With roots going back more than a century and a half, track and field lays claim to being one of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s longest-enduring sports on the Badgers roster of collegiate athletic offerings. “Basically, it ranks right up there with football,” says Diane Nordstrom, communications director, illustrating the program’s longevity. As is the case with anything with a deep and storied history, the program has evolved over the passing decades.
For the bulk of its existence, track and field was only open to men. But the Badgers program pole vaulted into a new era when, after 80 years, a separate women’s team was established in the 1974-75 season. Eight years later, the women joined their male counterparts in attaining Big Ten status. Track and field entered yet another phase on the UW–Madison campus in the 2013-14 season when it became a co-ed sport. “That’s typical of a lot of teams now,” Diane says.
Each season, approximately 100 athletes don a Badgers uniform to compete in track and field events. The indoor season kicks off in January and wraps in March with the Big Ten and NCAA championships. The outdoor season begins immediately afterward in the second half of March and concludes in June with the similar Big Ten and NCAA championship playoffs.
Track and field includes running events in short and long distances, as well as relay, medley, and hurdles. Varying athletic skills are on display in the high jump, long jump, pole vault, shot put, and weight throw. And the heptathlon is a combined contest that has an athlete competing in seven events.
The Badgers track and field team has earned a number of achievements over the years, including scores of Big Ten championships. The men have notched 42 Big Ten titles—24 for the indoor season and 18 for the outdoor season—and the women have attained 24 Big Ten titles—13 for the outdoor season and 11 for the indoor season.
March 10, 2007, was an especially notable day for the male athletes. During the indoor NCAA championship series, the team scored 40 points and, in doing so, earned its first title in the final round of competition. “[UW–Madison] is the only Big Ten school to receive an NCAA championship in indoor track and field,” Diane says, pointing to the significance of the recognition.
In more recent years, there have been standout track and field players consistently from one season to the next. Alicia Monson has been a standout player in her four years on the team. In February, during the 2019-20 indoor season, Alicia placed sixth in the 3,000-meter relay with a time of 8:53.69 at the Millrose Games competition. Alicia also holds the Big Ten and UW record in 3,000 meters with a record of 8:45.97.
On the men’s side of the roster, a standout athlete among many is distance runner Morgan McDonald. In the 2018-19 season, Morgan made a number of strides in the indoor and outdoor competition. In spring 2019, Morgan became the first Badger in program history to complete the distance sweep and earn NCAA individual titles in the 3,000-meter and 5,000-meter relays. In outdoor competition in May, Morgan won the 10,000 meters in the Big Ten championship, notching a time of 29:26.06.
As with any UW sport, the coaching staff is an important backbone of the program. Coach Mick Byrne, director of cross-country and track and field, has been leading the program for seven years. A number of assistant coaches round out the staff, each specializing in the individual competitive areas of the overall team.
Mick came to UW–Madison from Iona College in New York City, where he spent 24 years in the Division I coaching ranks. The Dublin, Ireland, native has earned 36 Coach of the Year honors. In 2011, peers recognized him with the National Coach of the Year award through a professional organization known as the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
While strong coaching and athlete determination have been integral in the positive momentum of the Badgers track and field team, fans also contribute to making the program the consistent success it is year after year. Fan support is unwavering throughout the season, but the chorus of cheers reaches epic heights when the Big Ten championships come into play. “It’s very exciting when Wisconsin hosts a Big Ten meet,” Diane says. “[The fans] definitely come out and show their support. They make it known, and the players really appreciate it.”
Dave Fidlin is a freelance writer who has a special affinity for Madison. Dave’s career spans nearly 20 years, and he’s grateful for the opportunity to learn something new each day through his professional pursuits.