Champs at the close: 4x400m relay seals women’s track and field national championship
Every athlete dreams of being just one breath away from a championship, of feeling the sensation as they cross the finish line, and hard work instantaneously transforms into sweet victory. For senior Daisy Ogede and the rest of the women’s track and field team, that moment arrived March 11.
On that Saturday at North Central College in Naperville, Ill., the Bears entered the final indoor race of the season with 36 points, just 5.25 behind Ithaca College’s 41.25. With Ithaca not participating in the finale, the Red and Green’s objective was simple. The 4×400 relay team—seniors Rebecca Ridderhoff, Kelli Hancock, Ashley Knudson and Ogede—needed at least a third-place finish to secure the decisive six points and the national championship.
“I had no idea,” Ogede said.
That was by design. Ogede hadn’t watched junior Alison Lindsay’s 3K, the penultimate event, so she didn’t know how many points Wash. U. trailed by. And she didn’t want to.
“I just really wanted to run my best race,” Ogede said. “We’re a very strong team, and I just wanted to run, just wanted to compete [and] not really think about points, and if things fell the way that it did, awesome. If it didn’t, we put our best effort.”
The Bears’ coaching staff wouldn’t have had it any other way. While head coach Jeff Stiles and company stood on the sidelines, knowing his crew needed to make the podium to seal the deal, he didn’t let those thoughts infiltrate his players’ minds.
“[Assistant] coach [Lane] Lohr did a really good job of either A, not letting them find out or B, not letting them think about it,” Stiles said. “He had them fired up and ready to run their hearts out and not try and get too cute and think about that, but just go out there and lay it on the line.”
Stiles knew Ogede and Ridderhoff were running on fumes, but he wasn’t about to let them get mentally exhausted, either. He wanted them to approach the finish with the same ferocity as at the start—with all they had.
“Daisy and Rebecca were running their seventh and eighth races, so [the race] was going to hurt, no matter what they did, because they were so exhausted,” Stiles said. “Any thought in their mind of, ‘Oh, I don’t have to go all out,’…was the wrong mentality. They had to go out and run their guts out.”
Given that most contestants only participate in one or two events at the national level — that kind of volume certainly had to take a toll on Ogede and Ridderhoff. But, according to Ogede, Wash. U.’s training prepares them for exactly that situation, so that they can continue to operate at peak performance despite the stress on their bodies.
“There’s definitely fatigue,” Ogede said. “I’m human; I’m not a robot, so I can’t say there’s no fatigue. I just think for me, and I’m pretty sure Rebecca would say this as well, the great thing about our coaching staff and our team in general is that we train very hard. And not just hard, we train very smart and efficiently and strategically.”
In Ridderhoff’s case, it was more than just fatigue she had to overcome. As Ogede found out after the meet, Ridderhoff had banged up her knee earlier in the 60m hudles, but pushed through the pain while taking an anti-inflammatory.
“Rebecca is a soldier,” Ogede said. “She’s so strong, and the funny part about it is I had no idea that she banged her knee. That also shows that she understood the bigger picture. She understood that in order for everyone to perform their best, that she had to probably make the decision not to publicly articulate that. It shows how selfless she is.”
Ogede, the anchor, or final runner in the 4x400m, had no time to process her own tiredness upon crossing the finish line.
“I sat down, and one of the officials came up to me and was like, ‘I think you guys won the race,’” Ogede said. “And I’m like, ‘Excuse me, sir, what do you mean?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, you guys were five points under, and you guys got second, so you guys won the meet.’ And I remember I went from tired to super excited.”
From there, the celebration began. For the team that clinched the championship, it was the realization of a four-year dream.
“First thing that I did was I went up to Kelli, Ashley and Rebecca and…it was just this special moment,” Ogede said. “We were just hugging each other because we realized all four of us are seniors, and for us to end our last indoor season in that way was really special. And I don’t cry a lot, so for me to cry was a very special moment.”
For everyone else involved, it was much of the same—a surreal moment captured together.
“We just went around hugging each other,” Stiles said. “Our fans were deafening. It was really, really cool.”
Additional reporting by Aaron Brezel
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the team needed 5.25, not 5.5 points to catch up to Ithaca College.