LINCOLN — When Mara Weekes first heard the suggestion that she come to Nebraska, she thought Matt Martin, who coaches NU sprinters, had misspoken. Weekes, who grew up in Barbados, thought Martin was recruiting her to a state adjacent to the Arctic Circle.
“Honestly, I had never heard of Nebraska before,” Weekes said. “I was like ‘Nebraska? Do you mean Alaska?’ ”
On some winter days, the confusion can be forgiven for a trio of Husker sprinters who were born in the much steamier climates of South America and the Caribbean. But not only have Weekes, Chantal Duncan, and Kadecia Baird found their way to Lincoln, they’ve also found their way to the top of the Big Ten indoor charts after two weeks of competition.
The three figure to make NU competitive at the Big Ten championships in distances ranging from 60 meters to 800.
Weekes ranks in the top 10 among conference times in the 60, 200 and 400. Baird, a freshman from Brooklyn who grew up in Guyana, has posted the league’s second-fastest time in the 200 and also ranks among the best in the 400 in junior national competition. Duncan, a junior who has competed for Jamaica at the junior international level, has the No. 3 time in the Big Ten in both the 400 and the 600 this season.
They also figure to form the backbone of a potent 1,600 relay team, which will feature all three for the first time this season at Saturday’s New Mexico Invitational in Albuquerque.
“When we have to go to New Mexico and run the 4x4,” Baird said, “that’s going to be a really strong team.”
All three runners came to Nebraska through relationships maintained by Martin, the Huskers’ longtime recruiting coordinator who has longstanding relationships in Latin America.
He met Weekes’ coach in Brazil, first contacted her at a meet in the Cayman Islands, and signed the sprinter before she took her visit. Martin then discovered Duncan during one of his frequent trips to the talent-rich youth national meets in Jamaica and helped guide her to Iowa Central Community College, where she won national titles in the 600 and 800 before coming to Lincoln this season.
Baird’s route to Lincoln can be traced to her high school coach at Medgar Evers Prep in Brooklyn, ex-Husker national champion triple jumper Nicola Martial, a fellow Guyana native.
“In all three of those cases, the girls are interested in more than track and field,” Martin said. “That’s really the key.”
But Lincoln may end up being a stopover in their careers. Baird already is a phenom. She was second in the 300 last weekend at the New Balance Games in New York, beaten only by Olympian Shaune Miller, and has her eye on running for Guyana in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Duncan, who Martin said may be the most versatile of the three, wants to run the 800 outdoors and 400 indoors professionally after her NU career.
Weekes, who referred to herself as “the grandma of the group,” has done an excellent job taking the other two under her wing, her coach said.
The senior who at first couldn’t spot Nebraska on the map has helped her younger teammates adjust to life in Lincoln — an invaluable contribution if the NU women end up contending for the Big Ten championship.
“We’ve got a great example from Mara ever since she’s been here,” Martin said. “Now that she’s got Chantal and Kadecia following her around, it’s been a great example for them to figure out how to handle themselves.”