Marks perseveres through struggles to NCAA meet

Ben Goessling

When the NCAA Women’s Indoor Track and Field Championships begin Friday in Fayetteville, Ark., senior Shani Marks will compete in the triple jump as Minnesota’s only representative.

Her place on a pedestal is somewhat appropriate, because Marks has overcome injury and team turmoil to emerge as the Gophers’ one constant over the last year.

“She’s the one that keeps us all together,” teammate Rachel Schutz said of Marks.

Seven months ago, sprint coach Sydney Cartwright left for Alabama, taking Tahesia Harrigan with him. Early last fall, thrower Barbora Spotakova decided to return to her native Czech Republic, leaving Marks as the cornerstone in yet another rebuilding process.

But she hasn’t been deterred by any of it.

“Things are way better than I expected,” she said. “The team is healthier than ever, and it’s kind of fun to be the oldest one around.”

You couldn’t fault Marks too much for getting discouraged, given the fact she didn’t know who her event coach would be until September, and nagging injuries have made her college career a constant bout to stay healthy.

After redshirting the 1999 season due to a back injury she suffered in high school gymnastics, the Apple Va1lley, Minn., native made a big splash her freshman year, anchoring a school record-setting 4×400-meter relay team and placing third in the 600-meter dash at the Big Ten indoor championships.

Minnesota finished third in the conference indoors and second outdoors in 2000 – its best finishes ever in each meet.

But the Gophers haven’t reached those heights since.

In 2001, the team finished fifth and third at the Big Ten indoor and outdoor meets, respectively.

In 2002, it was eighth and sixth.

And in the midst of looking toward a promising 2003 season in which she would return as part of a trio of All-Americans with Harrigan and Spotakova, Marks was dealt more blows than a Muhammad Ali speedbag.

“It initially put a damper on my senior year,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine the team coming out of it.”

But something funny happened on Marks’ way through a mundane senior year; the young group around her responded in a way she hadn’t expected.

Energized by new assistant coach Matt Bingle, Minnesota’s sprinters turned in a surprising performance at the Big Ten indoor championships, as freshman Kou Luogon and senior Lisa Mickelson took third and fourth place in the 400-meter dash, respectively.

“After Matt came, everything fell into place,” Marks said. “The team has really responded to him.”

Marks also ran with Mickelson, Luogon and Schutz on the Gophers’ winning 4×400-meter relay team – the first-ever conference relay title at Minnesota.

Bingle couldn’t be happier with his prize senior.

The 22-year-old Marks, who teammates have twice named the squad’s toughest athlete, posted a second-place finish in the 600-meter dash at the Big Ten championships.

Additionally, she enters the NCAA

championships with a school-record triple jump of 43-11 1/4 – the sixth-best mark in the country – all after Bingle’s workout changes and additional back surgery last summer.

“I didn’t know what she was capable of coming off surgery,” Bingle said. “But when she jumped that far, I was shocked.

“Any time you’re a top athlete, people watch how you carry yourself. She’s never been negative.”

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]