When Tatum Waggoner first set foot on the Arizona track, she had no clue she’d be able to show these accomplishments five years later: second-fastest UA runner ever in the 400-meter dash, part of the school record 4x400 relay team and honoree on the Academic All-District Team.
Now, the redshirt senior is set to compete this week with four women’s teammates at the NCAA Track and Field’s Championships in Austin, Texas.
Waggoner will line up Thursday evening in the first of three heats in the 400 semifinals. She ran her personal best time — 51.89 seconds — in the event last season and will be looking to match or beat that time.
Less than two hours later, she will team with Shannon Meisberger, Karolina Pahlitzsch and Diana Gajda in the 4x400-meter relay.
Two weeks ago, the foursome blazed around the track in the NCAA Preliminaries in Sacramento, California, to establish a UA record time of 3:30.57 in the 4x400.
What makes the foursome so good?
You can start here: Waggoner, Pahlitzsch and Gajda all rank in the UA’s all-time top dozen in the individual 400. And the three highly competitive seniors all made it to the NCAA meet in the relay last year.
Sophomore Meisberger, a Georgetown transfer from Lennox, Massachusetts, runs the relay’s opening leg.
“Shannon’s been fantastic, both on the relay and in qualifying for the NCAA in the 400-meter hurdles, one of the most difficult events to make it,” said Arizona coach Fred Harvey.
The Scottsdale-born Waggoner covered her 400-meter leg in the NCAA preliminaries in Sacramento in 51.92 seconds.
She passed the baton to Pahlitzsch, who like Meisberger, also qualified for the NCAA 400 hurdles.
Gajda, a Salpointe Catholic High grad, runs the relay’s anchor leg. In Sacramento, she finished strong in 51.75 and ensured gaining the school record. Her best time in the 400-meter dash is 52.78.
“I couldn’t be more excited for the relay team,” Harvey said.
“They’ve improved their time in the relay three meets in a row.”
Even with that record run, UA sprinters coach Francesca Green says there’s room for improvement. With everyone running well, she said, the team could run under the 3:30.00 mark.
They may have to go that fast just to be one of the top eight teams to make it into Saturday’s final.
They will run in the same heat Thursday as USC, Texas A&M and other top competitors.
In the 400-meter hurdles, Pahlitzsch and Meisberger will both compete in the same heat. Meisberger ran a slightly faster time than Pahlitzsch in Sacramento. Pahlitzsch, from Germany, is a more experienced hurdler with a faster personal record.
“Karolina has been running some fantastic times,” Harvey said. “If she’s able to run the first part of the race like I want her to run it, she’ll be hard to beat.”
The fifth UA female athlete competing in Austin will be Karla Teran, currently tied for No. 2 in the NCAA’s high jump list.
Waggoner’s jump to college athlete elite status has come as a pleasant surprise to her.
At Pinnacle High in Phoenix, she set six school records and finished second in the state in the 400 meters. Her 400 time of 55.36, while good, was not exceptional.
On a visit to the UA, Waggoner said she “loved the campus and Coaches Harvey and Green.” She accepted a partial scholarship, breaking a family tradition of attending ASU. “I guess I’m the smart one,” she joked.
Her initial goal, she said, was being good enough to make the team. At the beginning, she recalled, she had trouble in the weight room even lifting the lightest bar over her head.
Gradually, she got stronger in both the weight room and on the track. By her sophomore year, she had already earned a full scholarship.
She missed the end of her sophomore outdoor season, however, after sustaining stress fractures in both feet and cracks in the balls of her feet. The bad luck continued the following year when illness kept her out of competition.
She came back strong last year. Typically, both last season and this one, she has run the 200 meters, the 400, the 4x100 relay and the 4x400 relay.
In Austin, she said, “I’m going to give it my all” in both the 400 and in the relay.
That won’t surprise Harvey, who twice has honored her with the team’s “BeLezoLike” scholarship. The award was established in memory of Lezo Urreiztieta, a UA hurdler who died in 2013 after brain surgery.
Like Urreiztieta, Harvey said, “Tatum’s a good student, is extremely diligent in terms of her work ethic and she’s a good teammate. She cares about her teammates as much as she cares about herself.”
In Austin, Waggoner said she’s hoping both she in the 400 and her relay teammates make into Saturday’s finals and earn points for the Wildcats.
Coming Wednesday: A look at the UA men’s athletes competing in Austin.