Gophers track fans enjoy 1,500-meter battle at Bierman

by Susan Filkins

At 1 p.m. Saturday during the Minnesota Maroon and Gold Open at the Bierman Track and Field Stadium, a few extra spectators stopped by to witness two of the most talented 1,500-meter runners in the United States.
Paul McMullen, 1996 Olympic semi-finalist, and two-time USA champion and former Gopher Paul Michalek were invited to compete in the race as unattached competitors. Their presence was met with an extended reception.
A few members of the Gophers baseball team interrupted their warm-ups before their afternoon game with Northwestern, and walked over to the track from Siebert Field. Adults who were running a clinic in the Gibson-Nagurski football complex came outside to catch a glimpse of the race. A couple of fans even popped in at the last minute to see the race and left right after. It turned out to equally match the hype.
McMullen won the event with a time of 3 minutes, 41.57 seconds, just shy of the Bierman track record of 3:41.2 set in 1977. Finishing just behind him was Michalek in 3:41.73. In third was Todd Black, who finished almost seven seconds off the pace.
Gophers sophomore Nate Clay was not too far off the pack of greats. He took fourth in the race with a time of 3:57.97.
McMullen said after the race he was pleased to have received the call from Minnesota assistant coach Roy Griak to attend the Open and that he gladly accepted the invitation to join Michalek in the race.
“I’ve gotten to be good friends with Paul Michalek, and we have helped each other train to increase the status of the American mile,” McMullen said. “This is just a great Minnesota day, and I’m happy to be here.”
McMullen also ran the 800-meter relay as a last-minute entry. This time, however, he was edged by former Gopher Travis Nordrum and Minnesota sophomore Ron Hoffner. Hoffner’s first place time of 1:50.82 was good for a new personal best.
“I felt really good,” Hoffner said. “I was in my rhythm. As long as I’m in my rhythm, I can keep going instead of dying.”
Hoffner competed against McMullen at the Jesse Owens Classic last weekend, so he said the competition did not intimidate him.
Aside from the 1,500 and the presence of McMullen, several other track stand-outs also competed.
Another former Gopher stand-out, Keita Cline, returned to the track. He won the triple jump competition, with a jump of 50 feet, 1 1/2 inches, and the long jump, recording a jump of 24-7 3/4.
A member of the Nigerian Olympic team, Franklin Nwankpa, finished first in the 100 and a close second in the 200 to Wisconsin’s Tony Simmons, who doubles as a wideout for the Badgers football team.
Simmons was not the only football player on the track; a few members of the Gophers football team decided to enter the meet. They competed in the 100 and the 4×100-meter relay.
Freshman cornerback Fred Rodgers took third place in the 100 with a time of 10.74 seconds. Gophers coach Phil Lundin said Rodgers could have potential to run track in the future.
“I think Fred shows a lot of promise,” Lundin said. “He is still not Big Ten caliber but with a couple of more weeks of training, there is a distinct chance he could be a person to mix it up in the Big Ten setting.”
The 4×100 relay brought one of the most exciting finishes of the day. Wisconsin’s Reggie Torian anchored the relay and was side by side with Minnesota’s Shelton Benjamin.
The two headed down the stretch until the very last couple of strides when Torian turned to Benjamin and said something to him with a smile before crossing the line seconds before him. Wisconsin won the race with a time of 41.27 seconds.
Some other Gophers highlights from the meet include:
Junior Chad Yenchesky, whose second place finish in the shot put with a throw of 57 feet, 10 1/2 inches. His throw was good enough to provisionally qualify him for the NCAA championships for the fourth time this season.
Sophomore Tyler McCormick won the high jump, clearing the bar at 6-9 3/4. Minnesota senior Jason Schlueter took second in the discus with a throw of 178-2. He was followed by Yenchesky in third.
Also, senior decathlete Seth Mischke finished second in the pole vault, clearing 16-4 3/4. Senior Aaron Wheatcraft ran a personal best time in the 400 with a time of 53.46 seconds, winning the event. The 5,000 was dominated by the Gophers. Sophomore Charles McClure finished first with a time of 15 minutes, 14.3 seconds.
Although Wisconsin and Iowa State gave Minnesota some tough competition, the Gophers continued to show promise. Lundin said the important thing is to get everybody healthy before the Big Ten meet in two weeks.
“If you’re healthy you can mix it up,” Lundin said. “If you’re not healthy, there’s just no chance. We’re slowly progressing toward a situation where we will be relatively healthy going into Big Tens, and that’s our primary goal.”