‘Steele-ing’ a victory: U junior wins NCAA title

Minnesota track and field runner Adam Steele won the NCAA 400-meter dash championship by six thousandths of a second.

Brett Angel

The blink of an eye. The snap of a finger.

Six thousandths of a second.

That was the difference between being a national champion and being second best in the men’s 400-meter dash at the NCAA track and field championships Saturday night in Sacramento, Calif.

But for Minnesota junior Adam Steele, it was all the time he needed.

Steele shocked the crowd – and himself – by winning the 400-meter finals in a personal-best 44.57 seconds, the fastest 400-meter time in the world this year. He became the first Gopher to win an individual national title since Gary Bjorklund in 1971.

“It’s something I never thought I’d be able to do,” Steele said. “It was barely enough.”

Steele never led the race before the final few meters, as he and teammate Mitch Potter battled Otis Harris of South Carolina for the 400-meter crown.

After the three competitors finished in a virtual tie, officials determined Steele had won by the slimmest of margins. Harris finished with the same official time as Steele (44.57) while Potter, who led for most of the race, was clocked at 44.58.

Minnesota track and field coach Phil Lundin couldn’t believe what he saw.

“I don’t really have any words to describe it,” Lundin said. “I’ve never seen a race quite like that.”

Steele had never run faster than 46.15 going into the NCAA regional meet two weeks ago.

“I don’t think it’s settled in yet,” Steele said. “When I finished, I thought they had the 44 and the 45 mixed up. It’s not like I’m familiar with what it feels like to run that fast.”

“It’s really like he evolved into a world-class performer over the weekend,” Lundin said.

Lundin and the 11 Minnesota athletes competing at the NCAA championships knew they might witness an individual title by a Gopher during the week. But most of the attention had been focused on Potter, who had the best qualifying time of any competitor in the 400-meters (44.93), and Shani Marks in the women’s triple jump.

Instead, Steele emerged with the most memorable and most unlikely performance of all.

“I don’t even know how I feel,” Steele said. “It’s just like a big dream.”

On the heels of Steele and Potter’s performances in the 400-meters – which netted 16 total points for the Gophers – Minnesota placed ninth overall with 29 points.

The ninth-place finish tied Minnesota’s best showing in a national meet in Lundin’s nine-year tenure as head coach.

Arkansas won the men’s team title with 59 points.

Ninety minutes after Potter and Steele’s dramatic finish, the Gophers earned eight points from their 4×400-meter relay team of Steele, Andy Wohlin, Mikael Jakobsson and Potter.

The relay team finished second with a school-record time of 3:02.33, just behind Louisiana State (3:02.01).

Minnesota also received four points from sophomore Karl Erickson, who finished fifth in the shot put. Erickson landed a throw of 62 feet 10.75 inches and earned All-America honors for the second time in the event. He also finished fifth in the shot put at this year’s national indoor championships.

Junior Martin Robeck contributed to the team as well by placing eighth in the 1,500-meter run in a time of 3:44.04.

Sophomore Kevin Netzer finished 16th in the high jump, clearing 7 feet 0.25 inches.

Junior Will McComb finished 20th in the 10,000-meter run (29:33.66) while junior Lynden Reder (hammer), freshman Trent Riter (800-meters), Jakobsson (400-meter hurdles) and Erickson (discus) also competed in the NCAA championships but failed to make the finals in their respective events.

“We were hoping to pick up a few more points here and there,” Lundin said. “But given the magnitude of the performances, it was still a great week for the athletes and for Minnesota.”

Marks finishes second

Senior Shani Marks was trying to do something no other woman in Minnesota history had accomplished – win an individual track and field national title.

She couldn’t have come any closer than she did without doing just that.

After clearing the 45-foot mark on her first jump of the women’s triple jump finals Saturday night in Sacramento. Marks led the entire competition before finishing second to Nebraska’s Ineta Radevica.

Trailing Marks with just one jump remaining, Radevica jumped a career-best 45 feet 8.5 inches on her final attempt to claim the national title and leave Marks with a bittersweet second-place finish.

Marks did have one final chance to best Radevica, but could only manage 44 feet 9 inches on her final jump.

“I was half in shock,” Marks said. “It’s frustrating that it didn’t work out.”

Despite being denied the individual title, Marks’ jumping coach Matt Bingle said she had the best competition of her collegiate career.

“We were both heartbroken by it, but that was only the second time in her life that she went over 45 feet,” Bingle said.

As the only athlete competing from Minnesota’s women’s team, Marks’ eight points were enough to place her 29th in the team standings.

Louisiana State University continued its dominance in women’s outdoor track and field, scoring 64 points and winning its 13th title in 17 years.

“It’s obviously disappointing the way it ended, but you can’t be too disappointed being second in the nation,” said Minnesota women’s coach Gary Wilson. “We’re thrilled with Shani. She did a wonderful job all year.”

Marks finished her Minnesota career as a three-time All-American in the triple jump.

She will stay in California this week and compete in the triple jump at the U.S. National meet in Palo Alto, Calif. this weekend.

Steele, Potter and Erickson will also compete at the U.S. National meet, but returned to Minnesota before flying back to California on Wednesday.

Brett Angel welcomes comments at [email protected]