BLOOMINGTON – You already know how this story ends, so let’s not bother with the suspense. Pike senior Lynna Irby went to the 2017 IHSAA track and field state finals on Saturday at IU needing to win three sprints to finish off her perfect high school career, and she was going to win all three. Everyone in the stadium knew it.
Irby was trying to do something that had never been done — she was trying to sweep the 100, 200 and 400 for the fourth consecutive year, giving her an unprecedented 12 Indiana state titles in 12 attempts — and this is how foregone the conclusion was:
As her final event was about to start, Irby’s coach wasn’t even watching.
I know this, because it was my fault. Before the 200, Irby’s final event of the night, Pike coach DeDee Nathan was gathering up the team’s gear and stuffing it into bags when I found her and started peppering her with questions. Nathan stopped gathering, stopped stuffing, and answered my questions. For five minutes we were talking when I noticed some movement far down the track.
Wait a minute, I said to Lynna Irby’s coach. Is the 200 about to start?
Nathan looked off into the distance, saw Irby crouching in the starting blocks, and nodded.
Now I’m blurting: Sorry! You watch and enjoy.
“You watch and enjoy,” Nathan tells me, then goes back to stuffing gear into the bag. “It’s done.”
Off in the distance, the starter’s gun explodes. So does Lynna Irby. She rockets out of the blocks and toward the turn and the crowd is screaming, and only now does Nathan straighten up to see.
“It’s done,” she says again.
Sure enough, Irby is 10 meters ahead of the field and pulling away. She crosses the finish line and the public address announcer is congratulating her on her 12th state championship.
What happened Saturday was a three-hour coronation, the culmination of the most amazing high school career — any sport, male or female — in state history. And Lynna Irby made it look easy.
But let me tell you something: It was not.
* * *
Irby had one more race to run, but she couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand, could barely breathe. She had just won the 400 in 53.81 seconds, among the 10 fastest times in state history, and she wasn’t smiling. Too tired to smile.
Irby was at the water cooler just off the finish line, holding an empty paper cup. She crumpled to her knees under the cooler, which is where DeDee Nathan found her.
At this point Irby has run four races in two hours, and won all four: the 100 prelims and 100 final (in a state record 11.41 seconds), the 200 prelims, and the 400 final. She has one race left, the 200 final. Nathan asks if she needs help. Irby spits out one word:
Nathan lays Irby down onto her back, takes off the sprinter’s fluorescent yellow spikes and starts massaging Irby’s thighs. Then she grabs Irby’s ankles and gently shakes out her legs.
Irby doesn’t want to get up, but she has no choice. Meet officials have been presenting medals all afternoon, holding the short ceremonies between events, and it’s almost time for the 100-meter ceremony. The 100 finalists are summoned to the benches behind the podium and asked to sit in the proper order.
“Where’s Miss Irby?” a meet official calls out.
A single hand goes up. It is Irby’s hand. She is lying under the bench.
“Oh, there she is,” the official says, and leans over to speak to the 100-meter champion. “Miss Irby, are you ready?”
Irby nods and crawls toward the podium. The other eight finalists are standing behind their pedestal. Irby is crouching, staring at the ground, as the eight sprinters she beat are invited to step onto their pedestals first. Crouched behind her pedestal, out of sight of the crowd, Irby is the only finalist clapping for each of the eight sprinters.
When it is her turn, Irby crawls up onto the podium and remains on her knees so the meet official can drape the medal around her neck. Only then does she stand up. She musters a smile.
But when Irby climbs off the pedestal, her coach is waiting. DeDee Nathan is whispering something into her ear. Irby nods and breaks into a slow, begrudging trot for the EMT tent.
* * *
This is a break from procedure, and Irby has a procedure. I’ve been following her all over the track since before her first race — a 100 preliminary at 5 p.m. — and she has kept to a rigid schedule between races. She runs her race, she wins, and then she pretty much keeps going to the water cooler. She drinks one cup, then another, then another.
She finds the nearest bench and sits and stares off into the distance. She takes off her spikes. She moves as little as possible to conserve energy.
When the track clears, she walks across the lanes and goes to the infield, where there are 15 large umbrellas staked into the ground to provide cover from the sun. Fourteen of the umbrellas are for teams with athletes competing in the pole vault and high jump. The 15th umbrella is for Irby. After she runs and wins and rehydrates and rests, she comes to the infield and rests some more, collapsing under the umbrella and holding a tiny portable fan that she aims at her face.
But then she runs and wins her fourth race of the day, her longest and most punishing race — the 400 — and now her coach is whispering into her ear and Irby is trotting slowly to the EMT tent and being handed what looks like two really long boots. They are recovery sleeves that fit over a runner’s legs, and after being plugged into an electrical outlet, they compress and tighten and essentially massage the legs.
Later Nathan is telling me that the boots help Irby’s legs recover, but suggests there is a psychosomatic benefit as well.
“It’s as much psychological as it is physical,” Nathan tells me, a phrase she uses three other times as we’re talking about Irby, and I see it myself a little later when I ask Irby why she has a U-shaped stripe of black tape on her right knee.
“I call it my mental tape,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with my knee, but when I get really nervous I get aches and pains. I put the tape on the knee and it goes away.”
Irby is tightly wound on race days, burdened by the pressure of being the most decorated athlete at every high school meet she enters, certainly on the state level and often on the national level as well. Irby, a Georgia signee, had entered the 2017 state meet undefeated in 55 career races at Pike, and with 22 age-group national titles. She also has won five international medals, and has posted the seventh-fastest 400 time in U.S. high school history (51.39 seconds). Of the six runners who went faster, five eventually won Olympic medals.
So, the pressure. It’s always there for Irby, but Saturday was different. This was harder, heavier. The weight of four years rested on her shoulders. She had to win all three state titles Saturday, or her perfection as a freshman, sophomore and junior would be for naught. That’s how she viewed it.
“I know what everybody came here to see,” is how Irby explained it to me, later. But this is how she explained it to Nathan when they arrived at the track:
“I’m going to throw up.”
Irby didn’t, but Nathan was worried. Saturday was the first time in Irby’s four-year career that Nathan visited with her between races at state. Normally she leaves that to an assistant, but not Saturday.
“I wanted to make sure she’s OK,” Nathan was saying. “She always has concerns, trepidations, but today was different. This was weird. We got here at 1:15 and her legs were shaking. That’s not her normal self.”
All was good by 8:15 p.m. That’s when Irby motored around the turn and won the 200 for her 12th and final state title. No more races to win. Her career ends with perfection.
When Irby found Nathan a few minutes later, she collapsed in her coach’s arms.
“Feel better, hon?” Nathan asked.
“Mm-hmm,” was all Irby could manage, too tired for words because it’s just not easy to run that fast, that many times, in that scorching heat.
But as she stood there, folded up in her coach’s arms, I heard another sound coming from Lynna Irby. For the first time in four hours, she was giggling.