Florida's 4x400 relay team eclipses record in front of previous record holder
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As the final leg unfolded, Michelle Freeman stood and directed her gaze at the finish the way she had more than 20 years ago.
On that June 1992 day at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, Freeman ran the second leg of the Florida women's 4x400 relay team that set a school record on the way to winning a national title in Austin, Texas. When the race was over, Freeman rushed to join teammates Nekita Beasley, Anita Howard and Kim Mitchell to celebrate their record-breaking performance.
The Gators narrowly missed out on the overall team title to LSU, but that record meant something to Freeman and her relay partners. It was a record that Freeman, now an assistant track coach at Texas, figured would stand a while.
She was right.
"With the kind of team we had at that time, it didn't surprise me,'' Freeman said. "Just thinking about the team that we had, we had a wild team. We set some records that are still there."
Ironically, like she did more than 20 years ago, Freeman stood and directed her gaze toward the finish line when the record finally fell on April 6. Freeman happened to be at Percy Beard Track for the Pepsi Florida Relays with the Longhorns.
"We're kind of the team that everyone wants to beat,'' said Gators junior Ebony Eutsey, who is ready to return to the track this weekend at the Tom Jones Memorial Classic. "It's like every time we step out there on the track, it needs to be our greatest effort. I think that's pretty clear with all of us."
Florida's mile relay team of Robin Reynolds, Lanie Whittaker, Destinee Gause and Eutsey was better than it had ever been that day.
The Gators won the race, posted a national collegiate season-best and set a school record with a time of 3:27.43, eclipsing Florida's '92 squad that set a then-national collegiate record nearly 21 years ago at 3:27.53.
When Eutsey crossed the finish line, Freeman quickly realized what had happened when she saw the time flash on the scoreboard.
"It is a long time,'' Freeman said, about how long the '92 team's record stood. "That race was putting the butter on the bread for us. It was a big deal for us. Going into the mile relay we knew that the national championship was no longer [possible] for us. We made a pact for ourselves that we don't care what the decision is, or what the situation is, we are going to walk away with that mile relay."
Gators coach Mike Holloway, track coach at Buchholz High when Freeman's team set the record, said after the Florida Relays that it was a record "people thought was unbreakable."
While Freeman will always consider the '92 Gators one of the best college relays in history, don't mistake her appreciation of the past for resentment. She was pleased to see the record fall in person, an unexpected bonus to this rewrite of UF's record book.
Whittaker said she knew little about the record's history prior to running the second leg in the race, but she is aware of the significance of the Gators' performance after a crash course.
"That's the new record. That's the new record,'' Whittaker heard Holloway shouting.
The Gators' 4x400 relay team is a young squad with a pair of freshmen in Reynolds (first leg) and Gause (third leg). While they showed signs of potential greatness during the indoor season, Kyra Jefferson's injury moved Reynolds into the lineup heading into the outdoor season.
Reynolds fit in well enough that the Gators could tell they were starting to peak before the Florida Relays.
"We didn't know that we were going to break the record, but we knew that we were really close to breaking it at Texas,'' Eutsey said. "And we knew Texas was coming back for Florida Relays. We knew it was going to be a fast relay, but we didn't think we were going to break the record."
Whittaker ran a solid second leg to set up Gause for the third leg and then Eutsey closed out in strong fashion.
"Once we put everything together, magic just happened,'' Whittaker said. "Coach Holloway breeds 400 runners. Once Robin got here, we knew we had the talent to have a great relay. Once she got healthy, we just took off from there."
The group impressed Freeman during the indoor season and again at the Texas Relays three weeks ago. In some ways, these Gators remind Freeman of those Gators.
"We had as a team great chemistry,'' Freeman said of the '92 squad. "I knew [this Florida team] was capable of doing something great. Watching that team during the indoor season, I knew they were something special."
Whittaker would like to see this record stand as long as the last one.
"We just have to continue to be humble,'' Whittaker said. "Our goal is to increase it. We're not going to just take that and get cocky. Yes, we have the school record, but we want to increase that. Stay humble. When you are humble, you go further in life."