Former Cats get gold at USA track and field championships

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Kentucky alumni Keni Harrison (100-meter hurdles) and Sha’Keela Saunders (long jump) won USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships on Saturday at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa.

Harrison, a UK Class of 2015 alumna and the world record holder at the distance, repeated as U.S. champion, running an impressive 12.46 into a -1.4 headwind after needing to make up some ground in the second half of the race to retain her title.

“The more I’m able to come here and run under pressure having a target on my back and am able to still come across the line first definitely builds my confidence,” Harrison said. “The more I win National Championships, the better I feel.”

Harrison improved her record at Drake Stadium to 6-0, having made the April Drake Relays an early-season destination throughout her now three-year-old professional career and then won three rounds this weekend.

Saunders, who wrapped her collegiate career in 2017 after winning the NCAA indoor long jump gold, jumped into a headwind as well, but reached a mark of 21’5.5”/6.54 meters on her second attempt and that mark held up for her first American gold.

“Last year’s performance was better in distance, but I got the win this time,” Saunders said. “I’m excited about that. I’m just so happy about that and you know the next two (championship years) are very important to make teams so hopefully I can repeat that.

“I tore my hamstring in February, so I couldn’t compete indoors, but I’m glad that I got that out of the way in my first season post-collegiate so I know how to deal with that now. I’m back, I’m healthy and I’m excited to continue my season.”

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Saunders was third at the USATF Outdoor Championships last year, qualifying for her first U.S. senior international team after coming agonizingly close the two years prior.

Earlier on Saturday, UK senior Katy Kunc executed an audacious race plan, taking a huge lead in the first few laps of her first U.S. 3K steeplechase final to earn a top-10 finish, ninth place in 10:01.83.

Kunc went out about four seconds ahead of the quality main field into the third lap of the race, effectively taking about five competitors out of the race in the early going.

“I was really excited about getting top-10,” Kunc said. “Kind of just left it all out there. Got pretty tired the last three laps, didn’t have the best waters, but really cool experience racing the likes of (2016 Olympic bronze medalist and reigning World Champion) Emma (Coburn) and (Reigning World seilver medalist) Courtney (Frerichs), and really good competition. I was really happy to just make the final and have a good last race in a Kentucky uniform. I did what (back-to-back NCAA Pole Vault Champion) Olivia (Gruver) said: ‘just breathe and have fun.’

“It was my plan to go out hard. I didn’t realize I was going that hard the first lap, but I think it’s a big advantage being able to see the first few jumps. (UK distance coach) Hakon (DeVries) said I put some people on their heels, and dropped five people from the beginning so I just kind of went for it.”

UK Class of 2017 Nick Anderson – the 2016 NCAA silver medalist – and sophomore Daniel Roberts – reigning Southeastern Conference silver medalist – hurdled alongside one another in the first round, and both moved on to the Sunday semifinal with respective times of 13.84Q (12th) and 13.95Q (14th) into a -1.2 headwind.

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The 110 meter hurdles semifinals are Sunday at 3:30 p.m. EDT. The final concludes the meet at 5:52 p.m. EDT.

UK Class of 2017 Kiah Seymour – who was 2016 NCAA silver medalist – qualified for the U.S. 400m hurdles final, running 56.32 to get an auto-qualifying spot. That final will be Sunday at 4:44 p.m. EDT.

Jacob Thomson will run in the U.S. men’s 5K final, and Class of 2014 Cally Macumber is entered in the women’s 5K on Sunday. UK Class of 2014 Andrew Evans, a U.S. medalist the past three years, will throw the discus on Sunday as well.

The meet will be shown on NBC live from 4 – 6 p.m. ETon Sunday.

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