Prep Track and Field

Payton Wensel harbors major goals for senior season, but she's not sharing

Linn-Mar senior has three state titles in the Class 4A 400

Linn-Mar's Payton Wensel runs to the front of the pack during 600-meter run at the Mississippi Valley Conference girls' indoor track and field Meet at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on March 13. Wensel won in 1:36.66. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Linn-Mar's Payton Wensel runs to the front of the pack during 600-meter run at the Mississippi Valley Conference girls' indoor track and field Meet at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls on March 13. Wensel won in 1:36.66. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

CEDAR FALLS — Payton Wensel has goals for her final season of high-school track. Big goals.

But she’s not sharing.

“I’m going to keep them to myself,” the senior middle-distance star from Linn-Mar said after the MVC Indoor meet last Tuesday at the UNI-Dome. “I don’t want to talk big, because if I fall short, it will make me look bad.

“But I do want to make my last year count.”

So while we’re on the subject of keeping track, let’s reflect. Wensel is a five-time state champion, capturing three straight titles in the Class 4A 400-meter dash. That includes a 54.84-second blast through Drake Stadium last May, which ranks No. 6 all-time in Iowa.

She also ran on the winning 3,200-meter and distance medley relays as a freshman.

At 5-foot-10 and long-legged, Wensel is a gazelle. But she’s more than physically gifted.

“She’s a student of her craft,” Linn-Mar Coach Nathan Hopp said. “She lives, eats and breathes it. In terms of determination, she’s second to none.”

That can strike fear into opponents. And teammates.

“She’s a very intimidating person. That’s not a bad thing,” Hopp said. “The freshmen are always very intimidated by her, the way she goes about doing things. She’s got a lot of God-given talent, but she works her tail off.”

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Despite that look of invincibility, Wensel carries some vulnerability. It cropped up late last season.

Wensel became acquainted with the 400-meter hurdles, and it was a natural match. She won the event at the Drake Relays in April, in 1:02.17, more than a second-and-a-half clear of the field.

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She stumbled in that event at regionals, and though she still qualified for state, she wasn’t the same.

“I was scared,” she admitted. “After I fell at (regionals), I got super tentative at state.”

Wensel settled for second.

And now, she said. “I’m seeking redemption.”

For whatever reason, they don’t run the 400 at Drake. So Wensel plans to run the 800, the 400 hurdles and the sprint medley relay. At state, she’ll probably go with the 400, the 400 hurdles and sprint medley.

Runners can compete in four events. And though she just ran three last year, Wensel is angling for an intriguing addition.

“I really, really want to do the 4-by-1 with my friends,” she said.

Yeah, that’s right. The 400 relay.

“I’m crossing my fingers that the coaches will let me,” she said.

Hopp’s response? He chuckled.

“We’re coming around,” he said. “We’re open to the idea. It’s a long season.”

Both of Wensel’s parents — Marek and Kelli — were track athletes at Simpson College. Marek (a native of Knoxville) ran the 400 in 48 seconds, Kelli (who prepped at North Tama) in 55.

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Payton did some little-kid track meets in late elementary school, but didn’t fall in love with the sport until middle school. Suddenly, she was hooked, and by the time she was an eighth-grader at Oak Ridge Middle School, she was running the 400 in 58 seconds.

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“My parents didn’t force me or guilt me into track, but they’re both runners, so I wanted to see what I could do,” Wensel said.

She’s done a lot. Enough to earn a scholarship at the University of Iowa, where she will major in criminal justice. She wants to be a cop, and if that happens, good luck in trying to outrun the law.

At the MVC Indoor, they contested the 600-meter dash, a event that doesn’t exist in the high-school outdoor season.

“I’ve seen a lot of prodigies at Iowa run the 600 indoors,” and I wanted to see what I could do,” Wensel said.

She ran 1:36.66. And maybe, down the line, she’ll be one of those prodigies of which she speaks.

“I don’t expect to place at nationals or anything right away at college,” Wensel said. “But I hope to make some noise. Hopefully in time, it will get louder.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8857; jeff.linder@thegazette.com

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