Heptathlete Krais is following in Jackie Joyner-Kersee's path
NORRISTOWN, Pa. -- After sinking her spikes into the starting blocks at Indianapolis's Michael A. Carroll Track & Soccer Stadium last June, 17-year-old Ryann Krais readied to rewrite the USA Junior Outdoor Track & Field Championships record book with her feet.
A day earlier, the Methacton High junior placed second in the heptathlon, finishing behind USC sophomore Shana Woods (5,509 points) and establishing a junior record with 5,377 points. Krais then returned for the 400-meter hurdles final, her eighth event of the games. Before steadying into a starting position, the sun-kissed teen's attention appeared to wander. From the stands, Krais's mother, Janelle, a Lutheran pastor, followed her daughter's eyes. No more than 20 feet away, standing by for an award reception, was Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the three-time Olympics gold medalist and heptathlon world record holder since 1988. "Ryann's not easily distracted," Janelle says. "She was star-struck when she saw Jackie."
Able to focus in time, Krais finished second, again to a collegian, Virginia Tech freshman Queen Quedith Harrison. What she didn't know was that her bounce back had caught the eye of track royalty. "Jackie and I were watching a few of our athletes when Jackie noticed Ryann was the same girl from the heptathlon," says UCLA coach Jeannette Bolden, who earned a 4 x 100 gold medal in the 1984 Olympics and will coach the United States women's team in Beijing this summer. "She had been on our radar, but to see that bounce back certainly made everything real for us."
Though no baton was passed between Joyner-Kersee, a UCLA alumna, and Krais, a symbolic torch was exchanged. In Krais, who signed with UCLA on Valentine's Day, the Bruins trust they are getting a star, not only in individual events and relays, but also in the heptathlon, 100 meter hurdles and the 400 hurdles. A nine-time national champion, 11-time state champ and three-time pentathlon titleholder who owns 28 school records at Methacton, the heralded Krais will head to Westwood next September to work with UCLA coach Bob Kersee, who is Joyner-Kersee's husband. "I think they had me when I stepped off the plane and there were palm trees," says Krais. "I mean how can you turn down working with the Kersees and coach Bolden?"
There was a time, not long ago, when Krais had to ask who the Kersees were. As a soccer and basketball player in middle school, she started track as an off-season sport in the seventh grade. As if paved for her success, the school had just refurbished its track and field facilities. "I wouldn't have known what track and field was before then," she says.
The daughter of an engineer father, John, and Lutheran pastor mother, Krais's speed, her parents say, was not genetically engineered, but there were signs of things to come at birth. Last year, Methacton student Ben Yocum, who carries on a shtick of challenging the school's best performers for a low-budget television show, said, "There are reports [Ryann] hurdled out of the womb." Upon hearing that, Janelle Krais was taken aback. At birth, Ryann was set to come out feet first, and her mother was forced to have a C-section. "I'm not sure if her left foot was in the lead out of the womb," Janelle says.
A tomboy in her youth, Krais, as her mother says, wore the childhood look of Pig-Pen, the disheveled, dirtied character from Peanuts, but she was never a Charlie Brown. If she couldn't hit 25 evening free throws, she would stay out past dark. Over a friend's house, Krais watched one girl stuff 36 grapes in her mouth. Guess who stuck 37? "I had to do it," Krais says.
Following eighth grade, she qualified for the AAU nationals in Des Moines, Iowa, which led to the family driving 20 hours for her to compete in the 100 and 400 meter races. A few preliminary heats later, she was in the 400 final. Feeling lucky, her father made her a deal: She would get the dog she always wanted if she won. Soon after the family's return, a Briard mix mutt named Taz entered the picture. "I'm still paying for that one," John says.
In running, jumping and hurdling as though chased by a dog since, Krais has crossed over from neophyte to top-flight northeast talent. "Just wait until she has a full year of trainable weather," said Methacton coach Rob Ronzano.
No matter the climate, Krais, who was named homecoming queen last fall, climbs over hurdles with near-perfect form. Though effective in each heptathlon event (she has won a state title in the shot put, her worst event), she is best known for the hurdles, leading with her left leg, kicking through with the right, three-stepping and landing herself a personal best 13.50 in the 100 hurdles. For all the marks she has set, she ranks her Pennsylvania state record in the 4,000 hurdles (57.20) as her favorite. "When she first began she would high jump the hurdle, but she got to understanding the aerodynamics of staying down," says Ronzano, who has coached her since the end of eighth grade.
Aside from the physical training, Krais has also studied up on the sport's history. On her desk at home lies a piece of loose leaf paper with written goals for each year. From Ronzano she has absorbed an oral history of Joyner-Kersee. On her own, she has written four research papers about Jesse Owens. Along the walls of her room and in a scrapbook, there are quotes by Owens, her favorite of which is: "All it takes is all you got."
"She's gone from asking who Jesse Owens," says her mother, "to asking in disbelief when others do not know who he is."