Thursday, January 22, 2009

Fans Guide To Indoor Track & Field In Aggieland

With the first-ever indoor track and field meet at Texas A&M set to be contested this Saturday, we sat down with A&M track staffer Shawn Price to see what, exactly, fans should expect when they enter the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium for the first time. Price, in his third year with the Aggies, handles the team’s media relations and is a veteran of the track and field scene. In addition to numerous collegiate meets, he has traveled to the last four Olympics, spending the last three as a researcher for NBC, and also has experience as a media relations representative for the U.S. team at the World Championships.

Q: First things first, Shawn. If I’m coming to my first track meet this weekend, how long should I expect it to last, and does each meet follow the same format as far events always being contested at the same time?
SP: Most weekends, you’ll have the same formula in terms of when events take place. Our first meet is a dual meet, so we have the luxury of it not stretching out all day long. We have it compacted down into a three-hour schedule. It will be only the Texas A&M men and women and the Texas men and Tennessee women, so it will make for smaller fields in each event. The tendency is to have meets like that, so fans can come experience track like they would a football or basketball game where they know it will tie up a set amount of time.

When we get to the Texas A&M Invitational, our third meet, that’s where meets will have more entries, and it will span over two days. It will tend to last a little longer, but we try to work the schedule down so there’s a four or five hour window where people can choose what time they want to be there for certain events, or just spend the whole day there.

Q: There’s another unique event on the schedule with the Big 12 vs. SEC Showdown. How will that be contested?
SP: It’ll be similar to the dual meet rather than the Invitational. It will still stretch over two days, but the first day will just be the multi events for the decathletes. Indoor, they do the pentathlon and heptathlon, so in that perspective there will be a couple hours of action on Friday and then they’ll come back to finish their multi event. Then, later that afternoon is when the bulk of the meet will be, and it will be in a three-hour window there.

The unique thing with the Showdown is there will be three Big 12 schools against three SEC schools, and they’ll score it as a conference between the Big 12 and SEC. We’ll have A&M, Texas and Missouri on the Big 12 side, and the SEC will feature Florida, LSU and Mississippi.

Q: Are there many events like that in the country?
SP: Not really. There’s been more schools coming back to the dual meets, and there have been a couple times where they’ve done the conference thing, but it may have only featured one or two teams. To have three teams on both sides will be a unique set-up.

Q: As far as the fan experience when they enter the building—will there be an announcer and video boards keeping fans informed?
SP: Much like football and basketball have done, you try to incorporate a program into the whole sequence of things where you utilize music, a PA announcer and a video board to keep the flow of things going. Most people think you go to a track meet and there’s either constant action or you’re sitting around waiting for something to happen. Here, we’ve kind of set up the schedule to where while something’s going on at the track, there will still be stuff going on in the field events. When the track races are done, there’s usually a field event wrapping up as well, so the schedule will kind of conclude at the same time.

We want to have music incorporated into the meet, but there will still be quiet times because the audience needs to be quiet at the start of the 60 or 60 hurdles, but then there’s times when noise is wanted and needed by the athletes as well. Our long jumpers are looking forward to creating something similar to what they do during kickoff at football games, where the crowd goes ‘Aaaaaaaaa,’ and then when the jumper hits the takeoff board and have everybody shout out ‘Gig em, Aggies!’ while they try to hit their mark.

When you go to your first meet, you’ll see athletes trying to generate their own noise, so you’ll see a long jumper clapping a rhythmic clap that he wants the crowd to follow to get him into his jump. Other times during a distance race, music will be being played, so that can get the crowd into a clap sequence there, as well.

Q: Are most college track fans fiercely loyal to their school, or are they there to see great performances no matter who it’s from?
SP: There’s a good balance there, because some fans will obviously be loyal to whatever school they follow. There’s also a unique aspect with athletes from the state of Texas, because track fans will have seen a lot of them on the high school level. You do tend to follow some kids too, depending on what part of Texas they are from.

There are a few folks that always go to meets and they keep track of what major marks they’ve seen across the years. It’s always neat to come to a meet and see an athlete you’ve never seen or a mark you’ve never seen. One neat aspect we’ll have here with our meets is that you never know where they one or two points are going to come from that will help you win the thing. You usually know where you’re top end points are going to come from, but it’s always the guy that may not get to travel or go to away meets, but at home has a chance to compete and maybe pick up a point for the team.

Q: If the seats along the finish line are sold out, where should I sit in general admission?
SP: There are two very good possibilities with the general admission seating. When you come into the building and go to the left side, you’d be able to see how quiet and how focused the athletes are at the start of a sprint. That’s always neat to see, and plus you’ll be closer to the video board and pole vaulting area. On the right-hand side of the building closer to Wellborn Road, you’d be sitting right on top of the shot put and weight throw action while having a pretty good angle at the finish line for the sprint and oval races.

Q: Is the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium unique in that it has room for all events under one roof?
SP: It’s one of the few that I’ve seen. I know there are a couple of places that try to fit it in the same area. Most places we go to will have a weight throw at another venue, either for safety concerns or because there’s not enough room. Here, we had it in mind during the design that we wanted the weight throw not only included, but to have enough room for shot put to be able to go on at the same time, also. Here, it’s neat because there is seating alongside the shot put and weight throw area as well as the general admission.

Q: Can you touch on some of the different events that are contested indoor versus outdoor?
SP: The indoor version is not necessarily an abbreviated version of an outdoor meet, but there are a few events that are unique just to the indoor season. The 100-meter outdoor is trimmed down to 60-meters indoor in both the sprint and hurdle races. Outdoors will run 110-meter hurdles for the men and 100-meter hurdles for the women, but both will run 60-meter hurdles indoors. Also, outdoors you will have a 4x100 relay, but indoors the 4x400 is the primary relay event. Distance runners will have a distance medley relay at indoor meets, where you have an 800-meter runner, a 1200-meter runner, a 400-meter runner and then a mile runner who anchors the race.

Indoor also has the weight throw instead of the hammer. The javelin kids would love to throw indoors, but obviously that’s one event that doesn’t carry over to the indoor season. There are also a couple odd events that you’d never see outdoors, like the 600 meters and 1000 meters, which aren’t run at all in the outdoor season.

Q: Do coaches vary their lineups from meet to meet in the relays?
SP: Most places we go to, we have the luxury of running two men’s 4x4 teams or two women’s 4x4, so you can mix your relay up to see who works well together. Even here for the first dual meet, we’ll put some people in multiple events whereas they might only be in one event at a regular meet. Since points are at a premium, you try to double up a little. As a result you might not see as many people get close to their PR (personal records) as they normally would, but that’s because they’re stretching themselves out to try and pick up points across the board.

Q: How do athletes qualify for the NCAA championships?
SP: Coming into the indoor season, you’ll have two marks—a provisional mark and an automatic mark. If you make the automatic mark, which is a pretty elite mark on the college level, you’ll automatically be in the NCAA Championship field. A provisional mark gets you on a list, and that descending order list is what they’ll go off of to round out the field. For instance, if there’s an event where they want 24 athletes in the NCAA Championships but only four or five automatic qualifiers, they will fill out the other 20 spots from that descending order list. Normally, each event has about the same amount of athletes in each event. On occasion, some will get an extra one or two, because with a high jump or pole vault you could have several people with the same mark, and there’s no way to break them up.

Q: Aggie fans will get to see a national title decided here in March, so how many qualifiers does a team need to have a legit shot at claiming the gold?
SP: Indoors, there can be a situation where you have three or four athletes who will likely win their events—that’s between 30-40 points, which will have you in the range to be among the top five to contend for a national championship. Most times, teams will come in with maybe 8-10 people and they’ll have one or two that should be first or second in their event, and the rest will try and pick up those points from fourth place to eighth place.

There’s really no true, hard line about how many people you have to take, but it depends on the quality of the athletes you have and how they stack up against the competition. Usually, a squad that has 8-10 folks who are at least going to make the finals in their event should have you among the top three teams at the meet.

Q: Who are some Aggies that fans should expect to see perform at a high level?
SP: On the women’s side, Porscha Lucas is our top sprinter. She was the NCAA runner up in the 200-meter outdoors last year, and she’s been a key leg on the 4x1 team that has won national titles the last two years. She has shared or traded school records in the 60 and 200 with Simone Facey, but Simone finished her career up last year, so now Porscha can kind of see where she will go with those records. Jessica Beard was a freshman last year and placed third indoors at the NCAA in the 400, so she has a lot of potential. Also is Christina Munoz in distance, and she has been a qualifier at nationals in cross country. In the jumps, we have Yasmine Regis and Ashika Charan, who both have NCAA experience.

On the men’s side, Gerald Phiri and Chris Dykes are the top two sprinters. Chris is a senior, and it will be a special moment for him because we just had a senior class graduate without ever being able to compete at home, so it’s a big deal for this senior class to get to perform in front of their peers and fans. In the jumps, there’s a strong group led by Julian Reid, who was a freshman last year but one two Big 12 titles and made the finals in the NCAA Championships. In the distance races, we have a three-time NCAA champion in Shadrack Songok. He won all three of those competing for A&M-Corpus Christi, but he graduated there and is in grad school here. We’re hoping for big things from him, as he wraps up his career during the indoor season, and hopefully add a fourth NCAA title to his resume.

The one thing that A&M has really developed with Coach Henry and his staff is a team that doesn’t just focus on one or two events. When you come to a meet, you’ll see contenders from the sprints to the jumps to the distance races, and even in the throws.

Q: What will the A&M fan who has never been to a track meet before fall in love with when they come into the Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium to watch the sport?
SP: Probably the first thing they will enjoy is having the sprint lanes right up against the stands. You’ll really be able to see how fast they’re moving in the 60 sprint and 60 hurdles as opposed to other tracks where the sprint lanes are in the middle of the oval. When it’s close to the stands and the athletes are really feeding off the roar of the crowd, and that should make for a neat aspect to this facility.

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