24: Hawkeye Hurdler Varner remains hungry

Sept. 23, 2007

Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 2, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2007-08 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.

IOWA CITY — University of Iowa track star Ray Varner doesn’t hesitate when it comes to clearing barriers and accomplishing goals.

Sailing over physical barriers is a way of life for a hurdler. Accomplishing goals takes hard work and discipline. Varner made it look relatively easy during his freshman season of 2006, placing third in the Big Ten Championships in the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 50.99 seconds and qualifying for the NCAA Championships.

“Not everyone can do the hurdles,” Varner said. “A lot of people can run the 100, 200 and 400 (dashes), but a lot of them can’t do it with barriers in the way. I’m starting to learn now that it’s a lot of technique. My strength is there.”

Varner selected the UI because of its strong academic reputation. Since he was interested in business, Varner was immediately awed by the John Pappajon Entreprenerial Center. His family felt an immediate, comfortable bond with Hawkeye Head Coach Larry Wieczorek.

“If someone told me that there was another Ray Varner out there, I would sign him site unseen,” Wieczorek said. “Ray’s a hard-working student and a dedicated athlete. He’s everything I look for in a student-athlete. On the track he’s a terrific competitor.”

Varner was interested in emphasizing the word student in student-athlete.

“Academically, the University of Iowa was a great choice for me,” Varner said. “The coaches care about you as a student, too. Coach Wiz told my parents that he was going to take care of me. It doesn’t hurt to have one of the best 400 hurdler runners as your coach, either.”

The 400 hurdle extraordinaire is Joey Woody, who begins his second season as an assistant at Iowa, with his primary concentration with the sprint and hurdle groups. Woody was a four-time All-American at Northern Iowa, the 1997 NCAA champion in the 400 hurdles and a silver medalist at the 2003 World Championships.

“We had high expectations for Ray,” Woody said. “I was impressed with how he handled the training and competition at the Division I level. He really learned how to compete.”

“If someone told me that there was another Ray Varner out there, I would sign him site unseen. Ray’s a hard-working student and a dedicated athlete. He’s everything I look for in a student-athlete. On the track he’s a terrific competitor.”
UI Head Coach Larry Wieczorek

Varner grew up in Gurnee, Ill., and graduated from Warren Township in Wadsworth, Ill., in 2006. He was a Nike All-American in 2006, placing fifth in the 400 hurdles. At the Illinois High School state meet as a senior, Varner won the 300 hurdles and placed second in the 110 hurdles. He was a three-year honor roll student and also lettered twice in football.

Once at the UI, Varner saw his 400 dash times decrease by nearly two seconds during the indoor season. Both Woody and Varner knew what that could mean for his personal best in the 400 hurdles. His time of 53.16 set as a high school competitor at Nike Nationals was a distant memory once he slipped into a black and gold speed suit. Varner was clocked in 52.93 at the NCAA regional, 52.73 at the LSU Relays, 52.67 at the John Jacobs Invitational, 51.63 at the Musco Twilight Invitational, 51.46 at the Drake Relays and then 50.99 at the Big Ten Championships. Varner earned all-region accolades by placing ninth in the 400 hurdles. He was runner-up at the LSU and Musco events and was the top freshman qualifier in the 400 hurdles at the NCAA Championships.

“Ray was able to put things together with hard work and the right training,” Woody said. “He had a personal best in one of his running events every week of the season. When you see that type of improvement, you know he is working hard.”

Although Varner ran 8.73 in the 60 hurdles, the bulk of his indoor season was spent in the 200, 400 and 600 dashes. He blazed to season-best times of 22.26 in the 200, 48.14 in the 400 and 1:22.24 in the 600. He was ninth at the conference indoor meet in the 400. For Varner, the outdoor season wasn’t spent entirely as a hurdler. He also ran the third leg on the Hawkeye’s 4×400 relay team that placed sixth in the Big Ten with a time of 3:08.97.

Qualifying for nationals seemed like an impossible dream come true for Varner, but he said that his mother predicted the feat long ago.

“It surprised me a little bit, but my mom said that I’d be here,” Varner said. “I made it somehow, with a lot of hard work and a lot of practicing. I just always wanted to be like Coach Woody. It was nice being able to practice every day with a professional athlete.”

The NCAA preliminaries in Sacramento, Calif., is something Varner will never forget. Although he was disappointed in his time of 53.27, he called that experience a learning situation and a building point.

“I was a scared freshman,” Varner said. “It was nerve-wrecking, but it has made me hungrier. Now I can see myself in the finals in the future.”

Last season Iowa finished seventh in both the Big Ten indoor and outdoor championships. Varner was joined at the national level by teammates Adam Hamilton (hammer throw), Shane Maier (shot put) and Micah VanDenend (5,000 meters).

Woody said that his prize pupil needs to remain focused and humble. And of course continue to work hard.

“He has to approach this year with hard work and focus,” Woody said. “He has to have that same drive. This is a whole new year and there will be new athletes to compete against. His goal is to be an All-American and he definitely has the ability to do that. That’s my goal for him as well.”

And then there is the question on everyone’s mind. When will Varner beat Coach Woody in the 400 hurdles?

“All my teammates are asking about that,” Varner said. “I don’t want to beat him, but if it happens, it happens. Coach was an All-American as a sophomore and I’m hoping I can do the same as him.”

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