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Number 1 in all the land, Gibbens makes history as he learns from it

The standard bearer for Kansas’ modern running history looks back to bring the program forward

3 min read
Kansas senior Chandler Gibbens comes down the homestretch during a recent cross country race for the Jayhawks. [Kansas Athletics photo]

Leading up to the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational on September 29, Chandler Gibbens assembled a checklist of things he wanted to do during the 8k; each line on the list, a small goal in service of a bigger one.

“I really wanted to beat one of the Alabama guys, because the goal was to compete with them team-wise,” said the senior from Columbia, Missouri.

The standard bearer for Kansas track and field and cross country was already widely decorated leading into his senior year — team captain, 2019 newcomer of the year, 2019 all Big 12, Big 12 race winner twice over and more — but he was worried, leading into the first race of the season, that he wasn’t “in great shape” yet.

Gibbens and distance coach Michael Whittlesey planned the final item on Gibbens’ checklist together. The two have worked closely since Whittlesey recruited Gibbens away from his hometown Missouri Tigers, and before the race at Notre Dame, Whittlesey asked his star runner, “where are you gonna make your move?”

“Right there,” Gibbens responded, pointing to the final turn.

“You know that’s only 130 meters” before the end of the race? his coach asked.

“That’s all I need,” was Gibbens’ response, and indeed it was all he needed to win the 8k and set a personal record in that distance by 31 seconds. All but one goal achieved. The Jayhawks finished just 12th of 18 teams, and behind Alabama, their named target.

Gibbens’ performance earned him the title Division I National Athlete of the Week according to the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, the first time in program history that a Jayhwaks has earned the honor.

"... To have my turn at the forefront of this program is really special.” — Kansas senior Chandler Gibbens

And while, this is a relatively new award — one that, Whittlesey thinks, some of Kansas’ past greats might have won had it been around for them to win — before Gibbens, there had “never been a Kansas track athlete to ever win the 5,000 and the 10,000 meter race in their history at the conference meet” until Gibbens did both at the 2023 conference championship back in May. That, Whittlesey emphasized, is truly unprecedented.

“It means a lot,” said Gibbens of his most recent award. “I've spoken before about how incredible it is to be a part of a program that has the legacy that (Kansas) has, so to have my turn at the forefront of this program is really special.”

Over the years, the Jayhawks have had several national champions in cross country, and some of the greats have come back to speak to Gibbens in his time in Lawrence. Sharon Lokedi, Billy Mills, and Jim Ryun, whose Kansas record in the 5,000 meter race stood for over fifty years before Gibbens broke it in May, have all spoken to the senior, and to know that they are “encouraging and rooting” for Gibbens, pushes him to do more, and “to build their legacy as well.”

For Gibbens, his time at Kansas is now about “leaving a legacy behind, and trying to make the team better” than it was when he came as a freshman. It's tough, he said, “because the team had a great year when I got here. That just means that the standard has to rise.”

After the meet at Notre Dame, a disappointing showing for the team, it was not the 10k win on Gibbens’ mind, but the standard he knows the team has yet to reach.

“He came up to me, and said ‘I got this,’” Whittlesey recalled. Setting and reaching standards isn’t something a coach can teach. “‘We have to take care of this,’” Gibbens explained.

“In my mind, and in all of [our] minds, on race day, it's all about going out and doing what you can for each other," Gibbens said.

The captain drew on this knowledge during his successful race, and he offered it back to his teammates when theirs didn’t go as well.

Gibbens has got his teammates and his program’s legacy to think about. Like the last 130 meters, one can doubt if that is enough for Kansas to achieve its lofty goals, but in Chandler Gibbens’ mind, that’s all he needs.

Fresh off of a 4th-place finish at the Pre-Nationals Invite last weekend, Gibbens and the rest of the Jayhawks are now turning their sights toward preparation for the Big 12 Championship on Oct. 28 in Ames, Iowa.

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