Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of articles that will look back at some of the all-time great track and field athletes in southwest Kansas. The 100th KSHSAA Track and Field Championships begin Friday at Cessna Stadium in Wichita.
By BRETT MARSHALL
When she was 10, Jennifer (Gruver) Kirkpatrick was introduced into the world of competitive track and field.
Her teacher and mentor for most of those early years was her father, Stan, a state champion in the long jump in 1966 (21-10 in Class A).
Kirkpatrick first became intrigued with the idea of running, the Gruver family was residing on a farm 15 miles from Scott City near Manning.
In 1984, her father decided to create a own track for his daughter on which she could practice. So he took a riding mower and cut down the grass near their farm house, then measured it off to around 400-meters.
"He was my coach and taught me everything I know about track and field," Kirkpatrick said of her father. "That way, we didn't have to make the long trip into town to use the track at the school. We would go around the cut-out area and make sure holes were filled. I'm surprised I never twisted an ankle."
Some might consider it to be a lonely way to practice but it was the idea itself that stirred the competitive desire inside Kirkpatrick.
"It didn't seem to affect me at all," Kirkpatrick said. "I was able to run a lot of AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) summer events when I was younger and that's what really got me excited. I was always very motivated."
For her eventual long and triple jump events, Stan put down a dirt approach and set in place a wooden board similar to that which a jumper leaps from into a pit of sand. He brought in sand as well.
"Some girls once asked me at a meet that they had heard I had a track in my backyard," Kirkpatrick said. "If they only knew it wasn't an artificial one."
Through her formative years, including junior high, Kirkpatrick continued to set the stage for what would eventually be one of the greatest high school track careers of any Kansas athlete. From 1989 to 1992, the Lady Beaver track star won 12 gold medals, ranking her behind all-time greats Jackie Stiles of Claflin (14) and Sandra Myers of Little River (13).
In her freshman year at Scott City when she went to Wichita to run for the first time in the state track meet Kirkpatrick was undaunted by the immense size of the event and came home with a pair of gold medals the 100-meter hurdles (15.69) and long jump (18-6 1/4) in Class 4A.
"I had been to the state meet before to watch and seeing it was so exciting," Kirkpatrick said. "I think it had helped me to compete in Junior Olympics and I had been at national meets and had done well. I was nervous but not totally overwhelmed."
She said it also helped that as a freshman, the rest of the competition from around the state knew little about her.
"There were no expectations, but I was motivated," she said. "There was no pressure on me, nobody knew who I was."
In her first preliminary in the 100 hurdles, Kirkpatrick said there was a problem with the starter's pistol.
"We're not quite sure what was wrong but we were back in the blocks four different times before he could get it to work right," she said. "It created high anxiety and I think we were all just happy to get through it."
In the long jump she was battling the defending state champion, Tracy Ames of Rose Hill.
"We both jumped the same distance (18-6 1/4) but my second jump was better than hers and that broke the tie," Kirkpatrick said. "I was very happy, obviously, but I also felt bad for her. To be a senior and defend and then lose to a freshman, I'm sure wasn't a good feeling for her. But she was very gracious and congratulated me."
Her sophomore season, the state introduced the triple jump into track and field competition. It was an event right up Kirkpatrick's alley.
"I had done some in AAU and actually won the nationals that summer between freshman and sophomore years," Kirkpatrick said of the triple jump. "So I was very excited to know that it would be an event for my sophomore season."
Kirkpatrick went back to Cessna Stadium for the 1990 meet and brought home another three golds the 100 hurdles (16.38), long jump (18-4) and triple jump (35-7 1/2).
"It was a good year and winning three at the state was really a great feeling," Kirkpatrick said. "I had set goals and got the three wins,"
Kirkpatrick had set a goal her junior year to break 40-feet in the triple jump. She didn't quite reach it, but she did break her personal best of the year before by nearly three feet, soaring 38-6 to claim gold. To this day, only two female triple jumpers have gone over 40-feet at the state track meet.
"It was significantly further than the previous year and I was so excited about that," Kirkpatrick said.
In her senior year,Kirkpatrick notched victories in the 100 hurdles, long and triple jumps. Her final event of her high school career came in the 300-meter hurdles, a new event for her.
It was then a flashback occurred to her freshman year, when she had won the long jump against a senior. Now, the shoe was on the other foot. A freshman from North Central Kansas was right on her heels in the 100 and had also qualified for the 300 finals.
"She was right there and I wondered, 'who is this?,'" Kirkpatrick said. "I knew someone who could be competitive with me and it was very exciting. I didn't want to have the same experience as the senior that I beat as a freshman, so I knew I would have to give it my best effort."
Kirkpatrick ran a 45.87 to win and make it four-for-four in her senior year.
"I don't often think about the state meet until it is spring," said Kirkpatrick, now a mother of three daughters and a part-time dietician at Geary Community Hospital in Junction City. "When I think about those times I still get a little nervous, but they are all good memories."
Gruver's medal count
1989 100 hurdles (15.69); Long jump (18-6 1/4).
1990 100 hurdles (16.38); Long jump (18-4); Triple jump (35-7 1/2).
1991 100 hurdles (15.51), Long jump (18-3 1/4); Triple jump (38-6).
1992 100 hurdles (15.6); 300 hurdles (45.87); Long jump (17-5 3/4); Triple jump (36-2 1/4).