Erickson provides Gophers with muscle in field events

by Ben Goessling

Track and field, the sport whose record book he is now rewriting, used to be nothing more than an off-season training activity for Minnesota freshman Karl Erickson.

The 19-year-old from Rochester, Minn., who set the school’s freshman record in the shot put in his first meet as a Gopher, is a provisional qualifier for the NCAA Championships, and a contender to win the shot put when Minnesota hosts the Big Ten Indoor Championships this weekend.

In high school, however, Erickson’s focus was on football and basketball, not track and field.

“I started track during my sophomore year in high school, mostly to condition for football. It was just something to do,” Erickson said. “I never gave a thought (to competing in track and field in college) until my junior year.”

Erickson, the state champion in the discus and shot put during his last two years of high school, now dreams of competing in the Olympics someday.

But he knows that like his meteoric rise to collegiate success, it is something that will come in time.

“Karl knows his place,” said throwing coach Mario Sategna. “His goal is not just to be the Big Ten champion. His goal is to get to the national meet and someday represent the U.S. on an Olympic team. That’s why he can take it in stride and he’s not overwhelmed.”

Erickson’s success this season is especially unique as a thrower, said Sategna, because most throwers are forced to redshirt as freshmen as they adjust to the heavier shot put and discus used in college.

“We knew he would probably be ready to go for the outdoor conference meet in the discus, but (his success) in the shot put is kind of a surprise for us,” said Satenga.

Erickson trained at the Olympic Training Center in San Diego last summer, which he lists as the most memorable thrill of his life. That experience, he said, gave him an idea of just how far he could go in track and field.

“Having the opportunity to go to California and meeting the people on the Olympic (coaching staff) really showed me the opportunities that are there,” Erickson said. “I’m doing all this to have a shot at the Olympics, so it’s definitely in the back of my mind. I can remember watching the Olympics since I was little, and it would be a great honor for me to represent the country.”

Erickson said the 2004 Olympics are a possibility, but he is training with the mindset that the 2008 Games are more likely.

If he does make the Games, it will be unique from a state perspective as well, since Minnesota typically does not send many athletes to the Summer Olympics.

The Gophers finished fourth in the Big Ten Indoor Championships a year ago, and their weak showing in the field events was the major culprit in their failure to add to their 1998 indoor championship. Aside from Marc Johannsen’s victory in the high jump, no Minnesota athlete finished higher than fifth in a field event.

The Gophers will be considered among the favorites to win this weekend’s meet, which should be as wide-open as it has ever been.

For Minnesota to win, however, it must reverse its performance in the field events from a year ago. The Gophers finished just 13 points behind second-place Purdue last year, and a better performance in the field events would have certainly vaulted them into second place behind Wisconsin.

Minnesota’s overall talent level is much higher than it was last year, but the Gophers’ field events have still been the team’s weak link. Erickson, sophomore thrower Lynden Reder, freshman high jumper Kevin Netzer and freshman long jumper Stefan Landgraf will be relied on heavily to give Minnesota the boost it needs in the field events to win the overall championship.

Erickson is ranked fifth in the conference in the shot put, and has thrown over 60 feet in practice, which he will probably need to do to win this weekend. Ohio State’s Dan Martin threw 60 feet, 8 inches three weeks ago and is ranked first in the conference in the event.

The shot put field returns many of the top performer’s from last year’s meet, and considering the shot put is not Erickson’s strongest event, he is a dark horse pick to win this weekend.

But considering the things he has already accomplished at 19, a Big Ten championship for Erickson most decidedly could not be considered a surprise.

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]