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Illinois’ track & field stars are setting the record books on fire

The Illini are rewriting all of their major records.

In recent years, the Illinois Fighting Illini men’s and women’s track & field programs have lacked consistent team success, despite the efforts of outstanding individual athletes like Olivia Howell and Stephanie Richartz.

But the times appear to be changing in that regard, and the man in charge of it all said it best in his post after the Illini Challenge on Jan. 27.

The women’s program has been particularly phenomenal during this indoor season, having ascended to a national No. 1 ranking according to the initial U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) polls. As is often the case with men’s golf, Illinois has been mostly flanked at the top of the standings by warm-weather schools, which typically excel at outdoor sports.

The Illini women have since slid down to No. 7 in the latest version of the polls, but the advantage in points that they hold over the other ranked teams is substantial. Meanwhile, the men have entered the top ten for the first time this century.

What’s behind this sudden turnaround?

The answer lies with a series of extraordinary athletes who are setting the school record books ablaze.

Perhaps most noteworthy for the women has been Memphis transfer Amber Simpson’s continually improving performances in the weight throw. She broke the previous school record at the Illini Open in January. But she didn’t stop there, since she then proceeded to break her own record three more times for good measure. Her weight throw record currently stands at 22.01m, which is also the tenth-best distance in the country this season.

A number of Simpson’s teammates have also been making headlines this season. High jumper Rose Yeboah set the new women’s school high jump record at 1.88m, while her teammate Bara Sajdakova matched the previous 25-year-old high jump record at 1.87m earlier in the year. As for the triple jump, Texas transfer Darja Sopova set the school’s new record at 13.56m, shattering the previous record of 13.46m established in 2003.

Long jumper Elizabeth Ndudi set the new facility record at the Armory during the Illini Challenge with a distance of 6.41m. The previous Armory facility record had stood since 2007.

In addition to these record breaking showings, other Illini have also put together sensational performances, including Kelsey Rothas and Mia Morello on the pole vault, who placed second and third respectively at the Meyo Invitational on Feb. 3. Asia Thomas also placed second in the 60m dash at that same event.

The men’s program has been no less star-studded during the indoor season, headlined so far by senior Aiden Ouimet’s record breaking heptathlon performance at the Illini Challenge.

In college track & field, the men’s heptathlon consists of a 60m dash, long jump, shot put, high jump, 60m hurdles, pole vault, and 1000m run. The previous Illinois heptathlon record holder, Jonathan Wells, was a seven-time All-American over the course of his Illini career, so this performance bodes well for the rest of Ouimet’s indoor season and the upcoming outdoor season.

Interestingly, despite setting the school record and posting the best score in the nation, Ouimet somehow only placed second at the Illini Challenge in the men’s heptathlon. A closer look at the results revealed that Ken Mullings, Illini assistant coach for combined events and jumps, actually participated in the heptathlon as an unattached athlete and placed first with a whopping 6,340 points. Mullings, a 26-year old native of the Bahamas, competes internationally in the decathlon and various individual events, having participated in tournaments in Estonia and Austria last summer.

World Athletics Championships Oregon22 - Day Ten
EUGENE, OREGON - JULY 24: Ken Mullings of Team Bahamas reacts after competing in the Men’s Decathlon 1500m on day ten of the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 at Hayward Field on July 24, 2022 in Eugene, Oregon.
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Aside from Ouimet’s historic outing, Tyler Suddeth also set a new men’s school record in the weight throw with a distance of 23.14m, which is also the top distance in the country thus far for men’s weight throw. Suddeth placed eighth at the NCAA Indoor Championships last season with a throw of 22.06m, so his considerable improvement should put him in serious contention for an indoor national title in March.

Illini Track & Field returns to action next weekend at the Tiger Paw Invitational hosted by the Clemson Tigers. The Big Ten Indoor Championships will be held on Feb. 23-24, followed by the NCAA Indoor Championships in Boston on March 8-9.

The Illini look to continue their winning ways during through the indoor season in preparation for their first outdoor event hosted by the Miami Hurricanes on March 15-16. Make sure to stay tuned for what should be an exciting season of Illinois track & field this spring!