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Wildcat Legends: Where Are They Now?


Article by Tyler Jackson

Photography by Provided

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A conversation with Kansas State’s Gwen Wentland-Mikinski

  • 2006 K-State Athletics Hall of Fame Inductee
  • 1995 Kansas State Athlete of the Year
  • 8 x All-American
  • 3 x Big Eight High Jump Champion
  • 2 x USA Indoor High Jump National Champion
  • 4 x USA Outdoor High Jump National Runner-Up
  • American Record - Heptathlon High Jump
  • Former World Record - Pentathlon High Jump
  • 2012 London Olympics Assistant Coach
  • NACAC Championships U.S. Team Head Coach

I'm with the one and only Gwen Wentland-Mikinski, one of Kansas State's greatest athletes of all time. Certainly, one of the most notable and famous track athletes of all time. Just tell me a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? 

I grew up in a suburb of Flint, Michigan (Grand Blanc). I didn't get started with track and field until my freshman year of high school. It was really by default. I had started trying to play basketball, and the basketball coach was like, “Oh, Gwen, you're not that good at basketball.” <laugh> - you really should think about doing another sport. However, I could touch the rim. That was my claim to fame in basketball. He told me, “You should come out for track - you would be a really good jumper”. I told him I would think about it. And so, I did. And I was pretty good but wasn't great. I didn't make the state championships in my first year. I was close. I had jumped 4’10”. But, I got the bug and started training and came back the following year. And by that summer, I jumped 5’10”! 

Wow. So, you raised the bar an entire foot! 

I made this huge leap. I mean, that's not a normal improvement. That’s pretty exceptional. But at any rate, that was the start of my track and field career. And after that, I was just hooked because I was good at it. 

That's amazing! So how did you get from Grand Blanc, Michigan to Kansas State? Did Coach (Cliff) Rovelto have something to do with that? 

Oh, for sure. He was the main reason, and it was his persistence that won out. He was one of many coaches that were recruiting me, and he just kept calling. You have five visits, right? Five official visits. So finally I was like, okay, to get this guy off my back, I'm gonna take the visit. 

So I took it and got to Manhattan, and I remember it was an unseasonable warm December weekend and they said the weather was always this nice!

Especially in comparison to Michigan's winters! 

Oh my gosh, totally. So for me, I was like on a tropical vacation, right? He was like, “Oh yeah, it's like always this nice right”<laugh>  I enjoyed the trip. I loved the team, and most of all, I loved the community. I could tell that within Kansas State University and all the places that we went, people were so friendly, and they were so passionate about the university and sports at the university. 

That was my main reason. I mean, I just loved Coach Rovelto. He was a young coach and energized about building his program. I could tell that he was going to be supportive of my goals. And all the things just fell into place. And so, all these other schools fell by the wayside. I moved K State to the top of the list. 

I'm sure 30-ish years later, you have zero regrets about your decision. 

Oh my gosh. I couldn't have been more blessed and luckier because my experience at K-State directly impacts what I'm doing now. Coach Rovelto is a teacher-coach and if you look at his former athletes you will see that many of them have gone into coaching as a result of his influence. And so, yeah, I got really lucky. 

While you were at Kansas State, you were the 1995 Kansas State Athlete of the Year!

Yes! And that's funny you say that because I just found that article <laugh>. That was an amazing year for me.  

That’s quite the achievement because if you could look back to the mid-nineties, 1995 especially, Kansas State had an amazing amount of athletes here, and you were the best. 

Well, again, that was a huge honor. I didn't expect to get that, but it had been a stellar year for me as an athlete. I'm proud of that distinction because there were so mant other notable athletes who were just as deserving of that award. Looking back, its something I am very proud of.  

So you had three national championships at Kansas State, is that right? One outdoor and two indoors? 

No actually, sorry, I don't have an outdoor one. Two indoors, and I was second at the NCAA (outdoor) four times in a row. 

Oh my goodness!

Yes. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride! <laugh>

I have a history of collecting the runner-up position at Nationals, but that’s not too shabby considering the scope of American track and Field. I think the thing people don't necessarily understand is just how competitive the United States is in terms of our US championships. Our Championships are the equivalent to an Olympic Games for some countries. 

Oh for sure! And looking back, just probably being on the podium, being right there still is an honor. 

Most definitely! And, that spanned the course of well, 18 years. So that is a long time. 

You made the World Championship team in 2003 and then, you won the US Championship indoors following the birth of your daughter in 2004.

Yep! To me that one stands out the most because, at the time, women weren't necessarily having kids and coming back to competition. I was one of the first elite-level track athletes to come back after the birth of a child and compete and win! 

The thing about it was that Paris (her daughter) had to arrive early for me to compete at the Olympic trials. So she came two weeks early, which gave me enough time. I had, I think, it was seven weeks before the Olympic trials, so I was thinking, “Okay, I have this new baby, but I gotta get ready. I'm going to get ready for the trials.”

So we got there and, yeah. I was not in top shape. I tried to stay in really good shape throughout the pregnancy, but when I got to the Olympic trials in Sacramento, Rod (her husband) and Paris went, and I was just breastfeeding. I was taking a dip-out into the porta potty to do like, you know, pumping <laugh>. 

I'm sure the other young athletes were like, “Oh my gosh, what's wrong with her?” At any rate, I made a bar, which was a huge victory for me. I had the “Olympic A” standard, so I had to show up and compete to be eligible for the Olympic Team. At the time there were only 2 other people in the women's high jump with the Olympic Standard. I pushed to compete at the Trials in that event so that they would need me.

That is absolutely amazing! That shows so much heart! 

It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do because anybody who's had a baby knows you are feeling like everything's loose like your joints feel loose. For me, it was a pioneering accomplishment, and a harbinger for the future. I was able to win the US championship indoors that next season. It wasn’t even the next year. It was the next season. 

I'm just so proud that I was able to push through some uncharted territory for myself and women athletes. 

My goodness. My friend, I am so glad he I brought that up because that is an absolutely amazing story. For you to actually come back out and compete and then win the championship the next season after giving birth - not even the next year, like you said - the next season. That's just - oh my goodness! 

Yeah. I felt like I tapped into something special because my friends, my girlfriends, would ask me like, “Okay, well how was it?” I told them that the next year I felt so much better, so much stronger. In a lot of ways, the physiological changes that happened made me more resilient and honestly, just a tougher athlete. 

Now, you see more female athletes having babies and coming back better than ever. A testament to the fact that you don’t have to give up your athletic career to have a family. It’s set a new gold standard for how girls and women can navigate the sports world. Now stars like Allison Felix have gone public about pregnancy, competing and keeping sponsors on your side during pregnancy. This has changed the face of how companies treat women athletes. 

That's amazing. That is, that is such a great story. You are just a pioneer and a trailblazer in lots of ways. 

Well, thank you.

So now to continue that story, did you end up qualifying for the Olympics? 

Nope. So basically during the 2004 finals of the high jump, three people achieved the standard. So, I was just kind of sitting in an alternate position if they needed somebody. But it's honestly a good thing they didn't need me because I needed to recover and get ready for the indoor season. 

You know, that's one thing that I try to tell people who are really working hard at something, that you don't always get rewards right away. I competed in five Olympic Trials from 1992 to 2008 and did not make the Olympic Team. However, I had a lot of other achievements that I consider equally as important as an Olympic Team. 

I have held World and American records and won national championships - but the Olympic team had alluded me for all of those Olympic trials. It's not because I wasn't ready for it, but, there's an element of luck. I mean, it's one day. You're either on or off. If you're injured, too bad. The selection that we have for selecting an Olympic team involves a lot of great athleticism, mental tenacity, and alignment in the stars. 

At the end of the day, I would never trade those achievements for the span of a sports career that lasted over 18 years. I was able to travel the world doing something I loved and experience different cultures, people, and ideas that have impacted how I view the world today.  I was able to learn more lessons as a result of those failures with the Olympic trials. And, I think that made me a better athlete in the end. And it made me a better coach today. In 2012, I was the assistant coach for the Olympic Games so I did get there, I just took a different pathway. 

Resilient, my friend! That is incredible. 

 Thanks! <laugh>. 

If you could go out and high jump today, how high would you get?

Well, Tyler, funny you should ask because my foot is in a boot! I have a Jones fracture in my left foot - so not high at all! <laugh>

What I will tell you is when I was 40 - at that age bracket you're considered a Master's Athlete - you can compete in US Masters’ Track and Field. It just so happened that the Nationals were in Kansas City that particular year. So I was like, heck yeah, I'm going to train and I'm going! I retired from professional sports when I was 36.

That's amazing! This is something you started when you were a freshman in high school and you retired from when you were in your mid-thirties.

Yeah, exactly. It's probably why I have all the issues I have right now <laugh>. But anyway, I had been out for like five years, but I was like, “oh, I'm training for this!” So, I come back, I do the US Masters’ Nationals, and I set the American record. I jumped 5’10” and had legitimate attempts at the world masters record. Unfortunately, I didn’t prepare well enough and injured my knee at that meet. A lesson in aging. High jumping's not like golf or tennis. It's too hard on your body. 

And you probably get tons of joy helping athletes now learning the craft.

Well, I certainly do, and I kind of live vicariously through them at this point. When I'm working with athletes, it’s just so cool for me to see somebody get faster, just jump higher, or to get a scholarship to college. That’s rewarding. 

Or even having that Olympic dream in the back of their mind. 

Oh, for sure. When I have worked with athletes who are aspiring to compete at the Olympics it opens up the opportunity for me to share my knowledge and experience with them. It’s an added value for my clients. 

Aside from working with developmental athletes, I'm quite busy with USA track and field. 

Last summer I was the head coach for the North American, Central American, and Caribbean (NACAC) team. That meet was held in the Bahamas. We took a fantastic group of professional athletes to compete against all those countries. We won so many medals that they stopped playing the entire national Anthem <laugh>. They just started doing a sound bite of it. 

Well as a coach, that's a good thing! 

Oh my gosh. It was! We had a record number 64 medals, 29 gold, and 15 competition records. Aside from that, I coach at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson, AZ. We are in the middle of the season right now. Last year our girls won a state championship.  I'm also working with high school athletes at different levels and in other sports. 

Tell me about and what you’re doing in Tucson?

My sports consulting business helps middle school and high school athletes prepare for their sport. I use many of the training philosophies that Coach Rovelto taught me and implement much of my track and field background in training sessions. I take a holistic approach to working with young athletes so that they will develop sound training foundations, reduce injuries and perform at a higher level. My goal is to educate my clients as well as help them improve their fitness. The weather in AZ allows us to train year-round so we can have consistent training programs. 

That's, that's incredible. I'm so happy for you.

Thank you! 

The 2024 Paris Olympics. Are you going to be involved with the coaching on that? 

I don't think so. Just because we’ve done some selections for those teams in advance. I really didn't put my foot forward for that. Even though I would've loved to have gone back to Paris and coached on another Olympic team, it's quite an honor just to be on one team, let alone two. 

Oftentimes, you typically wouldn't come back in the same position as an assistant coach. You might come back as a head coach, and that's a lot of experience to come back as a head coach. When I was the assistant coach in 2012, I was one of the youngest coaches ever appointed to a staff. I learned just a tremendous amount of lessons being in that position. 

 I will be watching, and I don't know, maybe I will make the trip to Paris, because it's one of my favorite cities. 

And ironically, your daughter’s name is Paris. 

 It is. And she is a byproduct of the Paris World Championships! <laugh>

Speaking of your personal life and family, your daughter Paris is now a freshman at University of Arizona, and then your husband is the world famous Rod Mikinski (He was the longtime staff photographer of the Manhattan Mercury).

He’s gotten busy since coming to Tucson, as he's doing a lot more fine arts. He has his work in numerous galleries. I think in anybody's career, you move through different phases of doing things and to see his work evolve from photojournalism to the arts has been great. He has always been at a high level, but I think he's eclipsed his former self interms of the work that he's putting out there. He just really amazes me every day. He's able to just create such amazing pieces and photographs that speak to people. And I think that's the essence of good photography. 

Oh I can’t forget, what were your thoughts on Ahern Field House? 

For me personally, I grew up in that fieldhouse. I got my class schedule and my books there in 1990. I took a PE class in Ahearn Fieldhouse. I spent half my life in that fieldhouse. I know that K state's growing and they're doing different things, but that particular building just holds a special place in my heart in terms of my maturation as an individual, and as an athlete. Countless hours. 

It did leak a lot during the rains. We accidentally threw shot puts through those glass block windows! <laugh> I jumped 6’ 4.25”  - which was the World Record for pentathlon high jump. 

There's just so many different, fantastic stories from Ahern. 

It needs to be honored. It’s an amazing place. That fieldhouse, that track, that's also been a gathering place for so many professors and people to do their noontime walks and for people to gather. In a sense, it's a community and meeting place. 

It would be the perfect place for a Kansas State Athletics Hall of Fame! It would be the perfect building for it. 

Oh my gosh. It would be so cool! That is a staple of the university that's akin to getting rid of Willie the Wildcat 

One last question. What do you miss the most about Manhattan, Kansas? 

I’d say to people. I just love the people in Manhattan, and I think they're the best. It’s just unique to that area. It’s got great people. 

Gwen, this has been the most amazing conversation. I’m truly grateful for your time! What an honor! 

Well, thank you Tyler. I really appreciate it. 

Wildcat Legends: Where are they now? is brought to you by Community First National Bank. With two locations in Manhattan to serve you, Community First National Bank is helping to create the legend in you! Member FDIC. Equal Housing Lender.

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