DES MOINES, Iowa – Nobody expected this four years ago. Not Andy Bayer’s father, Robert. Not even Andy himself.
Throughout high school he was regarded as a solid, though not spectacular distance runner. He didn’t receive any Division I scholarship offers. Robert Bayer even encouraged him to look at Division II programs. But Andy was convinced Indiana could make him a better runner.
“If you pull it off, I guess it’s OK,” Robert said at the time, concerned his son might be overwhelmed by the competition.
Instead Robert’s the one who was overwhelmed on Saturday, patting his chest and trying to calm his nerves after watching what his son pulled off at Drake Stadium in the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. Trailing BYU’s Miles Batty coming into the final straightaway of the 1,500-meter championship race, Andy steadily closed on the five-time All-American until they reached a dead heat at the finish line. Both dove across the line going after the win.
Andy laid out one-hundredth of a second quicker, winning his first national championship in a photo finish at 3:39.95, completing his remarkable rise.
“I came in confident and felt good,” Bayer said. “Coming into the weekend I thought I had a chance and thought I could do it. I just tried to put myself in position to do that.”
Andy spent years working to put himself in that position.
He played soccer and wrestled in addition to track and cross country in high school, but as a 94-pound freshman he was hardly imposing.
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Robert tried encouraging Andy to look at smaller programs, where the competition would be less intense. Andy insisted on Indiana.
“He said, ‘They’re a bunch of great distance runners, and they’ll make me better,’” Robert Bayer said. “As it turns out, he knows a heck of a lot more than we do.”
He gave up nine pounds to his wrestling opponents in the 103-pound weight class, and older players had their way with him on the soccer field. He even had baby teeth until he was a sophomore — an orthodontist finally had to remove them, Robert Bayer said.
Andy dropped wrestling and soccer before his junior year at Leo High School, and concentrated on running. But a broken kneecap suffered while playing soccer in the eighth grade lingered, causing him to run with a limp until midway through high school. As the injury healed his times improved, but they were never sensational. He ran a 4:12 in the mile and 9:32 in the 3,200 as a senior. Neither time grabbed the attention of college coaches. Indiana and Purdue were willing to let him walk on, but nobody was coming after Andy.
But even Andy admits he wouldn’t have predicted these results.
He finished 39th in the NCAA Cross Country Championships last fall — one spot inside the All-America cutoff at the top-40 runners — which set up a breakout spring. And that’s when Andy truly started amazing even those who know him well.
When the Hoosiers won their first Big Ten Indoor Track and Field championship since 1992, it was Andy leading the way at the February meet with 26 of Indiana’s 104 points and wins in the mile and 3,000 meters. But it’s his finish in the 1,500 meters on Saturday — in his first appearance at the NCAA outdoor championships — that may have provided the prevailing image of his career.
Andy entered the race with the second-best time in the preliminaries, yet still under the radar alongside All-Americans Batty and North Carolina State’s Ryan Hill. And he stayed under the radar for most of the race, lingering just behind the leaders until coming out of the final turn. Then Andy snuck up behind Batty with a powerful kick and pulled even for the final few steps before both lunged over the line and fell to the track.
“It took everything I had,” Andy Bayer said, who excused himself from post-race interviews three times to find a trash can. “I was set up with 200 meters to go and I was like, ‘I’m not going to let this go. I’m going to fight to the end.’”
He didn’t stay down for long. As soon as Andy was announced as the winner — Indiana’s first outdoor national champion in a running event since 1993 — he popped up off the track and pumped his fist victoriously.
“Wouldn’t have thought about this four years ago,” Andy Bayer said.