April 16, 2013
SEATTLE - Growing up in Puyallup, sports was a family affair for Kayla Stueckle. The oldest of four siblings, Kayla's enthusiasm and speed was quite literally too much to be contained at a young age. Her dreams of being a professional soccer player eventually shifted into track stardom in high school, leading her to Washington where Stueckle has continued to lead by example and create a family atmosphere for the Husky sprinters.
This season, the third at Washington for Stueckle, her athletic family has merged with her real one, as younger sister Kimberly (Kimmie to most) is now a freshman showing a lot of promise in the 100-meter hurdles, with Kayla specializing at the 400-meter hurdles distance. Kimmie moved in with her big sister, and the two now share a one-bedroom apartment just as they did as children.
"I grew up sharing a bedroom with her," says Kayla. "She's my best friend so getting to share with her what I've gotten to know here in college has been a lot of fun."
The rest of the Pac-12 has gotten to know the elder Stueckle over the past two seasons, as Kayla placed sixth in the 400m hurdles at the conference championships last year in a particularly talented field. She went on to make the quarterfinals of the NCAA Outdoor Championships, one round short of advancing to the final site of nationals.
Stueckle currently sits sixth on the Washington all-time list in the 400-meter hurdles with a best of 58.52 seconds set last year at Pac-12s. Her first race of this current outdoor season was won in 59.21 seconds, nearly a full three seconds faster than she had ever opened a season before. That, and all the work put in over the past year, has Stueckle expecting another PR sooner rather than later.
I try hard in every aspect of life, and I think there's no reason not to."It's definitely there," said Stueckle of running a new career-best, potentially at the Mt. SAC Relays coming up this weekend. "After these two weeks of training, hopefully the weather will be nice and I can go out there and crank one out."
Soccer was the first love for the daughter of Heather and Dan, with Dan coaching Kayla through youth club teams and on into high school. Her parents met at Los Angeles Baptist College, now known as the Master's College, where her father played on the soccer team. Her mother played sports growing up as well, and those athletic genes, and love for soccer in particular, were passed on to Kayla, Kimberly, and youngest sister, Karlee. Kyle, the younger brother in the mix, gravitated towards baseball, and Kayla says the youngest two Stueckle siblings are more than holding up their ends on the field.
It all started with an indoor soccer team that Kayla ran roughshod through at the precocious age of five. Her parents quickly learned that the close quarters were doing more harm than good, occasionally to Kayla's teammates. "My mom would say they only had me in there for a year because I was sort of too fast for indoors and I would go steal the ball from my own teammates and it was a big issue," she laughs. "So after that I moved to outdoors, and that became my favorite sport."
Family support has always been critical, and sports has brought their family closer together. "It's fun because it's easy to relate what my brother and sisters are doing and the craziness of it. My parents are awesome, they were there whenever they could be, and trying to coordinate all of it," says Kayla, who places the most value in her personal relationships as well as her faith. "If one kid didn't have a game they'd always go and watch the other siblings' games. I'm still that way; I go home and watch games on the weekends whenever I can. It was a lot of fun growing up in a house like that."
When track was first offered in seventh grade, Stueckle says, not many wanted to risk the potential pain and embarrassment of falling over a hurdle, but Kayla and a friend accepted the challenge. "Everyone else thought, `No, that's not for me' but I thought, `This is totally my thing!'"
Stueckle was a two-time All-League first team selection in soccer, playing for the recently opened Emerald Ridge High School where her father was a teacher and head soccer coach as well. But she dominated on the track, winning a total of five 4A state titles, including three her senior year in the 300-meter hurdles, the 100-meter hurdles, and the long jump. She was the South Puget Sound League Track Athlete of the Year each year from 2008-10.
"I knew that track was where I was headed," she says.
The times Stueckle was posting through her junior and senior seasons were competitive on a national scale, so she drew interest from all over the country. But only one school really had her attention.
"People ask where did I take my visits to, or where was I considering besides here, and the answer is nowhere," says Stueckle, "there wasn't anywhere else. Getting that visit from Coach Metcalf and (sprints coach) Raul and getting the offer, it was extremely exciting." Probably just as exciting for the coaches, who could see they were getting a great athlete but also a diligent worker who graduated high school with an outstanding GPA and honors.
A Psychology major, Stueckle was named to the USTFCCCA All-Academic Team last year as well as honorable mention Pac-12 All-Academic. Her goal is to pursue a career in occupational therapy, anything that helps people having a huge appeal. Stueckle says she's a perfectionist, and the classroom is just another arena for her to compete in. "I try hard in every aspect of life, and I think there's no reason not to."
That attitude, coupled with her big meet experience, has made her a natural leader for the women's sprints group, especially now with Jordan Carlson having used up her eligibility this past indoor season. But without Carlson, Stueckle says, she would not be the leader she is.
People ask where ... was I considering besides (UW), and the answer is nowhere. There wasn't anywhere else."I think the example Jordan set and the bar she set for this group of girls has made it ten times easier for me to step into her shoes. Successfully being able to keep this group moving forward. She's created an atmosphere that we work hard to achieve the things that we want. It's been a blessing to have her around."
Hard work has resulted in steady improvement for Stueckle, and staying consistently healthy has been a blessing and a big reason for her progress, she says. Coach Sheen adjusted her offseason training this past summer, with Stueckle running higher mileage, training more like an 800-meter runner. The goal is for Stueckle's finish to be as powerful as her starts typically are, and also allow her to run strong 400m hurdles races on back to back days--at NCAA Prelims or Pac-12s--with relay responsibilities mixed in.
"In my first two years here, hitting 200 (meters) and going into that final corner has been a huge struggle for me," says Stueckle. "We've been working on it in practice, and in the opener at USC I got to the corner and realized I had this strength that I didn't have before, and I didn't know what to do with it! I got to the homestretch and felt good and was running strong and thought, `What just happened?' It was cool to see the opening time because I know there's nowhere but up the rest of the season."
After getting another win at the Pepsi Team Invite a week and a half ago, Stueckle was clearly more excited about the big PR that sophomore Gianna Woodruff had just posted to take second. Woodruff broke the 60-second barrier for the first time, a big mark for any up-and-coming 400-meter hurdler. After Stueckle signed up, the long hurdles group has added talent each year, with Woodruff poised for a breakout sophomore season and freshman Daje Pugh coming to town after winning the California state title last year with the nation's top time. Pugh has had some bumps in the road in her first season, but Stueckle says "she just has to trust in the process. It's all going to come."
What's coming for Stueckle is another championship season where she'll look to climb higher up the Husky top-10 list, improve on last year's Pac-12 finish, and most importantly, add another race to her season by finishing in the top-12 in the West Region. That would mean an appearance in the NCAA semifinals, held at Oregon's Hayward Field this June.
"After opening up so well and just feeling so good about training, I'm really excited to see where the season goes, and hopefully at Texas I can run two rounds really strong and be top-12 in the West and head back to Eugene and show them what I can do."
Whatever the outcome, she'll have a proud family in Puyallup and Seattle.