Jan. 24, 2013
Editor's note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Monday, Aug. 6, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2012-13 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Every athlete dreams of ending their career a champion. Keaton Rickels considered doing that in 2011, but he was a sophomore then, with two years of eligibility remaining.
It was the best of times in 2011 for the University of Iowa men's track and field program. The Hawkeyes won their first Big Ten Conference championship in 44 years, doing it in dramatic fashion on their home Cretzmeyer Track. It was a day of Gatorade showers, `high-fives,' hugs, and tears of joy.
At the same time, 2011 was the worst of times for Rickels. The walk-on was not one of eight qualifiers to the conference 400-meter hurdle final. His preliminary time of 53.59 was more than a half-second slower than his season-best 53.0. Not only would a season-best have put Rickels seventh in the finals of the Big Ten meet, it also would have put him in the discussion to finally receive scholarship money.
"All that work with no return, it took a lot out of me," Rickels said. "I didn't think I could come back and do that grind one more time and feel the same amount of hurt."
UI teammate Jordan Mullen, who edged Rickels by 0.16 seconds to win an Iowa high school 400 hurdle championship in 2009, convinced him to keep plugging away. So did the Hawkeye coaches.
Rickels remained committed to track, but he continued to be haunted by little things that can lead to or restrict a stellar performance.
"In this sport, 1/10 of a second can make or break your entire week," Rickels said.
Mullen came to the rescue with a second tip: relax.
"I found myself before meets worrying about this, worrying about that, getting everything ready," Rickels said. "Jordan asked, `What are you stressed out about? You're supposed to have fun, this is a sport, we do it because we love it.'"
Rickels then stole a page from the pony-tailed Mullen, and donned what has become his trademark: wearing a headband or bandana during competition.
"I stopped looking in the mirror and put on a headband," Rickels said. "I look ridiculous when I run -- that's part of it, I don't care anymore. It's one less stress in my stressful life to worry about. I will put on my short shorts and my headband, and I'll feel comfortable. I won't have hair in my eyes, and I will just go. It is a big relief; it doesn't matter what I look like, it's all about running."
"Scoring at Big Ten indoor last year was the best feeling in the world," Rickels said. "I felt like I was finally contributing to this team. My coaches told me I was always part of this team -- a hard-worker in practice, pushing others, being a good leader -- (but) to finally get those points on paper, and to have something you could hold on to, was a big changing moment for me."
He didn't stop there. During the 2012 outdoor season, Rickels placed seventh in the 400-meter hurdles at the Big Ten Championships and qualified for the NCAA Preliminary Round in Austin, Texas.
His journey began in a small community in central Iowa. Rickels was a three-sport standout at Iowa Falls-Alden High School, where as a senior in wrestling, he placed seventh in the 160-pound weight class at the Class 2A state tournament. In Class 3A track, he was runner-up in the 400-meter hurdles and 800 run, and seventh in the 400.
The support Rickels received growing up in Iowa Falls impacted his life. So much that he one-day sees himself returning to settle down there to raise a family. But before he looks to put his elementary education degree to use in his hometown, he wants to venture out and see the world.
In the fall of 2013, Rickels intends to student-teach in the Iowa City area for eight weeks before continuing as a student-teacher in England.
"I think I do (want to stay abroad)," Rickels said. "Every summer I have been doing camps and this summer I am going back to New York to do a camp there. Maybe I will stick with summer camps or do the English teaching abroad, or teach in international schools. I want to get out for a little bit once I'm done with school and while I'm still young enough to travel as much as I can."
A jersey of Iowa Falls native Nick Collison hangs in the gymnasium in Iowa Falls. Collison played college basketball at Kansas University and is a forward/center for the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA. It is Rickels' dream to see his jersey displayed next to Collison's.
"I told myself when I was young, I wanted nothing more than to get All-American and see my jersey up on the wall of my high school gymnasium," Rickels said. "I think that would be one of the coolest things."
Rickels has developed from a walk-on, to a scholarship athlete, to a team captain.
"We plan on him continuing to progress on his performances," UI assistant coach Joey Woody said. "Last year it was kind of unexpected, and he went out and had a great year and scored a lot of points for the team. This year there are more expectations on him."
In the first two indoor meets of 2013, Rickels has finished second twice in his signature event, the 600 run, with a season-PR of 1:19.48. He ran the third leg on the 4x400 relay that was clocked in 3:13.27 -- the fifth-fastest time in the conference this season.
Rickels spent part of the preseason identifying new goals for his final year. He achieved all he set out to during that astonishing junior season: point-scorer at the Big Ten Championships, academic all-conference, school-record in the distance medley.
"Now I have to get back to the drawing board and set some new goals," Rickels said.
"Keaton chose to come to Iowa because he wanted to compete at the highest level of track and field," Woody said. "We have had a lot of success with developmental kids like him who have come in as walk-ons and ended up leaving as scholarship athletes and then hopefully being Big Ten champion. You have to have that mental attitude that you are going to bring it every day in practice and every week in competitions, and that you are going to step up and compete against the best competition in the country."
Another six months of improvement and who knows? Rickels might indeed end his career a champion...and have his jersey hanging on a gymnasium wall in Iowa Falls.