As collegiate track and field moves into the nationals phase of the season, athletes who pile on multiple events in dual meets and invitationals often narrow their attention to their best one – and, of course, in many cases they’ve qualified in only one.
But for Kayla Leland, more is more.
The Whitworth University junior has qualified in three events for this weekend’s NCAA Division III championships in Geneva, Ohio – and, by golly, three events she’ll run.
“Qualifying in three is not an easy task,” she said, “and I didn’t want to pass up a single opportunity to compete against the very best in the nation.”
Even if her coach, Toby Schwarz, at first counseled prudence.
“But sometimes you have to allow people to be themselves,” he said.
And what Leland has been this season is both a workhorse and a thoroughbred, and in Ohio there will require more of the same. She’ll have the 1,500-meter prelims on Thursday, the 800 heats on Friday – and if she advances, Saturday will require finals in those races and the 5,000 in the space of 2 1/2 hours.
Those are the same three events she won at the Northwest Conference championships last month. But that meet was only one of the highlights of a season that saw her shatter school records in the 1,500, 3,000 and 5,000 meters – even though she hadn’t run a track race longer than two laps in her life before January.
The Gonzaga Prep grad spent her first two track seasons at Whitworth swapping the 800 school record and head-to-head victories – they were 10-10 against each other – with since-graduated teammate Katie McKay. Her school-record run of 2 minutes, 10.09 as a freshman led to a NCAA D-III finals appearance in 2015, but she couldn’t crack the qualifying field last spring.
“It was a little disappointing, but it was something I was able to learn and grow from,” Leland said, “and I think this year made up for that.”
She’d given up basketball to pursue track more seriously after her freshman year (”I still watch games and want to be out there”) and last fall finally accepted Schwarz’s urgings to join the cross country team, if only for base and strength purposes. Except the Pirates ran their way to nationals and Leland finished 12th as an individual to earn All-American status. She picked off two more such honors indoors at the D-III indoor meet in the 800 (eighth) and mile (fourth), lowering the school record to 4:55.07.
A month into the outdoor season, Leland tried her first 5K – and lopped 21 seconds off the school record.
“Kayla’s wired a certain way – she’s just wired for work,” Schwarz said. “She’s very driven in every way. I think she’s had one A-minus since she came to Whitworth, and when we climb in the van she’s got a little flashlight and she studies. I’ve never seen her sleep in a van or a bus.”
And as Schwarz was trying to fine tune her this past month, Leland kept talking him into more races. Just 11 days ago at the Portland Twilight, she ran 4:27.25 in the 1,500 and came back 55 minutes later with a 16:54.40 in the 5,000.
“That’s why she’s running three events this weekend,” he said. “Who am I to tell her she can’t?”
- On the big-school level, championship season begins with the NCAA preliminary rounds this weekend, with 47 area athletes headed to Austin, Texas, for the three-day West event. The top 12 individual finishers will move on to the NCAA Division I championships in Eugene. In addition to Gonzaga’s Troy Fraley, the national leader in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, six area athletes rank among the top 12 regionally in their events. That includes two Spokane athletes, Washington javelin thrower and Pac-12 champ Carson Fuller of Ferris (fifth) and Colorado 5,000 runner John Dressel of Mt. Spokane (10th). Arizona shot putter Aaron Castle of Newport is fifth. Rounding out that list are three Washington State athletes – Pac-12 hammer champ Brock Eager (third), two-time Pac-12 400 hurdles winner C.J. Allen (fourth) and javelin thrower Atina Kamasi (seventh).
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