In Iowa, it’s Stephanie Jenks and everyone else.
The only thing outpacing Linn-Mar’s junior phenom ahead of this week’s Drake Relays are her expectations. And historic high school performances — last summer included a state track-record time of 9 minutes, 24.67 seconds in the 3,000 meters and a Youth Olympic Games silver medal in triathlon — prove she’s capable of catching up.
Three races on the blue oval will pit Jenks against the clock and the state’s top competitors. But let’s be honest here, she’s mostly facing herself in Iowa high school races.
“It’s a matter of Stephanie going out and doing what she can,” Linn-Mar girls’ track and field coach Nathan Hopp said.
“Yeah, the pressure is there, but she knows she has what it takes to get the job done and it’s up to her competitors to see what they can do to push her.”
Improving means more than collecting flags to the 17-year-old. She swept the 3,000 and 1,500 at Drake and state in her first two seasons, gleaning something different each time down the homestretch.
Jenks is defending those titles and will be joined by teammates Hanna Saville and Amber Decker in Friday afternoon’s crowded 800 field.
“Success for me is being able to take back something from a race that you had done differently,” Jenks said. “You may add seconds on to your time, but as long as you learn from the experience, I consider that a successful race.”
Learning is constant for the Aurora native, and a weekend interview interrupts Advanced Placement Chemistry study time.
The Drake Relays will be just another challenge in a month filled with them.
“There are different kinds of successes, and some can be small for me, like taking a first lap out harder or getting better at any aspect of something you’ve done previously,” said Jenks, a standout student. “I don’t consider any of my races failures, by any means.
“It’s been pretty stressful lately with school and AP tests coming up, but my training is going well and I’m working to stay positive and focused.”
Fortunately, AP exams don’t start for another two weeks.
Last week, Jenks posted the nation’s top mile time of 2015 at the regional Kansas Relays, edging out Stanford-bound Hannah Long in 4:40.78.
“My goals for her are always just to keep consistently improving,” Hopp said. “At Kansas she was fresh as a daisy, but I’m hopeful that she can run three season’s best by the end of this week.”
The trip was supposed to be an early season measuring stick as Jenks focuses solely on running after “deciding to drop” triathlon until collegiate track goals are complete. The win and impressive 1,600 mark reinforced her big-time event training.
“In-state competition is great, but there’s only so much you can do because you race the same people all of the time,” Jenks said. “Out of state, you’re always racing against people you haven’t met, and it’s nice to mix it up with a different dynamic.
“If we could take more advantage of going out of state, I totally would.”
Jenks frequently practices with the Linn-Mar boys’ team and recently added the 400 and 400 hurdles to her repertoire to stay sharp.
“I was a little reluctant on the hurdles because a lot can go wrong, but she’s been great,” Hopp said. “We wanted to change up the routine and let her have a little fun.”
Hurdles were her greatest concern, having not raced or even practiced over barriers since middle school, but a 1:06.67 left her only two spots out of Drake Relays qualifying.
“When we first got the idea and tried it out, my mom said, ‘Hey, you actually look pretty good,'” Jenks said. “It has been super fun, and I just need some more time working on them to keep getting better and keep dropping time.”
It’s an event she hopes to be competitive in for the rest of her career. A new obstacle that drags her back to the pack and gives her a reason to train and run away again.
“She’s an aerobic beast,” Hopp said. “She can do things from an endurance standpoint that other girls just can’t do, especially because of her triathlon training.”
Jenks said her peak experiences came in Oregon last summer, qualifying for the World Junior Championships by finishing second in the 3,000 behind wunderkind professional Mary Cain at the USA Junior Track & Field Championships on July 5 in Eugene.
“I had so much fun running with Stephanie,” Cain told media after the race. “One thing I love about high schoolers, they go for it. They jump in and they try to chase you.”
The World Junior final was back at Hayward Field on July 24, and while Jenks finished a distant 15th to Cain’s first, the experience as the second American far outweighed the scoreboard result.
“That was a huge honor and huge accomplishment, even if the race didn’t go like I’d planned,” Jenks said. “I still consider that a great success.”
How will that impact her this week? Drake Stadium knows it could be Jenks and everyone else.
STEPHANIE JENKS AT DRAKE STADIUM
Event 3,000 Time 1,500 Time 800 Time
2013 RELAYS 1st 9:46.02 1st 4:35.22 5th 2:13.35
2013 STATE 1st 9:50.70 1st 4:31.14 2nd 2:13.30
2014 RELAYS 1st 9:26.87 1st 4:28.72 2nd 2:11.65
2014 STATE 1st 9:24.67 1st 4:31.10 1st 2:10.20