When the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track & Field Championships open Thursday, Northwest Missouri State's Ryan Cox might be the most appreciative athlete in Bradenton, Florida.
Make no mistake, the hundreds of men and women at the national meet have interesting and unique stories on their road to the final stop of trying to become a champion.
For many of them, it is their second, third or fourth appearance at the outdoor championship. Some come in with impressive credentials, ranking in the top five in their respective events.
Cox, a fifth-year senior from Omaha, Nebraska, has none of those accolades on his collegiate track resume. But Cox’s first journey to nationals is an inspiring tale filled with Hollywood twists and turns that end with a happy ending.
It took what could have been Cox’s final meet as a Bearcat for him to earn a spot in the 1,500-meter run, and even that nearly ended in disaster.
“With 450 meters to go, there was kind of a crash and pile up in the race,” Northwest Missouri State coach Scott Lorek said. “He was right behind it. He had to do a quick side step, a mini hurdle to get around the two guys who fell down. He was one stride away from disaster and sitting at home.”
Perhaps fate rewarded Cox for working through injuries, bad luck and a couple of decisions that went against him. But he made sure he didn’t trip and fall in the Dr. Keeler Invitational in Naperville, Illinois on May 13.
Instead of falling in the last-chance track meet in mid-May, Cox weaved his way to a win and his time of 3:46.51 was good enough to land him a spot at the national meet.
“Once I saw my official time of 3:46, I knew that was the time that was going to get me in,” Cox said. “I proved to everybody I was worthy of nationals. They couldn’t keep me out.”
Indeed. But for a period of time, it looked like nationals were not meant to be for Cox. He turned in his best performance of his career the first weekend in May at the MIAA Championships.
Facing one of the top distance runners in Division II in Vincent Kiprop of Missouri Southern, Cox finished first in the 1,500 with a school-record time of 3:44.7.
“It was just a blessing,” Cox said. “My sophomore year I won the 1,500 in conference, but it was a bit of a down year and the competition wasn’t too steep. I won it in 3:54 and that was the fastest anybody in the conference had run that year.
“I struggled with injuries and then three years later, to come around in 3:44 was just an unbelievable moment. As soon as I crossed the finish line, it made all the work I put in the last three years worth it. I thought of those days I hated getting up and running. It was an unbelievable feeling.”
But a good Hollywood movie needs a plot twist, and this one was like a punch in the gut for Cox. The timing system was down so the 1,500 was timed with a hand-held stopwatch.
Cox’s time was not accepted. He was back on the outside looking in.
As a sophomore, Cox missed competing at nationals by one spot.
Interestingly, when he was home for summer break after his sophomore year, Lorek received a call while he was at the national meet at Grand Valley State that there was a scratch and Cox could now run at nationals. But there was no way Cox could get from Omaha to Allendale, Michigan, and compete in five hours.
Understandably, Cox had plenty of thoughts running through his mind when he stepped to the starting line for the 1,500 in Illinois.
“I had to put my emotions to the side and focus on the task at hand,” Cox said.
He won the race.
“It is extremely exciting,” Cox said. “The national meet is the one big meets that DII celebrates. DII doesn’t get a lot of attention, especially on the track side. It is just exciting to be competing with a bunch of athletes who are all capable of competing at the Division I level.
“I find it extremely interesting to race against people with a lot of ability because those are the ones with the most stories to give. I never had a bad experience running in track meets. Everybody is glad to be on the track and competing. It is a real fun environment to be in.”
The national meet will cap five wonderful years for Cox as a student-athlete. He received his Bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2016 and plans to attain his Master’s degree at the end of this summer in public accounting and corporate finance. Cox has routinely made the MIAA All-Academic honor roll.
“I found that when my school work is going well, I have less stress in practice,” Cox said. “I don’t have to worry about it as much. It is easier to give your sport everything you have once you have given everything you have in the classroom.”
On the track and in cross country, Cox has enjoyed training with teammates and have been inspired by them. He ran out of eligibility in cross country last fall, but was thrilled when the men’s team qualified for nationals.
“Those guys definitely lit a fire in me,” Cox said. “The amount of commitment they put in shows how much it takes. I knew I had to step up my game if I wanted to a part of it.
“Track is one of those special sports that you can’t do it alone. I can’t stress how much harder a 10 or 12-mile run is when you are doing it by yourself versus doing it with teammates. It makes a world of difference having teammates next to you on the track in really tough workouts.”
Lorek is ecstatic to see all the hard work Cox put in pay off with a trip to nationals.
“He has been a fantastic competitor throughout his whole career,” Lorek said. “He didn’t need any extra motivation. What he did last weekend (May 13) is pretty reflective of what he has done his whole collegiate career.”