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The track and field program harnessed an influx of new talent in the 2010s to produce record-breaking results.

The 2010s was a breakthrough decade for Columbia track and field. The decade saw improvements initiated to the program in the 1990s finally come to fruition, as the men’s and women’s team finished consistently better in the Ivy League than ever before.

For a sport where races are recorded down to the precision of milliseconds, success in track and field is ironically hard to quantify. Over the past decade, Columbia’s track and field program has improved its coaching staff, produced Ivy League champions, and generated record-breaking results, despite its somewhat lackluster Ivy League record.

Over the past century, improvements to the track and field program, which has been crippled by its historic weakness, have not yielded significant results. Neither the women’s team, nor the men’s team, produced an Ivy title prior to 2010. For the men’s team, that meant over a hundred years of competition without a title, and for the women’s team, over twenty-five.

The 2010s initially looked to be the decade with the potential to turn the program around. The men’s team had a competitive start to the decade, with four top-five finishes in the indoor league between 2010 and 2014. The women’s team fared even better, completing some of its highest scoring indoor and outdoor seasons to date between 2010 and 2012 and clenching its first Ivy League title.

The success of the men’s and women’s teams diverged after 2014. The men’s success plummeted, while the women’s plateaued. The men’s team sank from consistently subpar to consistently bottom of the Ivy, while the women’s team retained above average standing, but failed to secure another title.

However, it seems that the recent upset in the teams’ upward trajectory is a slight stumble rather than a permanent fall. The track and field program has sustained minor fluctuations in its success each year, but those fluctuations do not make a bad decade. Only broad trends define a decade, and the broad trend of the 2010s has been that of improvement. The Columbia track and field program has had its fair share of bad decades, but the 2010s cannot be counted as one of them.

COLUMBIA TRACK AND FIELD

Men’s NCAA Championships competitors

represents an athlete

Coach Willy Wood

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

Coach Dan Ireland

2015

The men’s

team has

only sent two athletes to the Championships under Coach Ireland.

2016

2017

2018

Women’s NCAA Championships competitors

Coach Willy Wood

2010

The women’s team won

the only Ivy League Track and Field title in this past decade for both the men’s and women’s team.

2011

2012

2013

2014

Coach Dan Ireland

2015

2016

2017

2018

NATALIE GUERRA / GRAPHICS REPORTER

Source: Columbia University Athletics

COLUMBIA TRACK AND FIELD

Men’s NCAA Championships competitors

represents an athlete

Coach Willy Wood

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

Coach Dan Ireland

2015

2016

2017

2018

The men’s team has only sent two athletes to the Championships under Coach Ireland.

Women’s NCAA Championships competitors

Coach Willy Wood

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

The women’s team won the only Ivy League Track and Field

title this past decade for both the men’s and women’s team.

Coach Dan Ireland

2015

2016

2017

2018

Source: Columbia University Athletics

NATALIE GUERRA / GRAPHICS REPORTER

TRACK AND FIELD

Men’s NCAA

Championships competitors

represents an athlete

Coach Willy Wood

’10

’11

’12

’13

’14

Coach Dan Ireland

’16

’18

’15

’17

The men’s team has only sent

two athletes to the Championships

under Coach Ireland.

Women’s NCAA

Championships competitors

Coach Willy Wood

’11

’13

’10

’12

’14

The women’s team won the only Ivy League

Track and Field title this past decade for

both the men’s and women’s team.

Coach Dan Ireland

’15

’16

’17

’18

Source: Columbia University Athletics

NATALIE GUERRA /

GRAPHICS REPORTER

A transition in coaching staff: the head coach changes, but league standings continue to steadily improve

Track and field in the 2010s started off as a continuation of the previous decade in coach and coaching goals. The team began the decade under Willy Wood, director of cross country and track and field since 1994.

Wood coached the track and field program through a transition from its struggling start to its now competitive streak and noted how the program changed under his leadership.

"I wouldn’t say that the team was non-existent,” Wood said in a 1998 interview with Spectator, “But I would say that I think track and field has progressed from almost a club sport atmosphere to a full Division I program.”

Wood’s success in overhauling Columbia’s track and field and cross country programs materialized: his teams won eight Ivy League titles. Seven of those titles belong to cross country wins. The remaining title—the woman’s track and field win in 2012—is the track and field program’s one and only Ivy title to date.

However, halfway into the decade, the track and field program underwent its first transition in coaching staff in over 20 years. Wood mysteriously resigned in June of 2014, and the current director of cross country and track and field, Daniel Ireland, promptly took his place.

Ireland has continued the improvements to the cross country and track and field programs initiated by his predecessor. Like Wood, he has ushered in cross country conference success, including one Ivy title.

In addition, the women’s track and field program has grown tremendously under Ireland, with competitive shots at the Ivy title from 2014 onward. Ireland even won Ivy League Coach of the Year in 2014, his first season coaching, for his work with the women’s indoor track & field team.

Ireland’s improvement to the men’s programs have been less impressive. From 2015 to 2018, the team put on a meager showing, landing last or second to last place in the league every year.

Only in the past year have improvements to the men’s team shone through. In 2019, the men’s team scored the most points at indoor and outdoor Ivy League Heptagonals in program history, but still finished only in fourth place in both.

Ireland and Wood are undoubtedly responsible for track and field’s recent growth. Ten of the eleven cross country titles and the only ever track and field title were secured under Ireland or Wood. Previous coaches only managed to muster one Ivy title in 77 years.

In addition, Ireland and Wood have overseen practically all the athletes the program has sent to the NCAA Division I Championships. The overwhelming majority of the athletes that have represented Columbia at the NCAA championships were coached by Ireland or Wood.

Distinguishing between the growth cultivated by Wood and Ireland is a messier endeavor. Going off numbers alone, Wood appears to be the better coach. Wood secured more Ivy titles than Ireland, with eight total Ivy titles in twenty years, including one track and field title, compared with Ireland’s three.

However, it is impossible to measure the success of the two coaches by numbers alone. Factors other than sheer coaching skill influenced their coaching ability. The two coaches stepped into their roles in very different contexts. Wood began coaching the program at one of its lowest points, while Ireland entered the scene when perhaps much of the hard work in program development had already been accomplished. In addition, Wood had much more time to transform the program and produce favorable results. He coached for 20 years. Ireland has only coached for six.

While it might not be possible to pinpoint exactly who is responsible for the track and field program’s improvement, it is clear that the program is, in any case, improving. Furthermore, the women’s impressive record over the past decade, and the men’s energetic run the past year are promising indicators that the track and field program growth is anything but slowing.

A past star: Kyle Merber’s running career at Columbia and his continued influence

The early 2010s were the golden years of track and field talent at Columbia. Between 2010 and 2012, the Columbia track and field program produced some of its best athletes of all time. Perhaps the best-known track and field talent of the early 2010s is Kyler Merber, CC ’12.

Merber made several lasting marks on the track and field program during his four years at Columbia. Despite the loss of his junior year to a ligament injury, he competed five times at the NCAA National Championship: once in cross country, once in indoor track and field, and twice in outdoor track and field. He still holds the school record for the indoor mile and the 1,500 m.

Despite Merber’s long list of running accomplishments, he is best known for a single run. During his sophomore year in 2010, Merber ran a 3:58.52 mile in the Columbia Last Chance meet at the Armory. The run made Merber a household name in Columbia running—he broke the previous Columbia mile record set by Liam Boylan-Pett, CC ’08, by a long shot—and established him as a significant running force in the Ivy League and on the national stage. Merber’s mile time broke the standing Ivy record and assumed a temporary slot as seventh fastest in the nation.

Merber’s second record-breaking run is perhaps more impressive than his first. In 2012, at the Swarthmore Last Chance Meet, Merber ran a 1,500 m time that broke Columbia, Ivy, and collegiate records. With a clocked time of 3:35.59, he ran the second fastest 1,500 m time of the year in the country, the fastest time by a collegiate American ever, and the second fastest collegiate time ever. His 1,500 m time was the 15th fastest in the world that year for runners of all levels.

As is customary in track and field, many of Merber’s records were soon vanquished. A Dartmouth runner replaced Merber as Ivy mile record holder in 2014. Merber’s mile time now sits fourth in the Ivy. Remarkably, Merber’s 1,500 m time is still the best in the Ivies.

Regardless of the future status of his records, Merber’s legacy at Columbia will not decay. Merber changed Columbia’s track and field program, legitimizing it and inspiring future runners with his success. According to previous head coach Willy Wood back in 2013, he put the Columbia track and field program on the map.

“It’s just allowed us to reach new heights [and accomplish what] we never really thought we were capable of achieving.”

David Brann

Present hope: field athletes for the win

Unbeknownst to most, two of Columbia’s three track and field NCAA Division I champions have been field athletes. Ben Johnson, the “Columbia Comet,” won the program’s first NCAA championship for the 220-yard dash in 1937. The other two NCAA wins have been field wins, including a win in pole vault (Ganslen, 1939) and triple jump (Shaw, 1952).

Recently, Columbia has done well in field events. In the early 2010s, Columbia excelled nationally at the triple jump with Nadia Eke, CC ’15, who delivered the best NCAA performances in recent Columbia track and field history, securing sixth- and third-place at the NCAA championships in the triple jump. Prior to Eke, Columbia track and field had produced only one other top-three NCAA finish in over fifty years. Eke also broke—and still holds—Columbia’s indoor and outdoor triple jump records.

Field event success continues to the present. All of Columbia’s recent wins at the Ivy League Heptagonal “Heps” Indoor Track and Field Championships were in field events. The first day of Heps, junior Jack Pihlkar broke a school record and won a title in the weight throw. The second day, senior Daniel Igbokwe and first-year Anna Jordahl-Henry brought home titles in the triple jump and high jump, respectively.

The recent success in field events reflects Ireland’s coaching strategy, who described the recent field success at Heps as being part of his overall plan.

“The goal since I got here has been to build up our field teams, and we are doing that, and if we are to win a team title in either the men or women’s sides, it will take both the track and field teams to work together to get that done.”

The field program will indeed need to step up its game in order to continue the track and field program’s course toward improvement, first chartered by Wood in the 1990s and continued by Ireland into the present. This year, the women’s team finished fifth in the indoor league, with 64.66 points overall, and the men’s team finished seventh, with 40 points overall.

Staff writer Juliet Tochterman can be contacted at juliet.tochterman@columbiaspectator.com. Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

A decade in athletics track and field Willy Wood Daniel Ireland Kyle Merber fastest Ivy League mile Nadia Eke
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