May 25, 2010
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IOWA CITY, Iowa — Ray Varner worked his entire college career for a diploma and a Big Ten Conference gold medal. He earned both the weekend of May 15-16, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in health and sports studies and placing first in the 400-meter hurdles.
Now Varner and 33 other University of Iowa track and field student-athletes are preparing for the NCAA West Region Preliminary on May 27-29 at Mike A. Myers Stadium in Austin, Texas.
The commencement ceremony for Varner was May 15 in Iowa City and the finals of the 400 hurdles was May 16 in Bloomington, Ind. He couldn’t be both places, so hurdling for gold took precedence over walking across a stage.
“I’d rather be wearing a gold medal than a cap and gown, to be honest with you,” Varner said with a smile.
He means no disrespect toward the academic side of being a student-athlete. In fact, one of his remaining goals is to be named academic All-American.
“It takes both academics and athletic skills,” Varner said. “I really focused on school this year and getting my grades up. I was 3.3 the first semester; to get academic All-American you have to be All-American on the track as well. That’s a goal I really want to accomplish.”
“There are a lot of people that walk in that cap and gown for that day, but to go up on the victory stand in the Big Ten meet separates you from the crowd — and he’s got the degree,” UI head coach Larry Wieczorek said.
One of the main obstacles in Varner’s career was the finals of the conference championship. A four-time regional qualifier in the 400 hurdles, he exorcised three years of dissatisfaction at the Big Ten meet by winning the event on his fourth and final attempt. Varner was sixth as a freshman (50.99), eighth as a sophomore (65.70 after a fall on the last hurdle) and third as a junior (51.16).
“I was nervous all weekend that he would get that win, so it’s very important to go out that way,” Wieczorek said. “I tell people that between first and second, it’s more than a place. Between second and third and third and fourth, it’s one place, but to actually be the champ is more than a place. This is a wonderful exclamation point for Ray Varner on a wonderful career at the University of Iowa.”
Varner opened the preliminaries May 15 by winning the first heat in 51.69 seconds — the fastest qualifying time from any of the 20 competitors. He won the finals with a clocking of 50.61, .027 ahead of runner-up Elon Simms of Ohio State.
“I was excited I got over that last hurdle thinking about my sophomore year when I hit the hurdle and fell,” Varner said. “I was thinking about just clearing that last hurdle and finishing strong. There was so much pressure; it feels like a gorilla is lifted off my back. There’s no more pressure because I finally got that title. At regionals or nationals I’m still coming in as an underdog, so I can just go out and have fun.”
The 2010 Big Ten Championships was held on the E.C. “Billy” Hayes Track, and the facility record was set in 1997 by Joey Woody (48.59), who is in his fourth season as a Hawkeye assistant. One of Woody’s areas of concentration as a coach is the hurdle events.
“Ray has been one of the best 400 hurdlers since he was a freshman and he just had a couple mishaps and had not been a Big Ten champion in the past,” Woody said. “He was the one guy that I wanted to win so badly. He has been a great character-athlete for us and a great leader and he’s probably one of the guys that represent our program the best.”
Varner is one of three Hawkeyes to capture conference gold: the others are junior Steven Willey in the 400-meter dash and freshman Matt Byers in the javelin. That gives Wieczorek 38 Big Ten outdoor track and field champions in 23 seasons, and Varner, Willey and Byers now join an exclusive group of Big Ten champions — a list that also includes Wieczorek and UI throws coach Scott Cappos.
“I’m very proud of the fact that I’m a Big Ten champion and it’s a brand that people know around the country for sure, maybe the world,” Wieczorek said. “To say that you’re a Big Ten champion is something terrific. Scott Cappos is a Big Ten champion (1990-91 shot put), I’m a Big Ten champion (1968 three-mile run). We’re certainly proud of that in our careers and now we have another fraternity brother.”
“It’s now starting to hit me,” Varner said. “I was riding my moped and a car stops by me and says, `Good job on your Big Ten title, Ray.’ It’s now starting to hit me that there’s only a handful of Big Ten champions, so it’s a big honor.”
The next stop is the NCAA West Region Preliminary. Varner will be the first Hawkeye to perform at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday.
“It will be exciting to get things started and be the first guy for the team to get out there and get everyone else hyped up,” Varner said.
“He’s better this year,” Wieczorek said. “He’s technically better and he’s stronger. To get in the final and score points and be an All-American would be something that’s within his reach right now.”
Last season at the NCAA Championships in Fayetteville, Ark., Varner advanced out of the first round with a time of 50.81 and qualified for the national semifinals.
“Our No. 1 goal is to get to the NCAA finals in Eugene, Ore.,” Woody said. “When we get down to Austin, it’s taking one race at a time and getting through that first round, getting in good position so he gets a good lane in the next round and then let it all hang out and just get the job done. He doesn’t have to do anything more than what he’s been doing this year. He has the ability and the talent; he’s one of the top 10 400 hurdlers in the country, so he definitely has a shot to be an All-American.”
Varner will be in lane six of the sixth heat Thursday. His entry time is second-fastest in the section behind USC freshman Reggie Wyatt (49.97).