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Under the direction of Dave Walker, the Niswonger Invitational was able to attract some of the top track and field athletes in the world to Johnson City.
That tradition will continue this weekend, just days after the legendary East Tennessee State track coach died at age 82.
During his time, Walker brought to the Mini-Dome such notables as Dwight Stones and Roger Kingdom, former world record holders in the high jump and 110 meter hurdles, respectively.
He even brought in former Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker where just a couple of years earlier Larry Myricks set a world indoor record of 27 feet, 5 3/4 inches in the long jump.
Now in the meet’s 36th year, Olympic silver medalist Manteo Mitchell will run on the track which bears Walker’s name.
“Manteo’s been here many years when he ran for Western Carolina,” current ETSU track coach George Watts said. “He likes this track a lot. We’re looking at the possibility running an extra event, a 300-meter dash with Manteo and two or three other elite runners.”
Mitchell ran the first leg of the 4x400 relay at the London Olympics, although it was revealed afterwards he had broken his left fibula around the halfway mark.
Despite the pain, Mitchell finished the race and the Americans advanced to the finals, where they finished second to the Bahamas.
Healthy again, the 26-year-old from Shelby, N.C., is expected to compete in various sprint events.
Mitchell is one of an estimated 1,000 athletes scheduled to compete this weekend.
The meet is once again paired with the Knoxville Youth Athletics High School Indoor Classic, which is expected to bring in another 1,000 athletes.
“It’s fantastic that we can work that out,” Watts said. “(KYA director) Marty Sonnenfeldt and I were former teammates at the University of Tennessee. He does a great job with track and field on the youth side of things. He has a tremendous following from cross country through indoor and outdoor track. He’s a great resource for the youth in the area.”
As for his own contingent, Watts’ team will be without NCAA long jump qualifier Tyler Steffey, due to an injury. However, the Bucs do have another favorite in the long jump in Ryan Beaver, who won at Clemson this past weekend.
Freshman sprinter Matt Moore from Oak Ridge looks to do well in the 60 meters, while another freshman Brett Squibb broke the indoor school record in the pole vault.
Watts also believes his Distance Medley Relay team has a good shot to win that event.
On the women’s side, distance standout Katie Hirko will probably compete in just one event this weekend. There is a strong group of Lady Buc sprinters led by Keturah Williams in the 60 and 200 meters, while senior Lexie Burley, a former Science Hill standout, is a favorite in the triple jump.
The two-day Niswonger meet begins this morning with the preliminaries of the women’s 60-meter hurdles, the women’s weight throw and triple jump finals. Today’s action will conclude with the men’s and women’s 5,000 scheduled for 7 pm.
Saturday’s action begins at 8 a.m. with men’s and women’s distance races, followed by field events around noon. The meet finishes with the 4x400 relays.
For Watts, he sees it as a chance to carry on the legacy of Coach Walker, someone he calls a giant in the track and field world.
“One of the things I said when I got hired was that I’m not going to try to fill his shoes because he’s a giant in the track and field world,” Watts said. “I want to keep this meet going and bring top notch athletes here. It’s an honor to follow him, and to talk to all the alum who are still here in town. I enjoy hearing the stories about Coach Walker and you can tell there is a lot of love for him. His former runners want to see this program excel and to accomplish some of the things Coach Walker did in his time here.”