second, respectively in the event. And this year they're coming back.
"My aunt is even coming in from Atlanta to compete in the race with them, so it will truly be a family affair."
Fellow senior Melissa Moody echoes the same sentiment, crediting the tradition and atmosphere of the Kansas Relays as large factor in her decision to attend Kansas.
"My best memory of the Relays was my senior year of high school. I went to a small school and the Relays were really the only big event we competed in," Moody added. "It allowed me to experience the KU atmosphere and traditions and it made me realize I wanted to come here for college."
Despite missing last year's event due to injury, Moody is excited; not only at the chance to compete again, but at the opportunity to do so in front of the throngs that will be in attendance.
"This year I am looking forward to running in front of my family, friends and coaches. Hopefully I will be able to perform well and run a fast time."
The 2007 Kansas Relays, under the direction of new meet director Milan Donley, who has also served as the KU horizontal jumps coach for the past six years, the Relays have begun to shift their focus to bringing in more elite level collegiate competition, which excites the Jayhawks.
"This year I am looking forward to seeing the changes that have been made by the new meet director," Overland Park, Kan., native and 2006 cross country All-American Paul Hefferon said. "Coach Donley is placing more of an emphasis on bringing in quality college talent, which will result in better competition."
This year, the Relays feature a host of Big 12 competition for the KU student-athletes, including Nebraska, Oklahoma State and perennial rivals Missouri and Kansas State. Also scheduled to appear are Oral Roberts, Rice University and Wichita State.
There is no doubt that the 80th Anniversary of the Kansas Relays will provide more memories for those competing and those witnessing the event from the stands. And when people congregate in Lawrence, Kan., for the 160th anniversary of the event, even more memories will be provided. And if you're grandparents happen to turn 160, that's legendary.
Kansas Track and Field Quotes from April 16 Press Conference
Kate Sultanova, Junior, Pole Vault
On the Kansas Relays:
"I'm very excited because it's a big meet and there are stars coming so it will be nice to watch some of those people run and jump. I'll have my friends coming and watching me."
"I expect to do my best. I haven't had the chance to jump much at all this season because of the bad weather, just once in Oklahoma last weekend at the John Jacobs Invitational. I expect to do well as I did in indoor."
Egor Agafonov, Junior, Hammer Throw
On how tough the hammer throw is:
"I think it's pretty good. There is good college competition and I hope that the good guys (professional athletes) come so I can compete with them."
On what to get out of this outdoor season:
"It's hard to predict what's going to happen. I hope to do better than last year, but it's hard to say how many feet and how many meters."
On having a mental advantage after winning indoor
"I think it's a little different than last year. I think understand what's happening. I know what I can do. I have more of an understanding of this culture. When I came in last year, I didn't know what was happening here. Now I have a lot of friends."
Julius Jiles, Junior, Hurdles
On the Kansas Relays:
"It's a great thing because usually we never have a home meet. We have one indoor and one outdoor. Plus it's the Kansas Relays so it's always going to be a pretty good meet so I love it. I've been running here since my junior year (in high school) and every time it's better and better. It brings everything back home because I get to see friends again."
On goals for the meet:
"I'll be running the 400m Hurdles and the 110m Hurdles. For the 110's I want to PR because I've been running real well and it's finally time for me jump into the higher ranks in the nation."
On the timing of the Relays:
"It's about mid-season to the end of the season when everybody is starting to peak. It's around the time when Big 12's is right around the corner so it's good to put your name out there."
On running in high school and college:
"It's a completely different thing. Back in high school, like every other athlete, we joke around, eat candy and then get in the blocks. Now I'm taking my body in a whole different level."
"The first time I did it I was scared. I did not know what to do. I was getting in the blocks thinking, this guy just went to the Olympics. But now I'm finally used to it and it's a great honor to run with people of that caliber."
Josh Kirk, Senior, Decathlon
On his best event:
"My biggest scorers are the pole vault, 400m and 1500m. The runs and the jumps mostly."
On deciding to do the decathlon:
"Coming out of high school I really didn't know what sport to play. I wanted to play basketball and I thought about playing soccer as well. I ended up going to Johnson County (Community College) and they kind of threw out the idea of doing the decathlon and I tried it and it caught on."