Tough losses were the theme of the offseason for UCLA track and field.
The end of the 2017 season saw the departure of Mike Maynard, who had served as the director of track and field for the previous five seasons.
In addition to losing Maynard, both UCLA’s men’s and women’s teams saw the losses of rising sophomore Rai Benjamin, who transferred to rival USC, and rising junior Julia Rizk, who transferred to Ohio State.
Last season, Benjamin earned UCLA’s first podium appearance since 2014 with his second-place finish in the 400-meter hurdles, and Rizk was one of three Bruin athletes representing the women’s team at the national championships.
Furthermore, there are questions surrounding the track and field team, most notably the lack of diversity in this year’s recruitment class. Of the 12 freshmen recruits, 10 are either distance runners or throwers, with the other two being a sprinter and a jumper.
Despite the changing personnel and uncertainty surrounding the team, the athletes are fully focused on the season ahead of them.
“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve missed a beat, we’re kind of taking it all in stride. It’s unfortunate that we’ve lost some good talent, but we’ve also brought some good talent in and everyone who’s here is honestly working twice as hard as we ever have,” said senior heptathlete Kendall Gustafson. “A lot of people are expecting us to have a down year, a rebuilding year, but we don’t feel that way at all. We feel that we’re right where we should be and we’re ready to go.”
Director Avery Anderson feels confident that the program can return to the golden age that he himself was a part of when he was a student-athlete attending UCLA.
“It’s still surreal,” said Anderson in an interview with Daily Bruin in early August. “It’s an awesome feeling to know that I’m able to come back and (be) charged with bringing the program back to the caliber it was when I was here as a student-athlete.”
Anderson attended UCLA from 1991 to 1995 and competed alongside many notable UCLA track stars, such as Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and won the Pac-10 championships all four years that he ran for UCLA.
When Anderson was hired, he also brought on a new ensemble of assistant coaches, including distance running coaches Devin Elizondo and Jennifer DeRego, hurdles and jumps coach Danny Williams and sprinting and relay coach Curtis Allen.
John Frazier, who coaches the throwers, is the sole returner from last year’s coaching staff.
This continuity has some of the throwers excited for the upcoming season, not only because they are continuing their training under a coach they are familiar with, but also because they are competing alongside one of the most impressive thrower recruitment classes in recent memory.
“I really like coach Frazier,” said junior thrower Kai Wong. “We had one of the best recruitment years for freshmen throwers this year because we have Alyssa Wilson, who is the high school women’s American record holder for shot put, and we have two of the top discus and shot put guys, (Bronson Osborn) being a Junior World Champion in the shot put, so I think the throwing side recovered in terms of incoming talent.”
Something that was emphasized multiple times by coaches and athletes alike was the process of familiarizing the team with its new coaching staff.
“We’re trying to bring them along slowly, get them used to what we’re doing,” Allen said. “Hopefully by the end of the season, when it comes to the Pac-12 championships, we’ll be where we need to be at.”
The shift in coaching styles has been positively received by the team.
“I think it’s been a really good transition, the culture on the team has seen a drastic change,” said Gustafson. “I think … there’s a lot of good things to look forward to this season.”
Some notable returners to the team this season are senior sprinting standout Leon Powell, as well as a trio of throwers consisting of sophomores Simon Litzel and Marian Spannowsky and redshirt junior Dotun Ogundeji.
Powell placed fifth in both the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints at the Pac-12 championships last year, while Spannowsky and sophomore thrower Simon Litzell placed fourth and fifth respectively in the javelin throw. Ogundeji competed in the shot put last season and finished in the top six in seven out of his 10 meets.
UCLA track and field will make its debut for the 2018 season at University of New Mexico’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Invitational on Jan. 19 in Albuquerque, New Mexico.