By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Sometimes the shiniest gems are in your back yard, they just require polishing.
Take Tia Saunders, for example. At Iowa City West High School, she flashed a varied skillset while participating in cross country for two years, basketball for two years, and track and field and soccer for four years.
“One of my biggest missions is to recruit the state of Iowa, to try to get the best kids and find diamonds in the rough,” said Joey Woody, University of Iowa director of track and field. “Tia fits the bill.”
Her high school results and marks were nothing flashy: 39th in the Class 4A state cross country meet as a junior and 16th as a senior. A 400 time of 60.56 seconds and a runner-up finish in the 800-meter run at the state meet as a senior (2:12.40).
“I knew she was a versatile athlete,” said Jason Wakenight, assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Iowa. “She was willing to do a variety of things and had great tools. I knew there were big things ahead for her.”
Saunders’ high school PRs were four years and four seconds ago. At the Bryan Clay Invitational in Azusa, California, last April, she ran 2:08.94 in the 800.
“Since that point, she has been on fire,” Wakenight said. “She has been better and better.”
An example would be the final 41 days of her most recent (and final) indoor season. Saunders ran a career-best 56.36 in the 400 on Jan. 18, a career-best 2:08.83 in the 800 on Feb. 15, and a career-best 1:29.83 in the 600 on Feb. 28.
“I credit the training we were doing; every year you get better,” Saunders said. “You trust your base and improve speed. There were things in training I was doing that I had never done before. We worked more on speed, so running faster than I ever have in a 400 helped with my 600 and gave me confidence.”
Saunders qualified for her first Big Ten final thanks to the PR in the 600 preliminary Feb. 28. The next day she went out strong and placed eighth (1:30.82), the first time she made it to the podium at a Big Ten Championship.
“That has been my goal for the past four years, so I was proud of myself and happy with Wake (coach Wakenight) for helping me get to where I am,” Saunders said. “It felt like the work I put in the past four years has been worth it. It made me excited for what that meant for the rest of my outdoor career.”
Saunders has one season of outdoor eligibility remaining and will use it in 2021. A human physiology major, she is enrolled in five classes through the University of Iowa as well as a physics course at a community college. Saunders has an interest in orthopedic surgery and will take the Medical College Admission Test and apply to medical schools.
Academics is a primary reason Saunders continued her education in Iowa City. She found exactly what she wanted at the University of Iowa.
“You never know what will happen,” she said. “If you have a career-ending injury, you want to make sure you pick an institution where you can get the academic piece as well.”
On multiple occasions, Saunders has been named to the Dean’s List and Academic All-Big Ten.
There have been special times on the track for Saunders as well. Being a native Iowan made winning the Hy-Vee Cup team championship at the 2019 Drake Relays special. In high school, her state meets were held at Drake Stadium in Des Moines; last April she celebrated with teammates after the Hawkeyes scored 26 points in select events at the Drake Relays, causing Woody to call it an “unprecedented weekend for the women.”
Saunders contributed to eight of those points when Iowa’s 4×800 relay unit of Grace McCabe, Taylor Arco, Saunders, and Mallory King placed second in 8:31.84. That time broke a 32-year-old school record by 15 seconds. Saunders and King (Davenport Assumption) are native Iowans.
“To be able to do that with my closest teammates at one of the biggest track meets in Iowa was special,” Saunders said.
The 2020 outdoor track and field season was wiped out March 12 when the NCAA canceled all competition through the academic year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Because of the momentum she had coming off the Big Ten Indoor Championships, Saunders expected a strong outdoor season in 2020. Now, with an extra year of training, she should be even stronger in 2021.
“The big thing for me is making another Big Ten final in the 800 and putting up points for my team,” Saunders said. “Breaking 2:06 in the 800 would be pretty great. It would be cool to qualify in an individual event for regionals, but also fight for a spot on the 4×400 relay. I think we can do great things in that event as well.”