Women’s track and field, cross country programs best in the country

Freshman Crystal Nelson, senior Ejiro Okoro, redshirt sophomore Margaret Gannon, and redshirt senior Dani Stack prepare for their victory lap after winning the 4×1,600 relay on April 25, 2013 at Drake Stadium during the Drake Relays. Okoro anchored the relay and helped the group win with a time of 19:16.69.

Beau Berkley

Statistics show success has become the norm for women’s track and field.

After finishing ninth at the 2013 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, 11th at the 2012 NCAA Cross Country Championships and a 13th place finish at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships, the women finished fourth in the Program of the Year standings, the highest finish it has ever received.

The women have finished in the top 13 of the final Program of the Year standings four times since 2010 and have finished in the top 10, three times.

The program’s rise to prominence began with Lisa (Koll) Uhl’s rise as a national champion and eventual Olympian. Uhl was a four-time All-American as a Cyclone and finished 13th in the 10,000 meter run at the 2012 Olympics.

Travis Hartke, an assistant coach for the women’s programs, came on the staff during Uhl’s sophomore year and credits her with shaping the future teams’ attitude.

“Lisa was going to be a sophomore when we took over and she was doing a lot of intense training and then two years down the road a lot of girls really started to follow her,” Hartke said.

Although the team did not finish well in the final standings during Hartke’s first year, it was apparent to him the team had something special.

“The first year we took over the women, I think that was a pretty amazing year,” Hartke said. “We looked at the team and though we were the worst team in the conference, we ended up getting ninth that year, which doesn’t seem that good, but we thought maybe we can do something with this.”

All-American Dani Stack was an under-classmen during Uhl’s tenure, and although she realized the gravity of Uhl’s achievements, Stack was also cognizant of the team’s standings.

“I came in my freshman year and we had people like Lisa, but we didn’t really have a team as a whole that was scoring big points in the conference,” Stack said.

At the 2013 Outdoor Championships, Stack competed in the 10,000-meter race with Betsy Saina and Meaghan Nelson. However, long-distance is no longer the only strength of the women’s track team.

Christina Hillman placed fourth in the shot put, just months after finishing second at the indoor championships. Ejiro Okoro competed in the 800-meter race while her sister, Ese, competed in the 400-meter hurdles.

“It’s not just the long distance girls that stepped up, we have throwers, hurdlers and mid distance girls. It’s just awesome to see the transformation from being a distance group to this entire track team,” Stack said.

The trifecta of Stack, Nelson and Saina has played a pivotal role in the success of the program over the past four years, following Uhl’s footsteps and bringing forth an attitude of determination and togetherness.

“We went through the transition where we weren’t too good a few years ago, but the people we’ve been able to biring in have a good mind set and want to work hard and do it for Iowa State,” Nelson said. “There was definitely an attitude shift on the team. Everyone was doing it for the group and we were really doing it for a higher purpose than fulfilling our own individual needs.”

During Hartke’s tenure, he has realized that it is not the team’s skill that sets it apart, but it’s work ethic.

“Quite simply, our women’s team outworks every other women’s team in the country. They’re able to do more volume than any team in the country and able to stay healthy while they’re doing it,” Hartke said. “We’ve never just been better than other teams, but aerobically we’re better because we just work hard.”

Saina, an eight-time All-American and three-time national champion, did not think the amount of success the team has achieved was possible.

“The fact that our team was fourth in the nation, it’s something that is truly amazing,” Saina said. “I never thought we would be one of the best teams in the nation. If you would have told me that a few years ago I would have said you were crazy.”

There will be a void to fill after this year as Saina, Nelson, Stack and the Okoro sisters move on from Iowa State, but the void got bigger on June 14, when coach Corey Ihmels resigned to take the head coaching position at Boise State.

Despite the personnel setback, Saina sees a bright future for the Iowa State team.

“They’re working as a team right now even more than they ever have. I like the way they are coming together and are ready to work as a team even though coach [Ihmels] is not there,” Saina said. “I see the team moving further because they are so positive and I don’t see anybody thinking about leaving.”

Coming together as one is what brought the women’s team together the past four years and Stack said that is exactly what will keep this team together and moving even further on a national stage.

“I see the team being strong and maybe even stronger. Coach Ihmels did a great job here and at the end of the day, everyone that is sticking around is sticking around because they realize they are Cyclones,” Stack said.

“They don’t run and throw for coach Ihmels; they run and throw for Iowa State.”