Track teams put 2020's abrupt end in rearview

By: Bob Holt
Published: Wednesday, March 10, 2021
Arkansas' Katie Izzo runs the 3,000 meters during the SEC Indoor Championships on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Fayetteville.
( Aaron Skinner)
Arkansas' Katie Izzo runs the 3,000 meters during the SEC Indoor Championships on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — Distance runner Katie Izzo was among the University of Arkansas athletes in Albuquerque, N.M., a year ago preparing for the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships when an announcement came that the meet had been canceled because of safety concerns related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I consider the day that nationals got canceled as kind of the end of the world as we knew it,” Izzo said earlier this week. “It’s a moment I’ll have in my head for the rest of my life.”

Arkansas’ No. 3-ranked men’s team and No. 5 women’s team had flown to Albuquerque together on a chartered plane on March 12, the day before the meet was scheduled to start.

“All the teams are there, TV’s there,” Arkansas women’s Coach Lance Harter said, referring to ESPN’s production crew. “Everything is set up and ready to go, and as we checked into our hotel around noon, the coach at New Mexico, Joe Franklin, came over and said, ‘Hey, don’t be surprised if this might not happen.’

“I said, ‘What are you talking about? I mean, we’re all here. Why wouldn’t they have canceled it earlier?’

“Then sure enough at 3:30 that afternoon we got the email from the NCAA — ‘Get out of your hotel, go to the airport, get out of town.’ ”

The Razorbacks came to the NCAA meet riding high after sweeping SEC women’s and men’s titles.

“We felt like we had a good team that could contend coming off an SEC championship,” Arkansas men’s Coach Chris Bucknam said. “[The cancellation] was a downer. There’s no question about that.”

By the time the Razorbacks arrived back home in Fayetteville, the NCAA also had announced the cancellation of all spring sports, including the outdoor track and field season. Within a few days, the United States Olympic Trials and 2020 Summer Olympics were postponed.

“Everything that we were looking forward to and training for, one by one it was being pulled away from us,” said Krissy Gear, an Arkansas distance runner who also had qualified to compete at the NCAA Championships last year.

“When the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games got postponed, then it was like all hope had been lost,” Harter said.

Hope for college track and field has been found, as evidenced by the 2021 NCAA Indoor Championships being held Thursday through Saturday at Arkansas’ Randal Tyson Track Center.

The coronavirus pandemic is still disrupting life, but there are signs around the country of a return to normalcy, including sports being held again.

Izzo and Gear are among 25 entries for Arkansas’ women’s team.

“I think what really helped me get through [the last year] was just having all my teammates right there by my side,” Izzo said. “We were able to cry together and take that plane back to Fayetteville [from Albuquerque].

“We had our time to be sad, but then we had to keep going and have the faith that things would start getting back to normal eventually. I think that’s made this season so special. Almost every girl on this squad has done a personal best.”

Arkansas’ Markus Ballengee is back to compete in the heptathlon, an event in which he qualified at last year’s NCAA Indoor meet. Two weeks ago at the SEC meet, he finished second with a career-best 5,898 points.

“Making it to the NCAA meet last year, and warming up and getting my mind right and everything, then getting the news that we’re going home, it was really tough,” Ballengee said. “It took a while for me to re-evaluate and refocus. But now I’ve turned that into more motivation. Compared to last year, I’ve scored a lot better. I’m a lot higher ranked.

“Last year was very disappointing, but I’m happy to be right back to competing. Especially being at home, it means even more.”

The Arkansas men’s team has 18 entries for the NCAA meet.

“It’s been a crazy season, no question about that, but we’re thrilled our kids are competing,” Bucknam said. “We feel like we’re pretty lucky.”

The NCAA Championships mark the 11th indoor track and field meet Arkansas has hosted this season, including four professional competitions.

“I think there were a lot of people that had doubts this could happen,” Harter said. “But we stuck with it. We followed the protocols. We’ve had no outbreaks of covid issues. So I think it shows that if you follow the procedures, you can run a safe event.”

Gear set the Arkansas school record in the mile this season when she ran 4:31.83 at the Tyson Invitational on Feb. 13.

“For our team, it’s like [personal-record] central this season,” Gear said. “With covid, I didn’t think this indoor season would be as competitive, and I’ve been overjoyed to see how many good marks people are turning in.

“Not just our team, but across the nation. That’s been super exciting.”

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