Each of the 62 athletes on the Gophers men’s track and field team has an event. There are sprinters, middle-distance runners, distance runners, throwers, jumpers, pole vaulters and hurdlers.
But only a few decathletes do them all.
Junior decathlete Jack Szmanda will compete in 10 events over two days at the NCAA championships in Des Moines, Iowa on June 6-9.
The national meet will only be Szmanda’s third time competing in the decathlon, which is normal given the rigorous nature of the event. His previous two attempts were good enough to send him to the national meet and break the school record.
Szmanda’s best result from this year was a second-place finish at the Big Ten championships. His 7,862 points broke the school record by more than 100 points.
Szmanda said that until his Big Ten run, he hadn’t put together a high-scoring decathlon in his four years at Minnesota.
But his goals don’t end there. He needs 7,900 points to automatically qualify for the Olympic trials. With his current mark, his spot isn’t guaranteed.
“There’s a couple of events that I wasn’t happy with at Big Ten [championships], and there was some that I was extremely happy with,” Szmanda said. “So if I find that balance, it should be pretty good.”
Balance is one of the main reasons Szmanda is a successful multi-event athlete, assistant coach Paul Thornton said.
Thornton said Szmanda’s opportunity to work with multiple coaches helps him achieve that balance.
Thornton is Szmanda’s multi-event coach who also specializes in sprints, hurdles and jumps. Assistant coaches Scott Berggren and Steve White train him specifically in the high jump and pole vault, respectively. Assistant coach Lynden Reder trains Szmanda in the throws.
“Jack, like he could in many events, could be a really, really good thrower if that was his specialty,” Reder said.
Szmanda favors his best event over the rest.
“I love the [pole] vault,” Szmanda said. “I train the hardest for it.”
Minnesota recruited Szmanda for the pole vault before grooming him into a multi-event athlete.
Szmanda placed ninth in the heptathlon at the 2010 NCAA indoor championships and earned All-America honors.
But a hamstring injury slowed down his 2011 season, and he failed to make the NCAAs.
“The greatest thing for Jack is that he’s been relatively injury-free leading up to this point,” Thornton said. “This year he has been healthy enough to be able to train long term.”
Szmanda sprained his ankle two weeks ago while training on the pole vault pit and has tried to rehabilitate it before the NCAA championships.
“We’ve been joking with his ankle injury here that he’s really a very ultra-positive kid,” Reder said. “I said, ‘Jack, you could break your leg and a bone could be sticking out of the side, and you’d be like, ‘I think I’ll be OK, I think I can do it.’”
While Szmanda may not be worried about his injury, Thornton said it may still impact his performance on the national stage.
“How that’s going to affect him is still an unknown,” Thornton said. “In Jack’s eyes, it’s not going to affect him at all. We oftentimes don’t even talk about it.”
Teammate David Pachuta said the team admires Szmanda’s work ethic.
“Being a multi-athlete, he’s out here before everybody else and leaves after everybody else,” Pachuta said. “He’s one of the hardest workers we have on the team.”
Pachuta will also compete at the NCAA championships in the 800-meter run. Harun Abda will compete in the 800 as well as the 4x400 relay with Jacob Capek, John Holton and Kevin Bradley.
Hassan Mead and Nick Hutton will race in the 5,000 meters and 1,500 meters, respectively. Quentin Mege and Micah Hegerle will compete in the hammer throw.
The 4x100-meter relay team qualified for the NCAA championships in record-breaking fashion and will aim to finish off the season in similar form.
Todea-Kay Willis, Nyoka Giles, Chimerem Okoroji and Kylie Peterson were all a part of the same recruiting class. Peterson said that makes their trip to the national meet even more special.
“I’m most excited to spend it with these three girls. We came in together,” Peterson said.
Although they were recruited together, Willis and Peterson all have a year of eligibility left. Okoroji and Giles' NCAA championships will be the last meet of their career.
“I think it’s a really good way to go out of the season,” Okoroji said.
The relay has never finished below third place all season. It also broke the school record twice — once at the Big Ten championships and once at the NCAA regionals.
“We’ve developed a strong momentum, especially from regionals [by] breaking the school record,” Giles said. “As long as we’re all feeling well, I think we have a nice shot of breaking the school record [again].”
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