Westmont Men’s and Women’s Track and Field opened the 2023 Indoor season on Saturday, when they hosted the On Your Marks Indoor Open. While several Warriors posted impressive starts to their season, it took until the day’s final hours for the first athletes to clinch their spots at Indoor Nationals.
In predictable fashion, nine-time NAIA All-American Zola Sokhela took home the first honor for the Warriors, when he competed in the men’s 600 meter dash. With his signature long stride and calm demeanor, the now-junior from South Africa earned an ‘A-Standard’ in the race, completing it in 1:20.08.
The automatic qualifying time to beat was 1:20.78, and by beating it, Sokhela became the first Warrior in 2023 to punch his ticket to the NAIA Indoor National Championships in March. Even more impressively, Sokhela once again put his name atop a Westmont leaderboard, this time breaking John Nealon’s program-best mark of 1:20.23 from 2015.
“A lot of my success I attribute to the people around me,” said the all-time Westmont great. “It starts with my family, helping me come to love sports. My coach as well, Coach Smelley wants me to run good races, but he cares more about me as a person as well.
“I give myself credit, too. Times where it gets tough you have to dig deep and remind yourself why you started, and if you can’t bring that motivation within yourself, that’s hard.”
Sokhela now owns four program records.
“For me, racing is not just about winning,” added Sokhela. “It really goes beyond that. When you begin racing, of course, you want to win races, and when you break personal records and school records, it feels amazing. As far as breaking a school record goes, it just tells me that I’m better than I was last year.
“While it’s special to break records, it doesn’t last forever, so I’m going to celebrate the victories and the little wins along the way. Some people might say, ‘oh, you’ve been here before’, but the honest truth is that every year it gets harder and every year there’s new challenges.
“I’m excited about going back to nationals, and I’m nervous as well. Overall, creating new challenges myself this season is my main focus.”
Also competing in the 600 meter dash was NAIA All-American Abigail Hundley, who narrowly missed national qualifying times herself. Finishing well ahead of her opponents, Hundley opened her track season with a 600 time of 1:37.84. The automatic qualifying time for the event was 1:36.12, while the provisional mark was 1:37.51.
Elsewhere, NAIA All-American Kari Anema was another Warrior with an impressive outing, as the now-sophomore won the women’s 5000 meter run with a time of 18:37.89.
“I love the fresh start that each season brings,” shared Anema. “It feels like cross country just ended, so I’m still in that mindset a bit, but it’s exciting to now turn the page to track season. It definitely takes a lot of strategy to remain focused for such a long race, and it’s different for each person.
“For me, I break it up into three miles and try to focus on one mile at a time. For the first mile I relax, for the second I get into it a little more, and for the third one, I give it all I have left.
“In college I’ve struggled with the anxiety that comes with big races, and my goal for this season is to be able to push past that, and want to be in the race, and to enjoy being in the race.”
Towards the end of the afternoon the Warriors got more good news, when junior Abby Rumohr claimed victory in the women’s pole vault. Not only did Rumohr clear a higher mark than her opponents on Saturday, but after clearing 3.52m (11-6.5), she clinched herself a trip back to Brookings, South Dakota after achieving an A-Standard mark.
Last season at Indoor Nationals, Rumohr narrowly missed NAIA All-American status with a 10th-place finish.
“I’m pretty stoked to be going back,” said Rumohr. “That was my goal for this meet to get that mark out of the way and now I can focus on getting better moving forward. I would’ve loved to PR today, but I’m stoked about the chance to go to nationals still.
“My goal this season is to clear 13 feet. I’d love to consistently get PRs and build up to that mark. I’m excited to get to work and figure out what will get me to that point.”
In the women’s pentathlon Westmont’s Lily Sween added to the headlines when she finished in first place. After posting the second-fastest 60 meter hurdle, Sween took off in the middle of the pentathlon. Sween finished the day’s best marks in the high jump, shot put, and long jump, setting up a chance for the senior to finish off the win in the 800.
After finishing her 800 in 2:54.41, Sween finished the day atop the leaderboard with 3,004 points, just ahead of the 2,950-point minimum-mark for Indoor Nationals. Among qualifiers for Indoor Nationals, those with the top-16 scores will earn a berth into the meet.
“Gosh, I was tired out there,” chuckled Sween. “I was definitely nervous today, especially when I scratched my first two long jumps, but I took a step back and popped it off on my third jump to get it done.
“I had a major injury back in the fall, so I haven’t had any fall training. Coming out here today was really like being thrown into it, just to see how it goes. I relied on muscle memory and four years of college track and field to pull me through.
“I’m excited for my senior year. I’m trying to become an All-American in both the pentathlon and heptathlon, and hopefully I can pull through and finish strong.”
The Warrior’s next chance to add to their list of qualifiers is on Friday, Feb. 10, when they host the Sunshine Indoor Open in Santa Barbara.
Jacob Norling is the sports information assistant at Westmont College.