Duke women's track and field takes gold in ACC Championships behind sprint heroics, men place 7th

Sophomore Lauren Tolbert won two gold medals Saturday at the ACC championship meet.
Sophomore Lauren Tolbert won two gold medals Saturday at the ACC championship meet.

In the ACC Championship track and field meet, everything can change in the last few hours.

The meet spans three days: Thursday and Friday, field events are final, but most races stay in the prelim round. Saturday, starting at 5 p.m., athletes who have qualified for the finals have about four hours to give Atlanta’s George C. Griffin Track every ounce of speed they have left.

Duke did just that. Behind wicked speed from their sprints team, the Blue Devil women took home their second ACC outdoor title in a row.

"The thing about this team victory is, we had to overcome a lot of adversity," head coach Shawn Wilbourn said Sunday. Duke was missing Amina Maatoug and Tina Martin, two of its fastest assets. 

Still, when the finals began, Duke was ready to go. The women’s team was already leading in points, so it was a matter of preventing Clemson and Miami from catching up. Duke’s 4x100m team — Mia Edim, Abby Geiser, Halle Bieber and Maddy Doane — kicked around the track in just 43.59 seconds to snag a first-place finish in the event, edging by Florida State with just a hair’s breadth to decide the victory. The quartet notched a season best along the way, a testament to the lineup designed by Wilbourn and assistant coach Mark Mueller.

"We lost [Martin] but we still broke the school record without her on that relay team, and won ACCs for the first time ever in a 4x100m," Wilbourn said. 

With less than three hours to go, the women lined up for the 400m finals. In lane eight, Megan McGinnis hunched over her starting blocks. In lane six, Lauren Tolbert did the same. McGinnis won this event last year, but because the Duke junior missed out on her indoor season due to injury, and then woke up Thursday with strep throat, all eyes settled upon a new favorite: Clemson senior Ken’naria Gadson.

The start gun exploded, and so did the runners. McGinnis held the lead for a few seconds, Gadson gaining steadily on her heels. On her heels was Tolbert, relentless in her chase. After 200m, Tolbert had the lead, but as the group of girls rounded the curve before their last 100m, Gadson looked to be taking it back. In the final stretch, Tolbert found her last spurt of energy — she’s a great closer, thanks to her 800m resume — and rocketed past Gadson to take a solid first-place finish and a personal best to boot.

Boom. Gold.

“I was just thinking about my team … and just beating everyone,” Tolbert said on ACC Network.

Her thought process didn’t change. A few hours later, Tolbert was back on the track to run another 400m, this time as part of the relay team.

The Blue Devil women have a history with the 4x400m. In 2023, at the ACC Indoor Championships, McGinnis dropped the baton in the last few meters of the race — or had it knocked out of her hand, it’s controversial — and Duke was disqualified from the event. The women’s team lost the title it would have won if it had placed anywhere within the top five of that race.

So at the 2023 outdoor championships, the Blue Devils looked for redemption. They won the conference title, but lost the 4x400m relay, once again, to Miami.

This time around, the lineup was different. McGinnis and Tolbert are veterans in the race, but junior Meredith Sims and Doane were new to it. Wilbourn and Mueller have spent all season trying to fine tune this lineup, and had to reconsider it when their team was hit with a slew of recent injuries.

Two laps into the race, Duke held third place, two seconds behind neck-and-neck Clemson and Miami runners. Then Sims took off, and ran her heart out — her 53.52-second lap was nearly two seconds faster than any 400 she has ever run in college. Tolbert took off on her anchor lap, with two seconds to make up for and a race to win.

She did it, crossing the finish line less than half a second before Clemson, apparently unaffected by the laps she had been running all day. Miami was another split second behind the Tigers. 

"Her anchor leg in the 4x400m was one of the best performances I've seen all year," Wilbourn said of Tolbert.

Duke finally took gold in the 4x400m relay, and seeing as that was their last event, it meant they took gold for the conference, too — even with McGinnis sick and many of their best athletes out with injury.

"It's a tribute to our depth," Wilbourn said.

The truth is that the Blue Devils would have won the meet without the 4x400m — they really are a deep group, amassing 133 points in 21 scored events to beat out second place by 14.5 points and third place by 59. They knew that, and they still ran their hearts out, determined to leave Atlanta knowing they had left nothing but dust behind.

That depth featured Bieber’s silver medal in the 200m, Skyla Wilson's first-place finish in the 400m hurdles, her third place finish in the 100m hurdles and Brianna Smith’s runner-up performance in the heptathlon. There was some power on the field, too: Julia Magliaro, a freshman, took second in the javelin and Gemma Tutton, another freshman, jumped her way to gold in the pole vault.

Heading into Saturday, the Blue Devils were winning both the women’s and men’s sides of things. What the Duke men lack in speed, they make up for on the field, as they’ve shown all year: Simen Guttormsen won the pole vault, Aimar Palma Simo and Christian Johnson took first and second in the hammer and Marten Gasparini got second in the javelin.

Without running events — field and heptathlon only — Duke would have tied Virginia Tech for second in the men’s competition. But track is evidently pretty important. The ACC hosts some of the most competitive men’s track programs in the nation: When Hokie sophomore Judson Lincoln IV crossed the finish line in the men’s 400m dash, he became the fastest runner for that event in the country. So when all was said and done, the Blue Devil men placed seventh out of 15 competing teams, tallying 70.3 points — all but 16 of which came from the field.

There's hope for their future, though: "I feel like we'll have our best men's team we've ever had next year," Wilbourn said.

As the women celebrate their conference victory, Duke will wait to hear about individual qualifications for the NCAA East Regional starting May 22.


Sophie Levenson profile
Sophie Levenson | Sports Managing Editor

Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 120th volume.

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