On Saturday afternoon, Ayden Owens-Delerme clutched a second place trophy, took a sharp breath and summed up how everybody in the Albuquerque Convention Center felt about what they just witnessed.
“I had a feeling it was gonna take a collegiate record to win,” the Arkansas heptathlete said, a laugh stealing another breath. “I didn’t know it’d take a collegiate record to lose.”
A bit of housekeeping first. The 2023 NCAA Division I indoor track and fields on Friday and Saturday were packed with record-breaking performances. Elite competition. Expectations were high across the board. Athletes continually delivered in every possible circumstance, taking advantage of every possible opportunity.
But there was nothing — absolutely nothing — like the men’s heptathlon.
Georgia’s Kyle Garland knew that all too well. Like Owens-Delerme, his voice fluttered and 6-foot-5, 225 pound frame shuddered as he tried to find the right words to sum up the last two days in Albuquerque.
“It exceeded the hype,” he said. “This is by far the greatest competition I’ve been a part of and probably the greatest heptathlon competition the world has seen.”
Recency bias? Maybe, maybe not: Seven of eight podium finishers cracked 6,000 or more points, with Washington’s Bruno Comin Pescador coming just eight points shy of making it a full eight at 6,000-plus.
For comparison, the IAAF World Championships in 2018 had four heptathletes over 6,000. 2016, five. 2014 this year’s meet, earlier this season, had seven as well.
NCAA record set
What they didn’t have was Garland and Owens-Delerme. Both broke Ashton Eaton’s 13-year old NCAA record, Garland finishing with 6,639 points and Owens-Delerme rallying for 6,518.
Those are the second and third best results of all-time. Garland only missed out on tying Eaton’s world record set in 2012 by just six points.
“I got him the last four times, so it’s about time for him to get a win,” Owens-Delerme laughed. “We’ll see what happens (in the NCAA outdoor meet decathlon), and I assure you I will find the top again.”
Through the 60-meter dash, long jump, shot put and high jump on Friday to the 60-meter hurdles and pole vault on Saturday, Garland was comfortably in the lead at 5,781 heading into the 1,000 meters. A time of 2:54 or faster would assure him the record and, as long as Owens-Delerme didn’t beat him by 20 seconds or more, an NCAA championship, too.
As Owens-Delerme took off way ahead of the pack to make one last push for the win, Garland stayed about five spots back and paced it out.
“I knew he was gonna go out and run really,” Garland said. “I just had to stay true to my race. I couldn’t try to chase him.”
Owens-Delerme finished first in the 1,000 at 2:33.36, the PA exploding to life as he broke the record first. Then Garland crossed at 2:41.36 before falling to the ground, racked by sobs from the emotion of the moment.
By then, it was the crowd in fits. Thinking about that moment, Garland returned to conversations he had with his manager coming into today.
“After I finished second (to Owens-Delerme) in the heptathlon (last year), I told him, ‘next year, I’m gonna get that world record’ and we just kind of joked about it,” he said. “But in the back of my head, I always knew I was capable of doing something absolutely incredible like that.”
Born on the same day
Garland and Owens-Delerme have been connected their whole lives. Both were born on May 28, 2000, Garland in a hospital outside Philadelphia and Owens-Delerme in one outside Pittsburgh.
They’ve competed against each other since they were teenagers, a friendly rivalry that’s rewritten school and collegiate record books along the way. Both Garland and Owens-Delerme know this is far from over, with many chapters to go.
“I think we’re the new face of track and field (and) the new face of the multi events,” Owens-Delerme said. “They better put respect on our event and names.”
And on Saturday afternoon, Albuquerque paid host to maybe the best chapter yet.
Who else had a great weekend?
Two athletes come to mind.
First, Jasmine Moore. The Florida jumper broke the collegiate record in the long jump (7.03 meters) on Friday before following up on Saturday to reset her triple jump record (15.12 meters).
Moore is the only woman in track and field currently jumping at this level indoors. In an emotional interview following her podium finish, she credited her coaching staff, teammates and her training this offseason.
“I was just praying that all my work would pay off and it would be seen today,” she said. “For my jumps, my series to go as well as it did today, I just can’t even believe it.”
Then, Julien Alfred. On Friday, the Texas sprinter broke her own collegiate record in the 60 meter dash prelims with a blazing 6.96, only to tie Aleia Hobbs’ second best time in world history (set in Albuquerque at the USATF Indoor Championships in February) of 6.94 in Saturday’s final.
If that wasn’t enough, Alfred broke the collegiate record in the women’s 200 – an event she’s said she isn’t particularly comfortable with – at 22.01 seconds and later muscled the Longhorns from fourth place to second in the women’s 4×400.
She said her performance in the 200 was the most surprising but the 60? That’s the one that meant the most.
“Last year, I wasn’t able to come out in the final and execute and win – even though in the prelims, I broke the collegiate record,” she said. “I’m really proud that I didn’t succumb to th pressure. I didn’t make the anxiety stick over my body. I didn’t get emotional.
“I’m really proud of that.”
In 2019, Georgia’s Matthew Boling was a viral sensation, running some of the fastest times in high school history mostly against kids “getting in shape for football.”
Running collegiately? Not quite the same.
“I remember my freshman year … going to that first Clemson meet, where I thought it was just going to be a go-have-fun meet,” he said. “But here I (was), running against the best competition I’ve run against.”
Adjusting to that level of competition took time — which meant living up to the hype took some time, too. That process is a big part of why Boling’s performance on Saturday felt like a culmination of sorts, the outcomes finally matching those expectations on one of the sport’s biggest stages.
Boling not only put up an electrifying opening leg in the men’s 4×400 (Georgia finished second at 3:03.10) but won the men’s 200 final (20.12 seconds) to set a new personal best, facility record and world lead.
How does that translate to the outdoor season later this spring?
“Good question. I’m not a math guy,” Boling laughed.
Arkansas men’s track and field team, since its last indoor national title in 2013, as head coach Chris Bucknam saw it: a lot of SEC titles, podium finishes, plenty of records and yet…
No indoor national title.
“We knew we were really good,” Arkansas men’s head coach Chris Bucknam said. “We just needed to tweak a few things.”
To Bucknam, a big part of that was getting back up to Florida’s level, the program he considers to be the “gold standard” over the last seven to eight years.
“We figured that we had to get in their wheelhouse if we were gonna beat them,” Bucknam said. “That’s what we put together and that’s what we did today.”
And so, a title drought for one of the sport’s best programs came to an end on Saturday night. Arkansas (63 points) won the 2023 NCAA Division I indoor national title, with Georgia (40 points) and Florida (34 points) finishing second and third, respectively.
Few enjoyed it more than Bucknam, who had to step away from Owens-Delerme’s 1,000-meter performance in the heptathlon to try and get a sense of what he was really watching. It wasn’t the only time he did it this weekend.
“You just try to get a vision in your head you’ll never forget,” Bucknam said. “You just try to burn it in your brain. And that’s what I was trying to do.
“I just can’t believe I’m coaching this team.”
And on the women’s side? It was Arkansas (64 points) again with the 2023 Division I women’s indoor national title. This marks the first time a school has swept both indoor team titles since Oregon did it in 2016.
Texas (60 points) and Florida (45 points) finished second and third, respectively.
How did New Mexico athletes fare?
Competing on his home turf, New Mexico’s Ethan Brouw finished 14th in the men’s 800 with a time of 1:53.90 while Jake Burkey earned a 13th place finish in the long jump with a top mark of 7.65 meters.
The Lobo women tied for 43th overall (2 points) in the women’s team title standings.
While an official NCAA attendance figure was not available, the Albuquerque Convention Center (capacity of approximately 3,000) was full for both evening sessions on Friday and Saturday.
NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships: Team and individual results