Olympians thrive in Drake Relay environment

BY MATT CABEL | APRIL 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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As Queen Harrison, Dawn Harper, Kellie Wells, and Lolo Jones crossed the finish line, earning the new fastest times in the world for the women’s 100-meter hurdles, the scene around the track at the Drake Relays changed. Seconds after the race finished, a stadium official yelled at the top of his lungs for members of the media to exit the stairway leading to the track so the professional athletes could walk through with the aid of security.

Olympians are of a different breed. The 2013 Drake Relays showcased more competition than just the best high-school and college athletes. From gold medal-winning runners such as Harper to gold medal-winning pole-vaulter Renaud Lavillenie, the annual event also brought in some of the beset talent in the world.

“That’s what you want,” Harper said after her second-place finish. “You want to race against the best in the world.” They didn’t bear the name of a school on their chest that paid money to get equipment from a big company. Instead, they’re the athletes that advertise for some of the biggest brands in the world: Nike, Adidas, Asics, Puma — just some of the outfitters spotted on Olympic athletes during the relays. They had added security escorting them to and from the track, and gave press conferences to both foreign and American members of the media. When the Olympians were announced during the April 26 night session, fireworks were let off inside Drake Stadium.

The conclusion of the summer 2012 Olympic Games in London made it possible for higher-caliber competition to set foot in Drake Stadium. While the meet occurs near the end of the track and field season for prep and collegiate athletes, April is the beginning of the season for the Olympians. Harper, for example, said in her press conference that she had been practicing hurdles for about a week before earning the second fastest time in the world in 100-meter hurdles. And they love the steep competition the Relays offer.

“The hurdles is one of those events where we don’t duck and dodge each other, as in the 100 meters,” said Aries Merritt, Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles. “We race each other week in and week out. A field like you saw will be seen many more times this season. That’s a really good thing for the sport.” Hundreds of athletes, from the elementary school to professional level, compete at the Drake Relays. The meet is one of the largest in the world of track and field, and the participation of professional athletes prove its drawing power.

For Iowa trackster Ethan Holmes, it’s a showcase of future competition. For others, the middle-school and the high-school students who dream of being in their place, it’s a chance to see what they could accomplish in the future. “You can’t let it distract you from what you’re here to do,” Holmes said about competing alongside the Olympic-level talent. “What you’re here to do is compete. Someday, I’m going to be among them, so I can’t be too star-struck when I see them. Those are my competitors.”

While Holmes doesn’t let himself get distracted, professional hurdler Jones was quick to praise the event for allowing spectators and particularly young athletes, the chance to see competition of such a high level. “It’s great for [young athletes] to see the competition across the field,” she said. “Anytime they can see people that competed in the Olympic finals come out here, they can feed off that. If they want to continue, that’s their ultimate goal. I think it’s great that Drake has really stepped up the competition field.

“Hopefully, one day, we’ll be watching them compete, our feet kicked up because we’re retired.”

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