DES MOINES — Christian Sanderfer slipped on a gorilla suit, and unknowingly set the wheels in motion for a day he and his three Nebraska teammates won't soon forget.
The redshirt freshman out of Lincoln Southwest came to Nebraska as a two-time all-class high school pole vault champion, and assumed he'd be concentrating on that event in college.
But at a Halloween-themed team track event last year, Sanderfer put on a full gorilla suit, a pair of triple-jump spikes and ran “49-something” in the 1,600-meter relay.
“I had three bananas before me,” he said, smiling. “I found out I could run. I've been on it, working my way up, ever since.”
On Saturday in the final event of the Drake Relays, Sanderfer, freshmen Levi Gipson of Lincoln Christian and Cody Rush of Grand Island Northwest, and senior Janis Leitis of Latvia didn't monkey around. They ended the 104th running of “America's Athletic Classic” in style, posting the third-fastest time in the nation this season to win the 1,600 relay in 3:03.79.
It was the first time that quartet had run together in a relay.
“We always try and run our best, especially us Nebraska boys,” Sanderfer said. “Today we just pushed even further. I read a quote today that said, 'Run your race like it's a suicide pace. And today's a great day to die.'”
Nebraska had two winners in front of a sun-drenched crowd of 14,504, the 48th straight Saturday sellout at Drake Stadium. Senior Mara Griva became a double winner by claiming the women's triple jump at 44 feet, 3Ĺ inches. She had won the long jump on Friday.
However, the 1,600 relay unit was the Huskers' shining moment of the day. Gipson opened with a strong leg before giving way to Sanderfer, who kept the Huskers near the front.
Three months after putting on the gorilla suit, Sanderfer found himself racing against the nation's top 1,600 relay team, Florida, in the Frank Sevigne Invitational. He said his newfound talent won't likely change his practice routine.
“I mainly train pole vault, do a few sprint things,” Sanderfer said. “Then every week they say, 'Hey, run a four by four,' and I say, 'OK.'”
Due to their height, the 6-foot-4 Rush said he and Gipson didn't run many 400s during the indoor season (although they did join Sanderfer and Ricco Hall to finish seventh in the NCAA indoor 1,600 relay.) They ran more 600s, “and we just got that big strength base,” Rush said.
Getting the baton from Sanderfer, Rush ran a tremendous leg Saturday, powering past runners from Illinois and Notre Dame to give the Huskers a sizable lead heading to Leitis' anchor leg.
“That first 150, I knew Notre Dame was ahead and Illinois flew by me,” he said. “I just had to keep my composure and just know that I was going to have a strong finish. At 200, I probably felt the best I've felt all year, and I ended up finishing well.”
With about 200 to go, Illinois anchor Stephon Pamilton came up on Leitis' shoulder, but Leitis found another gear in the final stretch to win by 67 hundredths of a second. The time vaulted NU into third nationally, behind Florida and Texas A&M and just in front of Baylor. It also is third all-time in school history and first in the Big Ten this year.
Rush said it was nice to earn such a landmark victory close to home.
“Iowa's close enough to Nebraska,” he said. “There's a little bit of hatred there. But throughout the crowd there was a few Nebraska fans that were giving us the support.”
Elsewhere, Griva's winning triple jump ranks third nationally and first in the Big Ten.
“I finally got some good marks so I'm really satisfied,” she said.
Also from Nebraska, Jessica Furlan placed third in the 1,500 in a personal-best 4:15.17. That time ranks fifth nationally, fourth on the school's all-time list and first in the Big Ten entering the weekend.
Other thirds for NU went to the women's 1,600 relay team of Mara Weekes, Ellie Grooters, Mila Andric and Shawnice Williams (3:37.45), and Miles Ukaoma in the men's 400 hurdles (50.73).
Iowa Western added a pair of thirds in college events, the women's sprint medley relay (4:01.84) and men's 400 relay (40.54).
Among other college athletes, Morningside's Monte Larsen, a Tri-Center graduate, anchored his team to a school-record time of 3:23.11 in the sprint medley relay, running a career-best 1:49.2 split in the team's second-place finish. He returned to finish ninth in the university-college 800 (1:51.34).
UNO’s Sami Spenner took sixth in the women’s triple jump with a mark of 40-7. The distance would have broken her own school record, but it was not wind legal.
Iowa's Jordan Mullen, an Atlantic graduate, placed fourth in the university-college 110 high hurdles (13.86), and led off the third-place 400 relay (39.66).
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