These are golden years for GCU track and field
Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the May issue of GCU Magazine. To view the digital version of the magazine, click here.
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Ralph Freso
The most successful coach during Grand Canyon University’s transition to NCAA Division I grew up in the shadow of the campus, looks for “diamonds in the rough” and is called “Flash.”
The shiniest diamond in a group that glistens with them came all the way from Jamaica to become the most accomplished world-class athlete at GCU. Someday, she might be called an Olympic champion.
Together, they embody a team that has won the last six Western Athletic Conference championships, leading a GCU charge that also has included titles in baseball, softball and men’s and women’s tennis. At GCU, the only thing more successful than track is field.
“We’ve done fairly well,” coach Tom Flood says in typical understated fashion amid all the trophies filling his office. “We just try to win the right way with the right kids and the right purpose.”
Indeed, “Flash” is a product of humor, not hubris. Flash Flood – get it? But his record in seven years at the University, starting with a Division II national title in 2012, is worth gushing about.
So, too, are the accomplishments of Tarasue Barnett, the Jamaican who finished 16th in the discus at the 2016 Summer Olympics, the best showing by any NCAA athlete in that event. That makes it almost an afterthought that she holds the GCU record of 61.28 meters (201 feet) and has won five WAC titles.
Those feats are exceeded only by her humility. Barnett was so shocked she had made the Jamaican team for the Games, she had to keep asking her coach if it was true. It didn’t really sink in until she was competing in Rio de Janeiro in front of the biggest crowd of her career.
“Going there was one of the best feelings ever,” she says. “Actually competing against the very best athletes and realizing I had become one of them was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Getting to meet many of those athletes in the Olympic Village also was a highlight, but she quickly realized that the Jamaicans’ colorful gear wasn’t the only attraction: They all wanted to meet Usain Bolt, the famous Jamaican sprinter who has eight gold medals and holds world records in the 100 and 200 meters.
“He’s a very nice person,” Barnett says. “He told us that the first time you won’t be the best, but you eventually will get used to it and will do better.”
That Barnett finished just four spots out of the finals gives her hope that she can do much better in the World Championships this year in London and the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
She also has her sights set on another goal: winning the discus in the NCAA outdoor championships – in 2018. She and three other seniors, including star sprinter/long jumper Marcus Flannigan, are being redshirted for the outdoor season to give them a shot at the NCAAs next year, when GCU athletes will be eligible for the first time.
The mandatory four-year probation for programs transitioning from D-II to D-I, which prohibits those schools’ athletes from participating in NCAA championship events, ends this spring. That means GCU finally will have a chance to win more than the WAC, and Flood points out that Barnett was the No. 3 returning discus thrower in the country this spring – and was only inches behind the top two.
But Flannigan emphasizes that waiting for next year is not merely about individual accolades in the NCAAs. He likes the team aspect of the sport, too, and one of the attractions of that camaraderie was hearing about Barnett’s Olympic experience.
“It was interesting when I heard her side of it because I had a similar experience when I competed in the USA Indoors last year,” he says. “She’d never competed in front of so many fans. You want to perform well, but it’s nerve-wracking. A lot of things get rushed.
“She said that now that she’s had that experience, she knows the next time she goes to the Olympics she’ll have no problems with that.”
It’s indicative of the confidence Flood has tried to instill in his team. The former football and track standout from Washington High School in Phoenix started the program from scratch when he returned to his hometown from Colorado State, where he was an assistant coach, and right from the start he knew he had to try to recruit Division I talent in case the talk of moving up a level proved true.
“In the Division II days we didn’t have a conference affiliation, so I built the program for the national level,” he says. “It made recruiting a little easier.”
Being able to practice outside year-round also was a benefit, and now the momentum of all those championships is having a positive effect, too.
“Our emphasis is on those diamonds in the rough,” he says. “We know what it takes to develop Division I athletes. A lot of the people on the coaching staff were diamonds in the rough themselves.”
It already has made for many shining moments, but the best might be yet to come. One of those diamonds could win gold.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.