May 4, 2016
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- 24 Hawkeyes to Watch
Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Wednesday, July 29, 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 2015-16 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.
By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Anyone who has competed at the Drake Relays knows the significance of the flag presented to an event champion. It is a symbol of triumph, an all-access pass to a victory lap around the blue oval, complete with high-fives and the occasional autograph request. But many — if not most — competitors at America’s Athletic Classic feel the frustration of coming in second, third, or any position that isn’t flag-worthy.
University of Iowa junior Mahnee Watts entered the 2016 Drake Relays 0-for-15 in her quest for a Drake flag, including four seasons as a member of the Bettendorf (Iowa) High School track team. Her string of near misses ended April 29 when she won the university/college women’s 800-meter run in 2-minutes, 07.93-seconds.
“It is my first flag ever, so this is a big deal for me,” Watts said.
She didn’t stop there.
On April 30, Watts ran the 800-meter anchor on the university women’s sprint medley relay that the Hawkeyes won in 3:52.62. Putting Watts in the lead after two laps were senior Lake Kwaza (200 meters), junior Elexis Guster (200), and senior MonTayla Holder (400). It marked the 19th and 20th Drake Relays titles for the Hawkeye women’s track & field program.
“She was put in a couple different situations and figured out how to be a winner regardless of the circumstances,” said UI assistant coach Jason Wakenight. “She was boxed in during the open 800 and had to be patient. That race was a great experience for her to know in tight quarters she can find a way to win.
“She got the baton in the lead (in the sprint medley) and had to make sure she held off some good competition. Her ability and fitness has been there, but her maturity as an athlete and understanding how to distribute her energy and how to win races in a variety of ways is exciting to see.”
Prior to her victory April 29, the last time Watts competed at Drake Stadium was April 11, 2015, at the Jim Duncan Invitational. She finished 12th in the 800 run in 2:19.46 and tabled the rest of her season with a stress reaction in her lower back.
Watts switched coaches in the offseason and Wakenight worked with her to develop more speed in the winter. She has progressed to where Wakenight can prescribe more challenging workouts every week.
Watts heads to the Big Ten Conference Championships from May 13-15 ranked seventh in the 800 meters with a personal best of 2:07.41. It is a jumbled conference field: the fourth-fastest time is 2:07.17 and the 12th-fastest time is 2:07.90. Watts sits 28th in the West Region.
Ironically, her biggest breakthrough this season came in defeat. On the night Watts set a season PR at Musco Twilight XVII in Iowa City, she finished second to Northern Iowa junior Brette Correy, who ran 2:06.85.
“The Musco race was everything for me because it taught me to be brave. I didn’t win the race like I wanted, but my time was good and it taught me to go out and attack. We wouldn’t have run a good time unless someone took it out and attacked the race, so I’m happy I’m able to be aggressive and run strong.”
“The Musco race was everything for me because it taught me to be brave,” Watts said. “I didn’t win the race like I wanted, but my time was good and it taught me to go out and attack. We wouldn’t have run a good time unless someone took it out and attacked the race, so I’m happy I’m able to be aggressive and run strong.”
Watts said she would prefer to employ a bold strategy and finish runner-up than to be victorious with a slower time.
That new-found attack mode served Watts well in her next outing at the Drake Relays. After coming through the opening 400 meters in 65.2 seconds, Watts closed in 62.7 and won by 0.63. Correy, the Musco champion, was sixth in 2:09.44.
Watts’ pre-race plan called for a 63-second first lap, but when the pace crawled along, she improvised and delivered a powerful, winning kick.
“I knew if I got out and I stayed controlled the first lap, I would be fine,” Watts said. “I know I can at least run 60 seconds for the first lap. We were slow the first lap, so I knew I was in good position to fight the rest of the race.
“Going into the last 300 meters we started to separate and I got boxed in by four girls, so I had to stay composed because I know I have a good kick. I knew if I stayed with the front girls I could kick the last 100.”
She kicked herself through the finish and to the desired flag.
Watts, who turns 21-years-old on May 19, placed seventh at the 2016 Big Ten Indoor Championships in the 600-meter run (1:30.41 in preliminaries). Wakenight says her goal during the outdoor season should be to finish higher than seventh in the 800.
“She’s on her way and there are still other levels to reach, but this is getting that momentum going in the right direction,” Wakenight said.
There should be plenty of races left for Watts, even after the Big Ten Championships. The NCAA West Preliminary Round is May 26-28 in Lawrence, Kansas, and the NCAA Outdoor Championships is June 8-11 in Eugene, Oregon.
If Watts cuts a few seconds off her 800 time, then the U.S. Olympic Team Trials from July 1-10 could also be on the agenda.
“If she is able to capitalize on the training we have had over the last month, those objectives will be attainable for her,” Wakenight said.