The 2021 NCAA outdoor track season will be filled with changes, but it beats the alternative: no season at all.
That was the case last year, as COVID-19 broke out and shut down the sports world just hours before the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
Now, two years removed from the last outdoor track season, athletes are finally preparing to return to competition on and around the outdoor oval.
Perhaps most notable among the changes is the reduction in qualifying spots for the regional meet from 48 to 32 athletes per event. Another important change is the limited field of competition, as Big Ten programs will only be competing against each other, as was the case for the indoor season.
Regardless, the Nebraska women’s track and field team plans to make due with the actual season they have this year, as opposed to last.
“I personally choose to look at it as an opportunity to work harder and push yourself over your limits,” senior jumper Ieva Turke said. “Because of them reducing the number of athletes competing, I feel like that’s kind of outside of our control. And if we just sit here and dwell on things we can’t control, I don't think we can accomplish much.
Turke is one of a few athletes on the women’s team with a clear shot at reaching the national meet after just one female Husker qualified for the indoor national meet. She was in the top 25 nationally for her marks in both the long jump and triple jump, and she narrowly missed the 16-person fields.
Freshman jumper Lishanna Ilves grabbed the last qualifying spot in the long jump at the indoor meet after winning a Big Ten title in the event. Freshman pole vaulter Monica Aldrighetti was in a similar position to Turke in the indoor season, right outside the qualifying pool. All three will be among the primary athletes to watch for on the women’s track team.
The cuts to the regional meet and limited field of competition also affect the men’s team, but the women appear to have more athletes directly on the edge of qualifying for the national and regional meets.
Despite the fields for each event in the regional preliminary meets being reduced to 32 athletes, the number of qualifiers per event in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships remains at 24.
There are two regions that will have 32 athletes in each event for the preliminary round and 12 from each region will advance to the national championships. The fact that 24 athletes qualify for outdoor nationals compared to 16 for indoor means Turke, who won a Big Ten championship in the triple jump in late February, technically has a better chance at qualifying for nationals than she did during indoors.
“I definitely feel like I’m always doing better when I'm outdoors just because I like outdoors better,” Turke said. “And I think I have a better chance of qualifying for outdoors.”
Turke is one of the lucky Husker athletes who probably won’t have to sweat about qualifying for the preliminary meet, but that doesn't mean her teammates are in the same situation. Senior distance runner Elsa Forsberg is a prime example of an athlete who could be directly affected by the cuts.
Forsberg entered the west preliminary round as the No. 34 seed in the 1500 meters during the 2019 outdoor season, meaning she qualified for the preliminary meet comfortably, but would not make it in the same scenario this year. Nonetheless, she isn’t fretting about what’s out of her control.
“The cut in numbers obviously reduces the chances that any individual would have to make it,” Forsberg said. “So it is more competitive this year, but we still work just as hard.”
Head track coach Gary Pepin has long thought it to be a reasonable idea to reduce the number of qualifiers for the preliminary meets, just not this year.
“[The preliminary meet] has gone to the dark side,” Pepin said. “Hardly any spectators attend the meet, champions aren’t crowned at all, there's no team awards, there's no scoring, there's zippo. You probably had 32 people or less that were really good enough to be there and go on to the National meet, the other people, they didn't have a prayer.”
The problem this year is that the Big Ten, as was the case for the indoor season, is only allowing its member institutions to compete against each other for the regular season. The athletes are at a competitive disadvantage compared to other conferences because they won’t have the experience of facing other top competition and participating in any nationwide meets before the preliminary meet, lessening their chances to record top times or marks.
“I think it's good that they're going to get 32 people there that most closely represent a group of people that are going to the Nationals,” Pepin said. “However for the Big Ten conference, we've been stymied all year, put in a very poor situation in that we don't get to compete against other great track and field programs. The conference wasn't represented well in the national indoor meet exactly because of that reason.”
Turke also pointed out the fact that countless seniors who couldn’t compete during the indoor season are returning after being granted additional eligibility from last year’s cancelled season, which compounds the issue of choosing this year to reduce the amount of qualifiers.
A potential positive is that this change could make the Big Ten Championships more competitive, as it will be the last chance for Big Ten athletes to qualify for the preliminary meet.
“It's always hard to predict how a conference race is going to go,” Forsberg said. “But with the way that the season is structured with COVID-19, there are fewer opportunities for fast races. So, I plan to take advantage of any race at all to try and run a fast time, and the conference meet would be the last chance for anyone to do that.”
Forsberg is right outside Nebraska’s all-time top 10 for the 1500 meters, with a personal best of 4:23, and is in the top 10 for the mile, with a personal best of 4:42. However, she’ll likely have to take around five seconds off her time to feel confident about reaching not just the preliminary meet but her first national meet.
Athletes will have less chances to reach the preliminary meet, and consequently the national meet, this season, but it should result in slightly more competitive meets and better marks.
The Husker women appear to be in good position to put far more than one athlete in the national meet this season, and the men hope to improve their indoor nationals total of four athletes.
“These changes will kind of produce a higher level competition, and I think it'll make athletes more competitive,” Turke said. “I don't think this change should discourage athletes but be seen as a push.”