Riker: Northwestern athletics should consider expanding. Adding women’s track and field is a great place to start.


Photo Courtesy of Megan Slamkowski

Northwestern cross country runs on a course. The Wildcats are the only Big Ten team without a track and field team.

John Riker, Gameday Editor

Northwestern’s women’s teams have crushed it this fall. 

From field hockey returning to the national championship to soccer making its own postseason run to volleyball securing major upsets, it’s been a stellar quarter. But as a senior, the program that has surprised me the most has been my first beat as a Daily reporter: cross country. 

Let’s look back at where the Wildcats came from to earn a spot at the NCAA Championship and rise to 30th place in the nation. 

In 2019, the squad was in a period of transition. All-American Audrey Roberts was nearing the end of her prolific career and a new coach, Jill Miller, was still acclimating to coaching NU and sharing her vision for the program. The Cats had some promising younger runners, such as sophomore Rachel McCardell and Hannah Hall, but struggled to compete with other Big Ten programs. 

Months later, NU had to deal with its greatest obstacle yet: the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cats wouldn’t compete again until Jan. 30, 2021, where they placed seventh out of 10 teams in the Big Ten Championships in a 6,000-meter race.

A year and a half later, NU cross country is relevant on a national scale. McCardell, now a graduate student, followed Roberts’ lead and emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best runners, while Miller has realized and enacted her vision for the program.

That’s pretty impressive. But this accomplishment feels even more remarkable because of how unique the Cats are in comparison to rival programs. Consider that NU is the only Big Ten school to not have a full-time women’s or men’s track team, or even a dedicated track on campus. Beyond that, the Chicago area barely has hills. The Cats have traveled to Wisconsin to train and prepare for inclines and challenging cross country courses.

This remarkable program, and its Disney-esque narrative, brings me to my request of athletic director Derrick Gragg and NU athletics: expand the Cats’ sports offerings and consider adding women’s track and field as the Cats’ 20th team.

Cross country’s success speaks for itself. But in the scope of NU’s entire athletic department, expansion is an exciting new frontier and area for growth. With high-profile projects such as Ryan Fieldhouse and the redone Welsh-Ryan Arena complete and a rapid era of new athletic facilities coming to a close with the Ryan Field rebuild in 2023, the athletic department will have to look elsewhere to continue to grow and elevate NU athletics. Expansion would be a great place to start.

I don’t think NU’s relative lack of size and access to resources should disqualify adding track, either. Being the only Big Ten team without a single track program is one thing, but it’s also worth it to compare the Cats to its most similar Power Five counterparts like Stanford and Duke. Both of those universities boast some of the best track programs in their respective conferences. In the Ivy League, Princeton, Harvard and Penn feature nationally competitive athletes as well. 

Sure, women’s track and field would not be a revenue sport, and the Cats have wildly successful programs already in Olympic sports. That doesn’t disqualify track and field from becoming a rewarding addition. 

One critique I have of NU athletics is that a majority of its teams play sports with a high barrier of entry, such as golf, fencing and field hockey. In contrast, track and field is one of the most accessible sports and attracts a diverse range of socioeconomic backgrounds. The cross country runners would certainly be a part of a new program, but opening up scholarship opportunities for middle distance runners, sprinters, hurdlers and field athletes could make the Cats a more diverse and inclusive department as a whole.

Big Ten programs compete in plenty of other sports that some NU fans have clamored for the department to add, such as ice hockey and men’s lacrosse. Still, track and field should be a priority. Cross country competes in winter and spring track meets without the track and field team designation, but the combination of the relatively low cost per athlete and accessibility make adding a full track and field program a financially sensible and high-upside option.

I implore Gragg and NU athletics to consider adding track and field — and women’s track and field especially — as an option for long-term growth and inclusivity. Plus, after the fall the Cats’ female athletes have had, what could be better than having another women’s sports team in the mix?

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @jhnriker

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