Darby Thomas Track and Field Husker Quad

After standout performances at the Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Nebraska track and field record books need to be rewritten. 

This season has seen numerous shakeups in the school standing. For instance, sophomore hurdler Darius Luff placed third all-time in the sixty-meter hurdles at the Tyson Invitational. 

But no event had its landscape changed like the long jump, where sophomore Darby Thomas and freshman Mikaelle Assani both cracked the top 10. Thomas’ 20-foot 9-inch jump placed her 10th in school history, while Assani’s 21-foot, 1 ¼-inch leap vaulted her to third all-time in school history. 

Both jumpers won their respective events, with Thomas winning the open long jump competition available to all competitors and Assani taking the crown in the long jump invite, a competition where only a select few get the chance to participate. 

Not only were those jumps tops at the Tyson Invitational, but they made up the two top distances from any Big Ten long jumpers this season.

“When I found that out, I was just in awe,” Thomas said. “In practice, we’re constantly looking at the record books, and seeing my name up with those great athletes coach Pepin talks about and raves about is just an honor.”

Assani’s jump is more impressive given the fact that it occurred in her first career collegiate meet. Assani was a prolific long jumper in Germany before arriving at Nebraska, ranking No. 6 in the world in long jumpers under 20. 

The transition from track and field in Germany to the United States came with some adjustments. In Germany, most of Assani’s track and field coaches were unpaid, and were unaffiliated with a school, leading to more of a friendship-type relationship than a player-coach relationship. 

Assani has grown used to this and appreciates the number of assistants at Nebraska, and the systems in place for the coaches to help her. 

The competitions, too, were different than back in Germany, as long jumpers were not divided into multiple flights. Assani said she also was not used to multiple events going on at the same time, with the men’s and women’s long jump competitions occurring simultaneously. 

“[It’s] mostly depending on which level you are, people clap for you. So, if the people start to clap for a man, your rhythm as a woman is completely messed up,” Assani said. “Based on that, your approach doesn’t fit anymore.”

Although there were differences in competition structure, Assani did not let that throw her off her game, and she delivered one of the best jumps in Husker history. 

Thomas, meanwhile, had been successful in the long jump at Nebraska in her previous two seasons. At the Big Ten Indoor Championships, she finished third her freshman year and fourth her sophomore year, but she knew there was room to improve for 2022. She credits her improvement to Nebraska track and field head coach Gary Pepin and assistant jumps coach Maxwell Heng, and trusting their meticulous advice has helped her improve over the season. 

“Something I’ve really been working on in practice is staying up tall and staying confident in my abilities,” Thomas said. “Getting that muscle memory to help me fix it made me improve a lot.” 

With both jumpers already setting conference-high marks so far this season and winning their respective events, there can be a lot of pressure following that up and repeating the standout performances week after week. 

With the Big Ten and NCAA Indoor Championships rapidly approaching, the stakes are becoming higher for each upcoming meet. While both jumpers are conscious of the pressure, neither of them are worried, as under pressure is where they thrive.

“I love pressure because I can only compete at my best if I have pressure,” Assani said. “I never see pressure as a bad thing.” 

A key component in both quelling the pressure and using it as an advantage is the tightness of the long jump group and how they push themselves to be better in practice. Aside from Assani and Thomas, the group is deep with talented jumpers. 

Lishanna Ilves, a sophomore from Estonia, placed fourth in the Tyson Invitational long jump invite, and sophomore Ashely McElmurry finished eighth. With top talent from across the world competing in practice together, the group pushes each other to be the best they can be, as anybody can win the event. 

“We’re all there to support each other and keep each other working hard, especially at smaller meets where we’re really just jumping against each other,” Thomas said. “They’re incredibly talented, and to have them act like they’re not better than everyone makes it even better. They support us just as much as we support them.”

With both underclassmen having strong foundations of drive and motivation, the Nebraska record books may have more new additions in the future.