The biggest track meet of Michael Stigler’s life was roughly a week away.
The former Jayhawk was practicing 400-meter hurdle sets at Rock Chalk Park before the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials. As Stigler was two hurdles into his second set, he heard his worst nightmare: a loud pop.
As Stigler’s body hit the synthetic track, his dreams of making the 2016 Olympic team popped along with his right hamstring.
“It turned me into a new man, having to start from rock bottom,” Stigler said. “Making the Olympic team is everybody’s goal. And not being able to do that really hurt. But I’m gonna be a fighter and fight back — let everybody know that I’m here to stay. My collegiate season wasn’t a fluke. I am here to stay. The name Stigler will be known by the time my career ends.”
At Rock Chalk Park, Stigler’s name is already known. It’s etched into the Kansas history books along with fellow Jayhawk legends and NCAA champions in Jim Ryun and Cliff Cushman.
Stigler spent two months recovering from his injury, with help from a Kansas Athletics athletic trainer in Zack Sanchez and OrthoKansas sports medicine doctor Luis Sanchez before returning to the track. And when Stigler did return, he changed up his training regimen.
Instead of solely focusing on his speed and hurdle work, Stigler worked with coach Stanley Redwine and the distance runners in the fall. Come winter and spring, Stigler began to work with sprints hurdles coach Elisha Brewer.
“I’m strong from coach Redwine. I’m getting the speed from coach Brewer,” Stigler said. “It’s something we’ve never done. It’s gonna be something special when it all comes together.”
Less than a year after his injury, Stigler returned to the track in which he currently trains to run the 400-meter hurdles in the 90th annual Kansas Relays.
Stigler wasn’t the only Jayhawk in the race. Current Kansas senior Alex Wilson was in the next lane over.
“I know what to expect,” Wilson said of Stigler, as the two still practice together. “Coming out of the blocks, he likes to get out and really go for it.”
That’s just what he did.
Stigler blazed past the other competitors soon after the gun went off. He was nearly a hurdle ahead of everyone else on the back curve.
Stigler dominated the field with a statement performance. No one was even close to catching him. Stigler’s time of 49.38 was good enough to be among the top-10 fastest times worldwide this year. The second-place finisher, Quinton Harley, clocked in at 52.65, a full three seconds slower than Stigler. Wilson placed fifth.
As Stigler crossed the finish line, he couldn’t control his emotions. He looked at the scoreboard, saw his time and yelled “I’m back, baby,” to the Jayhawk-filled stands around him. He waved his arms, pumping up the crowd.
Stigler said running at Rock Chalk Park is a feeling he can’t explain. He equates it to running at nationals, NCAAs or the USA Championships. This facility and this place mean that much to him.
“Lawrence is pretty much my home,” Stigler said. “I love it here. I'd love to stay here the rest of my life if I could. It's great. The fans love me, I love the fans. It's great."
The fans do love Stigler. Immediately after his race was over, several fans dressed in crimson and blue shouted congratulations his way. And one young Kansas fan came up to the fence and asked for his autograph.
Stigler gave the fan more than just one autographed item. He signed the kid’s sweatshirt, as well as the meet program and Stigler’s own bib number.
When he went to sign the meet program, Stigler asked the child where he wanted him to sign. The kid said he didn’t care. Stigler smiled.
“I’mma sign page 47,” Stigler said. “That’s my goal time.”