National championship win completes No. 1 women’s track and field’s “slow climb” back to top of Division III

and | Junior Sports Editor and Managing Sports Editor

The women’s track and field team celebrates after winning the national championship. (Ryan Coleman |

In 2017, the Washington University women’s track and field team made program history, winning their first-ever national outdoor championship. Ever since, the team has been knocking on the door of another trophy: Back-to-back runners-up finishes in 2018 and 2019. A canceled season in 2020. Third-place marks in 2022 and 2023. 

In 2024, it was once again time for the Bears to break through.

Entering the meet with high expectations as the nation’s top-ranked team, the squad delivered. From May 23-25, the team tallied 71 points, beating the runners-up University of Wisconsin-La Crosse by a remarkable 23.5 points to earn their second-ever national championship. 

“In their freshman year, the team scored [two] points at nationals. So it’s been a slow climb, and coming up third outdoors last year and runner-up indoors this year and to come as close as we did indoors…I mean, they were ecstatic,” head coach Jeff Stiles said. “There’s a lot of joy and gratefulness.”

The national title is WashU’s 25th across all sports and its first in the last two years. In addition, it is the track and field program’s fourth-ever championship, following a 2017 double of indoor and outdoor titles by the women’s team and a 2022 indoor championship won by the men. 

Stiles along with assistant coach Gordon Reiter were named USTFCCCA coach and assistant coach of the year respectively as a result of the team’s success.

The Bears were led by championship performances from senior Emma Kelley, junior Yasmin Ruff, and the 4x400m relay team, with each event championship earning the team a crucial 10 points in the standings. Five other WashU athletes placed in the top three in their events. 

“Magical is the word I [would] use to describe their incredible performances,” Ruff said.

Kelley, who was named USTFCCCA national women’s track athlete of the year, was crowned national champion in both the 400m and 800m events with times of 53.76 seconds (the ninth-fastest 400m mark in Division III history) and 2:06.02. Kelley became only the third athlete in Division III history to win both events, which are separated by only 40 short minutes.

“[We wanted to] find a way to maximize her points because you don’t get an athlete as dominant like that very often, and she, being a team player, was very open to it. Obviously, after it happens, it looks like a no-brainer…but it’s really, really hard.” Stiles said. “She made it look easy, but it’s not easy. She’s just that good, that tough, and that special.”

But Kelley, who will run at the Division I level with the University of Wisconsin next year, wasn’t done there. In the 4x400m relay, the last event of the meet, the team of sophomore Kylie Spytek, graduate student Danielle Schultz, and first-year Cate Christopher set Kelley up well, trailing just three teams going into the anchor leg. Kelley, showing no signs of tired legs, quickly caught up to the leaders and pulled away to earn a first-place finish with a time of 3:44.69.

“It was just a culmination, almost like a storybook for the team. It’s one thing to win the meet, but it’s another thing to win the 4×400 while winning the meet in dramatic fashion. That just is something you can’t draw up,” Stiles said.

Kelley won six individual titles at WashU, including the indoor 800m in March, and will leave St. Louis as one of the most accomplished runners in program history. (Douglas White |

Ruff, the Bears’ other individual champion, vaulted a personal best of 4.06m in the pole vault. The Illinois native had placed first at the 2024 Outdoor University Athletic Association (UAA) Championships with a vault of 3.79m and second at this year’s indoor nationals with a vault of 3.87m, but she took her vaulting to the next level to earn her first-ever national championship. 

“Winning a national championship has been a long-time goal of mine,” Ruff said. “I have qualified for nationals six times now. The first three times, my national performances were some of the lowest marks of my season. It was discouraging to say the least. I lost a lot of confidence, and my dream of winning nationals seemed even more unattainable. So, this past weekend, clearing 4.06m and accomplishing this goal was one of the best moments of my life. All the blood, sweat and tears I put into my training finally paid off. It was a feeling I will never forget.”

Schultz, who trains alongside Kelley and senior Ally Sarussi in WashU’s elite 400/800 group, placed second in the 800m with a personal-best time of 2:08.25. Schultz’s result marks her first finals appearance and highest finish in the 800m event at the national meet. 

In her first 1,500m race on the national stage, Sarussi earned a third-place finish with a time of 4:28.74. Sarussi will be running at the Division I University of Illinois Chicago next year.

The team’s other third-place finish came from sophomore Jasmine Wright, who ran the 100m race in 11.99 seconds. Wright also competed alongside first-year Maya Davis, Spytek, and junior Lauren Gay in the 4x100m relay, which placed fourth with a time of 46.63 seconds. The team entered the meet with the top qualifying time and, despite having to make a last-minute swap, finished third to start the final day of the meet strong.

“We had to change the lineup without any practice because of injury, and Kylie Spytek, who hasn’t run it all year, without any practice went out and did an amazing job,” Stiles said. “I think that started off day three and, you know, that event could have gone bad…so I thought that was a really notable performance that got the momentum going.”

In addition to Ruff, two other field athletes earned points for the Bears. Senior Ebun Opata, who will be returning to compete for a fifth year with the Bears, placed fifth in the triple jump —  her signature event — recording a distance of 12.38m. Sophomore Jenae Bothe finished seventh in the shot put, setting a personal-best mark of 14.38m.

Peter Lichtenberger excelled in his first collegiate season for the Bears men’s team. (Sam Powers | Student Life)

The WashU men’s team had fewer athletes qualify for the national meet, and finished tied for 35th place. They earned just six points, which came from a third-place finish in the pole vault from first-year Peter Lichtenberger. Lichtenberger excelled in his first crack at outdoor nationals with a pole vault of 5.04m, while sophomore Hayden Kunkel placed 10th in the event with a vault of 4.84m.

Sophomore Loucas Xenakis placed 10th in the decathlon with a personal best of 6,645 points. The event comprises a 100m, 400m, and 1,500m run; 110m hurdles; long jump; triple jump; high jump; pole vault; discus; shot put; and javelin. Xenakis’ best performances came in the pole vault and javelin, where he placed second in both events with a jump of 4.50m and a throw of 54.60m. 

The women’s team’s performance marks the end of a record-breaking year for the women’s track and field program and the culmination of a journey back to the top of Division III. The team came within two points of winning the indoor championship in March, before dominating the outdoor field in Myrtle Beach this spring. Kelley, Schultz, Sarussi, senior distance runner Alexandra Blake, and others will be leaving St. Louis as program legends, but many of the team’s top performers — including Opata, Ruff, Spytek, Gay, and Christopher — will return next year and continue to build the national powerhouse that WashU women’s track and field has become. 

This article was originally published on May 26, 2024, and was updated on June 1, 2024 to include quotes from Yasmin Ruff.

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