Former state champ still holds Hays High record
By Mike Courson
That’s not a model, not an airplane on the runway, it’s Gary Sechrist. The former USD 405 Lyons Superintendent and former javelin state champion is making his return to the sport at this weekend’s Sunflower Games in Topeka.
“I borrowed a javelin from (Lyons High School Principal Kelly) Nusser on Memorial Day weekend, and that’s the first time I’d picked one up,” Sechrist said. “I’ve been going out any time I’m not on the road. I’m trying to get my arm ready and we’ll see where it goes.”
A high school star
The Hays High record holder was once one of the top throwers in the nation. But that mostly happened by accident as Sechrist got his track start in the jumping events until his sophomore year of high school.
“I had been a jumper all along,” he said. “My javelin coach watched me play (dodge ball) and told me to come out and try to throw the javelin tonight after you’re done jumping.”
They rest, as they say, is history. In 1976 Sechrist placed second at the Kansas State High School Track and Field Championships. His senior year in 1977, he won a state title. That same year, he set the Hays High record that still stands today with a throw of 213 feet, 6 inches.
There is an asterisk by that record. In 2002, high schools around the nation began using a different type of javelin to cut down on dangerous throws that often traveled more than 220 feet.
“In those days, the javelin would fly like an airplane wing,” Sechrist said. “You could hit the wind just perfect and it would just float on the air. It was going too far and becoming too dangerous.
“When I was in high school it had to make a mark or it was a foul throw. You could have a huge throw but it would come down flat and couldn’t be measured. We would always have to meter down, which meant throwing a javelin that came down point first so we didn’t get the same throws. Now all of them are metered down.”
The change in the javelin was small – the center of gravity was moved slightly forward – but the impact has been large. The all-time best high school throw in Kansas is 254 feet, 9 inches by St. Thomas Aquinas’ Jim Russell in 1980.
The best high school throw with the new javelin was set in 2010 by Shawnee Mission South’s Johann Swanepoel at a distance of 238 feet, 4 inches. Only five Kansas prep athletes have thrown better than 220 feet since 2002. Manhattan’s Sam Hankins had the best throw this spring at 205 feet, 11 inches.
Sechrist’s success his junior and senior years of high school brought him some national attention. He placed second in the senior division of the National Junior Olympics in 1976. “Track and Field News” ranked him No. 6 in the nation in 1977. That same year, he competed in Chicago and placed sixth at the Golden West Invitational in Sacremento, Cali. That meet invited the top-8 high school athletes from around the nation in each event.
Graduating from Hays, Sechrist had signed a letter of intent to throw at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.
But Hays had a legend in its own backyard with Alex Francis approaching the end of his tenure as track and cross country coach at Fort Hays State University. Francis made it easy for Sechrist to stay at home and throw the javelin.
The Hall of Famer Francis retired from coaching at FHSU in 1980, but not before winning four NAIA national championships, 14 league championships, and 14 conference runners-up. He coached 139 All-Americans at FHSU, including Sechrist, who was a four-time All-American. Francis was an assistant coach to the 1968 Olympic track team.
”All the big timers would come up to me and ask what it’s like to throw for Coach Francis,” Sechrist said. “When he’s your own coach, you really don’t realize how legendary he is.”
Sechrist once walked into Francis’ office when the coach was on the phone to the University of Oregon’s legendary head coach and the co-founder of Nike, Bill Bowerman. Bowerman, who had just coached Steve Prefontaine to fame a few years earlier, was asking Francis for distance running training advice.
Another time, Francis introduced Sechrist to John Carlos, the American sprinter who gained fame at the 1968 Olympics after a Black Power salute on the medals podium.
While at FHSU, Sechrist saw some of the nation’s best throwers at the Drake Relays, Kansas Relays, and other meets. Sechrist finished second in the 1979 Drake Relays with a throw of 234 feet. The next year, still competing against mostly Div. I athletes, he won the title by 13.5 inches with a throw of 236-2.
“I got to compete at the Drake Relays four different years,” said Sechrist. “That’s pretty neat when you have 20,000 people who are track nuts.”
Sechrist won his NAIA national title in 1979 in Abilene, Texas. He never finished lower than fifth at the national meet to earn All-American honors in each of his four collegiate seasons between 1978 and 1981.
He was invited to the Olympic Festival in Colorado Springs in 1980. There, he missed qualifying for the Olympic trials by less than four feet.
The top American thrower at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal was Sam Colson, the fifth-place overall thrower at around 282 feet, 8 inches. Colson graduated from Mankato and threw under the guise of coach Larry Dreiling, who was later Sechrist’s coach at Hays High.
No American throwers cracked the top-12 at the 1980 Games in Moscow. Soviet Dainis Kula won the gold with a throw just over 299 feet.
Though Sechrist never made the Olympic team, he did get to see some international competition via the International Friendship Games in Taiwan in 1983, where he placed fifth.
“South Korea was just starting its push for the 1988 Olympics,” he said. “They had the Taiwanese and South Korean best, then (the U.S.) sent kind of a junior varsity team so we wouldn’t embarrass them.”
Again, Sechrist was surrounded by some of the world’s best talent. Yang Chuan-Kwang won the decathlon silver medal at the 1960 Olympic Games in Italy. He served as the Taiwanese Minister of Athletics in 1983. Chi Cheng, a Taiwanese world record holder in the sprints, a 1968 Olympic medalist, and 1970 Associated Press Athlete of the Year was also present during Sechrist’s stay in Taiwan.
Following his athletic career, Sechrist was a teacher at Smoky Valley High School in Lindsborg for nine years. He served as head track coach for most of that time. In 1996, he became the principal at Lyons High School, a role he held for 13 years. He was the USD 405 superintendent for four years and has since retired, now working for the Kansas Association of School Boards.
Heading into the Sunflower Games this weekend in Topeka, Sechrist may or may not be the favorite to win. Last year’s competition in the 55-59 age group featured just two competitors and neither threw beyond 110 feet.
But javelin is a different sport now than it was in 1983 when Sechrist last threw. Sprinters now make some of the best throwers.
“In the old days when I was throwing, it was who had the best arm,” Sechrist said. “It used to be a big man’s event. I was not a big guy. I guess I was blessed with a good arm. In the last 30 years, it’s become an event of speed and explosiveness on the runway. I don’t have the speed or explosiveness I used to have, so I’m just going to rely on the arm I have left.”
A good throw could qualify Sechrist for the National Senior Olympics to be held in Albuquerque in 2019. Former Lyons high jumper Sonny Hunter will also by looking to qualify in the high jump. Regardless of the outcome, Sechrist is able to look back on his track life with a smile.
“I got to see a lot of really good athletic performances through my career, whether I was one of them or not,” he said. “In those days, I saw 18-foot pole vaulters, 27-foot long jumpers, I’ve seen 4-minute miles personally. It’s been fun.”