May 24, 2012
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AUSTIN, Texas -- It may not have been what she was expecting, but Wisconsin's Caitlin Comfort heard exactly what she needed to repeatedly from Badgers coach Jim Stintzi.
His message? "You don't need to race!"
There will be plenty of time for that in two weeks.
After positioning herself with the leaders early on, Comfort was exactly where she needed to be in the late stages of the 10,000 meters Thursday at the 2012 NCAA West Preliminary Round -- in the group of 12 runners that broke away from the field over the race's final 10 laps.
Being among that dozen was key in an event that would send its top 12 finishers on to the NCAA outdoor championships.
Rather than pushing the envelope of endurance by pushing the pace on a very warm and breezy night in Austin, Texas, Comfort settled in and ran to a ninth-place finish in a time of 34 minutes, 9.99 seconds.
Because of that, she will get a chance to race with the national title on the line at the NCAA outdoor championships, June 6-9, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Comfort will have some company, too. Combined with junior Taylor Smith's work in the shot put, Comfort pushed the Badgers' list of qualifiers to five -- adding to the trio of athletes UW had already qualified directly to the national meet in the heptathlon.
Smith wasted little time in becoming the Badgers' first qualifier to advance out of the preliminary round, throwing 53 feet, 2 1/4 inches to score a ninth-place finish in the shot put -- a mark the junior hit on the second of her three first-round throws.
Her teammate, Kelsey Card, also advanced to the final round of throws but finished 16th overall at 51-4 1/2 -- with the top 12 finishers advancing to the NCAA championships. Junior Jasmine Boyer finished 25th with a mark of 49-2 1/2.
Getting the big mark out of the way early was a relief for Smith, who knew she had done enough to advance and could cruise through her three final-round throws with no pressure.
"It was really nice," Smith said. "It was getting really hot and I'm pretty tired and hungry, so it was good to get it done."
The League City, Texas, native is no stranger to the mid-90s heat that competitors faced on the first afternoon of competition in Austin. Still, it added another element of challenge for some of the first competitors to take the field at Mike A. Myers Stadium.
"I guess because I grew up here I'm supposed to be used to it, but you never get used to the heat," Smith said. "It's still pretty tough."
The shot put was the first of two events for Smith, who also will compete in the discus at 11 a.m. Friday. Successfully navigating the first is something Smith hopes will help her in her second competition of the week.
"It's a little bit easier and less stressful now," Smith said. "When I overthink, nothing goes well, so I'm just going in relaxed and looking to do what I need to do to get to nationals."
While Comfort and Smith actually secured trips to Drake Stadium, several of their teammates took the first steps in that direction on the opening day of the preliminary-round competition.
Sophomore Liga Blyholder and junior Brittney Harper both walked a fine line taking those steps, but both did enough to survive and advance.
Despite some anxious moments, Blyholder's bubble didn't burst Thursday. In the end, her time of 4:29.76 at the NCAA West Preliminary Round was enough to secure the final qualifying spot for Saturday's quarterfinal round in the 1500 meters.
"I thought I was done," Blyholder said. "I definitely didn't run the race I wanted to and, after finishing, I thought I was done.
"I went on my cool-down and then went back and checked my phone and realized that I was actually in and took the last spot."
Blyholder ran in the first of four heats and crossed the line sixth -- one spot shy of the all-important top five that automatically earned the right to advance. Instead, she was forced to wait through the next three sections to see if her time would stand as one of the four fastest non-automatic marks.
In the end, it did.
Several athletes ran slower times -- including four over 4:30 -- but Blyholder went down as qualifier No. 24 out of 24 as the holder of the fourth-fastest non-automatic qualifying mark.
"I wasn't happy with my race and I didn't want to end my season that way," Blyholder said, "so to get a second chance to run and another chance to make nationals is great."
Harper also moved on in the 800 meters by the slimmest of margins, picking up the 27th and final qualifying spot for Friday's quarterfinals by running a time of 2:08.93.
She finished fifth in her heat, outside the top three that automatically advanced, and fell into the group of athletes that would advance -- or not -- based on their finishing times.
It appeared to be no problem in the early stages of the race, with Harper looking strong and running just a stride behind the leader in second. Her hopes faded a bit, however, when she approached the 200-meters-to-go mark.
"I felt really strong for the first part of the race, but then at the last backstretch I started cramping in my right calf and then I kind of pulled back a little bit," she said. "A couple girls passed me and I started getting nervous, so I was like, 'OK, I can't just let this calf get to me.'
"I made the last attempt at the end, and I'm glad I did, because I made it."
In the end, the time was enough to keep Harper's season moving. That's something she couldn't be happier about.
"I'm excited," she said. "I want to go into it hopefully the same way I was at the beginning of the race (today); being up in front."
"Hopefully the calf won't get in the way of this next race and I can place even better with a better time than I did today."
Senior Megan Rennhack, who topped her own school record in the event this season, did not advance in the women's javelin after throwing 145 feet, 4 inches.
The same went for junior Dorcas Akinniyi -- the nation's lone athlete to qualify for NCAA competition in four different events -- as she opened a busy week by recording a wind-aided leap of 19-1 1/4 in the long jump.