Each day Charles Ryan takes his Academy of Art University Urban Knights women’s track and field team to the San Francisco Community College for practice. Lacking a true central campus, the small NCAA Division II school must utilize rented facilities for its sports teams. But don’t expect them to ever call that a disadvantage.
They arrived at Academy of Art University first to pursue a degree and second to compete in track and field. Their shared passion for what they study has proven to be immeasurable in their success.
In their first year of eligibility, the Urban Knights won the NCAA Division II indoor title by a double-digit point total and head coach Charles Ryan has ideas for more of the same this outdoor season.
Over the weekend they traveled across much of the country to take part in America’s Athletic Classic. They arrived in Des Moines, Iowa, for the 104th edition of the Drake Relays surrounded by the country’s top elite athletes and top collegiate programs. Considering their surroundings and size of their school, less experienced athletes may have been intimidated.
But as Academy of Art upperclassmen Jesseka Raymond, Briana Stewart, Vashti Thomas, Dinesha Bean and Julian Purvis entered Drake Stadium, they did so with confidence and clear goals in mind.
The quartet of Thomas, Stewart, Bean and Purvis quickly etched their names alongside Texas A&M in equaling the collegiate record by winning the 4x100m shuttle hurdle relay in 52.50. Not to be outdone, Raymond then teamed with Stewart, Thomas and Bean to record the fastest collegiate 4x100m relay time (Division I or Division II) of the meet at 44.19 and the fourth-fastest time in Division II history. The times generated immediate buzz and raised the question of how a school with no home track could run such fast times.
“I’ve known those girls could produce that type of a time,” Ryan said. “It’s something we have been working for. I couldn’t ask for a better group of women.”
When paired with the national-qualifying time run by Stewart, Thomas, Dominique Berry and Keanna Moody in the 4x400m relay, the trio of relays from the Academy of Art were named Division II national athletes of the week by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USATFCCCA).
“I didn’t let the girls think much about it, but that was the goal,” Ryan said of running those kinds of times in the relays. “We were coming to Drake to set the national record and Drake Relays record.”
But recognition of record-breaking performances surrounding the Urban Knights’ team did not end there. In an ironic scenario, the same moments the Urban Knights were crossing the finish line in the shuttle hurdle relay, Ryan was being honored for his own similar mark left on the unique event. On the 10th anniversary of running a leg on South Carolina’s 4x110m shuttle relay that established the Penn Relays record, Ryan was being inducted as a member of the Penn Relays Wall of Fame. It was the ultimate full-circle moment in a lifelong involvement with the sport for Ryan.
As mentioned, the record breaking performances at the Drake Relays and the deserved attention did not come by accident for the Urban Knights. It was the product of preparation and a great amount of team chemistry, both natural and developed.
“In track and field there is a huge thirst for kids that want to study things outside the box,” Ryan said about his athletes choosing to pursue a career surrounding art. “My passion outside of track is film. I was told that I can’t study film and run track. This school gives kids the opportunity to not have to make that choice. You can study for a career working for Pixar and be the number one long jumper in the country. You can do that. We are one of the first to be able to do that and being the first of something is a huge advantage.”
And that team chemistry has become evident in events outside their specific disciplines on the track. The 4x100m relay team, which Ryan feels can run under 44-seconds this season, is comprised of women who are hurdlers by trade.
“I can’t remember the last collegiate 4x100m that was compiled of all hurdlers,” he said. “We have experimented with a lot of different orders and in that race it is all about chemistry.”
The Academy of Art women’s track and field team will next turn its attention to the NCAA Division II Outdoor Championships, which are scheduled for May 23-25 in Pueblo, Colo.