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From high school star to hometown hero: Tanner Newkirk finds his stride at KU

After a humbling freshman year, Tanner Newkirk returns to seize his first NCAA victory and set the stage for an electrifying season.

5 min read
With a concentrated gaze, Tanner Newkirk pushes through the final stretch of the race, leaving no other runners in sight as he nears the finish line. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Kansas University sophomore Tanner Newkirk is no stranger to success on the cross-country trails.

His running resume is studded with individual honors and awards alongside team victories: Kansas state individual champion, two other top-three finishes in the state, a four-time Class 4A state medalist, plus numerous league and regional titles, All-Everything honors and a variety of records broken.

Most of those, though, came in high school – during his career at Hayden Catholic in Topeka, where he commuted daily for four years. Then, suddenly, the Lawrence native found himself back in his own backyard at KU last fall, but as the proverbial much smaller fish in a big pond. The podium was harder to come by.

"It was a shock to the system, for sure," Newkirk said. "In high school, you know you're the best on your team, and there are only a few races where you have a lot of competition, but now every workout, every race, there's going to be a ton of competition. Adjusting to that took a whole year, and I don't know even now if I'm 100 percent adjusted quite yet."

At last year's season-opening Bob Timmons Classic, held on KU's home Rim Rock Farm course, Newkirk finished a very respectable fourth place in the 6K run, clocking in at 18:40.28. He followed that up with other decent but generally unremarkable finishes in races through his first collegiate season.

Turn the page to this year, and things have started rather differently. At the 2023 edition of the Bob Timmons Classic on Sept. 2, Newkirk notched his first NCAA victory in impressive fashion. He shaved his time down to 18:35.4, a personal best, crossing the finish line nearly 10 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher, teammate Cale Littrell. The Jayhawks swept the top three spots and had five runners finish in the top nine to easily claim the team gold, as well.

Newkirk's elation at his victory was readily apparent – arms raised high overhead, a big smile on his face, and the relief of finally conquering a goal.

"It was my first college win, so it's always super cool to have that," said Newkirk, an accounting finance major at KU. "You have wins in high school, but then you get to college and you have to cherish the ones you can get. You have to really appreciate that moment."

Newkirk admitted feeling some anxiety and nerves kicking in as he found himself at the head of the pack. He knew there was a field of quality runners behind him, several of them strong finishers, and he didn't want to relinquish his lead. "I have to close this out," he kept thinking to himself.

A focused Tanner Newkirk strides ahead of the pack at the Bob Timmons XC Challenge to lead the Jayhawks. [Kansas Athletics Photo]

Training and focus took over, though, and eventually, the finish line was in sight. Crossing it with no other runners in his field of vision merited a celebration.

Newkirk's father, Kevin – himself a former Kansas state cross country champion while at Emporia – was on hand for the race and yelling from the sidelines, as usual. He savored seeing his son's joy at the finish.

"He said, 'Dad, I'm not going to get a lot of wins at this level, so when I do get to do it, I'm going to have a little fun.' Kevin Newkirk said.

"Last year he had to struggle as a freshman at KU – some good races, but some licks from the competition," the elder Newkirk added. "He's been figuring out this year while training all summer, and I've really seen a change in him mentally as he's watched the older guys and the way they approach racing. This time, Tanner laid back a little bit for the first half of the race. I was really surprised to see that change in his strategy. That's what it's going to take – a lot more strategy and biding your time and waiting till the right moment comes along."

Admittedly, some other factors helped that moment arrive. A few of KU's other top runners, including record-setter Chandler Gibbens, didn't run in the opening race as they prepared for the season. But runners have to seize the openings when they come, and Tanner Newkirk did just that.

"It was a great win for Tanner," KU head coach Stanley Redwine said. "What he did is phenomenal. He proved himself as the hometown hero that he is. He's quite the competitor, and he's come into his own."

Newkirk's success continued Sept. 16, when he again paced all Jayhawks runners with a time of 24:08.89 in the Greeno/Dirksen Invitational in Lincoln, Neb., a new personal best in the 8K race. He placed eighth overall (third among large-school Red Division runners), with teammates Tanner Talley, Peter Walsdorf and Cale Littrell close behind in the top 12. That strong packed KU to another team gold in as many tries, edging Drake University in the division by two points.

That strong start sets the stage for some exciting possibilities in the weeks ahead.

"I wouldn't say the win really ratchets anything up, because before the season I already had some really big goals," Newkirk said. "But it tells me I'm going in the right direction to achieve the big goals that I and the team have for this season, to make a splash at the Big 12 and make Nationals. It helps me believe and know I'm on the right track. I think it's really going to be a fun year."

Two more races are on the calendar, in Missouri and Virginia, before the Big 12 Championship in Ames, Iowa on Oct. 28. Kevin Newkirk has seen what running success looks like, and he thinks those big goals could be in reach, for his son and for the Jayhawk program.

"He's very driven, very focused. He really sets a path and goals for himself," Kevin Newkirk said. "It's amazing to see him achieve. He's achieved a lot in his almost 20 years, and what he's starting to do at KU is not a surprise. Well, maybe a little bit of a surprise," he added after a pause.

"We're proud of him. It's something you kind of pinch yourself. This has the ingredients to be a really special season for KU."

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