After making it past regionals last week, eight Kansas State track and field athletes are set to compete in seven different events at this week’s NCAA Outdoor National Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.
Erik Kynard makes his return to the NCAAs to defend his high jump championship from a year ago. Fellow national champion Ryann Krais will also be defending her NCAA title in the heptathlon.
K-State coach Cliff Rovelto has high expectations for his team and said while it is obvious the competition level will be higher at the NCAAs, it is exceptionally difficult this year with the Olympics later this summer.
“In an Olympic year, you’ve got people who are very focused on performing on the very highest of levels on that year,” he said. “It’s people’s dreams to have an opportunity to make an Olympic team.
“At the collegiate level, whether they’re U.S. kids or International kids, there are a lot of athletes that will have the opportunity to compete in the Olympic games and they want to perform at a high level, so they’re more interested this year, they’re just a little more into what’s going on.”
Other K-State men’s competitors traveling to Des Moines will be Mantas Silkauskas (ranked 11th in long jump), Tomas Kirielius (ranked 22nd in the decathlon) and Kyle Wait (ranked 16th in pole vault).
On the women’s side — including Krais — Boglarka Bozzay (ranked seventh in the 800), Mairead Murphy (ranked 24th in the heptathlon) and Jacquelyn Leffler (ranked 20th in discus) will also compete for the Wildcats at the NCAAs.
While the Summer Games may be on the mind of many — especially Olympic hopeful Erik Kynard — the focus going into this week is still on one thing: winning.
“To win, that’s the only expectation that matters,” Kynard said. “I’m only going to win and that’s what I expect to do. Nothing else is relevant, really, besides winning. All the fun and record-breaking and stuff comes after.”
Kynard will be facing tougher competition at the NCAAs than he’s seen all year.
“It’s a good field, it’s a really good field,” Rovelto said. “He’s going to have to jump well to win, there’s no question about that. He can’t go and jump even his average to win. He’s going to have to jump well to win, but I think he’s physically prepared and he’s healthy and all those other things, so there’s no reason why he can’t.”
Krais is also going to be faced with difficult competition in Des Moines, as the University of Oregon’s Brianne Theisen redshirted last year, but took home the national title in 2009 and 2010.
Rovelto said Theisen recorded the second-highest women’s heptathlon score ever and, “can win pretty easily if she does what she’s capable of doing — no one else can score that high.”
When asked if there was pressure on going in as the defending national champion, Krais said the pressure is on Theisen, and she just plans on competing a solid seven events.
“Other than her (Theisen), it’ll be pretty much the same playing field as last year give or take a few girls,” Krais said. “It seems like a lot of girls have improved throughout the year, but that’s expected and I hope that I have too.”
Other Wildcats with high expectations are high jumper Silkauskas and Leffler in discus.
“I think Mantas Silkauskas has jumped really well in the long jump and I think he’s absolutely capable of perhaps jumping a little bit further,” Rovelto said. “He doesn’t have to jump a whole lot further to put himself right in the mix, I think he could certainly be in the top eight.”
Struggling on and off with injuries during her time at K-State, yet still overcoming odds and making it into the NCAA field, Leffler has gained the respect of teammates like Krais.
“After all the things she’s gone through the past five years, and the things she’s been through this season,” Krais said, “it’s just so impressive that she’s been able to hang on and excel to where she is right now.
“She is a story of persistence, if I’ve ever heard one. I’m pretty impressed with her.”
The K-State delegation left Manhattan on Sunday and the first to compete are Silkauskas, Kirielius, Bozzay, and Leffler on Wednesday. Krais and Murphy will go on Thursday and Kynard and Wait compete on Friday.
“You’ve just got to take things in stride and trust what we’ve done and trust that God has a plan,” Krais said. “If this is meant to be a big meet for me, then it will be, and if it’s not, then there will be plenty in the future.”