Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles that looks back at some of the all-time great track and field athletes in southwest Kansas. The 100th KSHSAA Track and Field Championships began today at Cessna Stadium in Wichita.
By BRETT MARSHALL
If it had not been for a hamstring injury near the end of his junior track season, Wichita County standout Levi Gillen might not have enjoyed his senior season that followed.
Gillen was in the midst of establishing himself as the preeminent sprinter in western Kansas and also throughout the state when he captured the Class 2A 400-meter dash his freshman year, then brought home a carload of gold his sophomore season with victories in the 100, 200 and 400 and a runner-up finish in the long jump.
Primed for another run at perhaps four golds his junior year, Gillen suffered a near-season ending hamstring pull at the Hi-Plains League track meet just two weeks before the 1992 state track meet in Wichita.
"I was running the 100 and the hamstring just went out on me," said Gillen, who is a mechanical engineer for Black and Veatch Architectural firm in Kansas City designing nuclear power plants. "The next week at regionals, I managed to qualify for the 400, but then withdrew from the 100 and either didn't run or qualify in the 200, so it was disappointing, to say the least."
Despite the severe leg injury, Gillen still managed a third-place medal in the 400 with a time of 50.52, just a half-second behind his freshman winning time, but well behind his sophomore gold medal win in 48.73 which set a meet record.
"It was pretty much a downer because I had never really had a serious injury," Gillen said. "But I then came to realize how in tune your body has to be to compete at a high level. Things have got to be just right with your body to be able to perform."
What resulted by the time his senior track season arrived in 1993, he was doing more stretching exercises and harder and longer warm-up sessions at both daily practices and before his races at meets.
"I don't think I'd ever broken a sweat in warming up before, but my senior season I made sure that I ran enough to break a sweat and then I knew I'd be ready," Gillen said. "The other thing that helped a lot was that we scaled back on my long jump practices so I normally just jumped once in practice and then did the meets."
Upon qualifying in his four individual events at regionals, Gillen said he knew he had an opportunity to make his final year something special.
And he did.
First, he took the long jump in Class 3A when he leaped 22-7 1/4, nearly a foot better than his second place jump his sophomore year. He would follow the gold medal with wins in the 100 (11.33), 200 (22.19) and a personal best in the 400 (48.4).
"The long jump was the most surprising of the wins," Gillen said. "I think the 400, though, was my favorite. It just seemed to be the race that I hung my hat on. It's just such a physical and mental challenge and so taxing on you, but it was the race I liked best."
While he rarely ponders his accomplishments of eight gold medals (ranking him tied for second on the KSHSAA all-time list at Wichita), he still remembers what it's like to run the 400.
"I think it was just general nerves, nothing else," Gillen said. "I just wanted to get going."
Sitting in the blocks, Gillen recalled waiting for the starter's instructions and wanted it to be quick.
"There's nothing worse than a false start or sitting in the blocks longer than you need to," Gillen said.
His victory in the 400 his freshman year set the stage for his future prep performances.
"I had a lot of great experiences and memories now to look back on," said Gillen, who plans to be in Wichita this weekend for the event's 100th anniversary. "There's nothing like it in high school that I could compare to it. The crowds are great, you see all the other great track stars in the state at the same place. It's just a great, great experience."
The Gillen Golds (8)
1990 — 400-meter dash (50.03)
1991 — 100-meters (11.12), 200-meters (22.40), 400-meters (48.73).
1993 — 100-meters (11.33), 200-meters (22.19), 400-meters (48.40), long jump (22-7 1/4).