The world’s fastest 400-meter hurdler wears blue and yellow Michael Jordan socks under his size-9 track shoes. The socks were a gift from his brother, which is why Michael Stigler doesn’t worry much about what his coaches might say about this tiny piece of rogue equipment.
Stigler, a senior hurdler at Kansas, runs for a school sponsored by adidas. The socks are Jordan Brand, a subsidiary of Nike. But when you hear the story of the socks, you might understand.
Stigler’s younger brother, Jesse, is in the Army, stationed at nearby Fort Leavenworth. He’s going through a work-training program now, Stigler says, and he’ll soon be shipping off to Germany. An Army schedule is tight, and Jesse Stigler can’t come to many of his brother’s collegiate track meets. So a while back, Jesse bought a few pairs of Jordan socks as a gift to Michael.
“He tells me to run in them,” Michael Stigler says.
For the moment, the socks are the flashiest piece of flare on some of the fastest legs in college track and field. In the coming years, Stigler is hopeful the socks might accompany him to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Stigler, a native of Canyon, Texas, has big dreams. And why not?
Three weeks ago, midway through his senior season, Stigler traveled to the Texas Relays in Austin and clocked a blistering 48.44 seconds in the 400-meter hurdles, winning the meet for the third straight year. The time shaved more than a half-second off Stigler’s previous personal best of 49.19 — and it marked the fastest time by a collegian in nearly four years. More impressive: It was the best 400-meter hurdle time in the world this year. By anyone.
“I was pretty excited,” Stigler said. “I was a little shocked at first. But once they said it, I was like, ‘OK, I just did it.’ The new goal is 47. So as soon as I hit my goal, the plans changed.”
That’s the thing about Stigler. His plans seem to change a lot these days, and not just his Olympic dreams. On Friday afternoon, Stigler won the 400-meter hurdles at the Kansas Relays, finishing in a time of 50.07. It wasn’t his best performance, but under the circumstances, it was still plenty satisfactory.
Stigler was originally scheduled to run on Saturday afternoon. So on Thursday he hit the track for a full workout. But then severe weather showed up in the Saturday forecast, and the rest of the meet was moved up to Friday.
“Yesterday we had a workout,” Stigler said. “So it just shows that I’m fit.”
Standing near the side of the track at Rock Chalk Park, Stigler had just finished an on-track interview in which a Kansas Relays announcer had mentioned his Olympic goals. A three-time All-American, Stigler is positioned to take a run at the U.S. Olympic team for the 2016 Games. If he can make the team, he would become the first KU male track athlete to run in an Olympics since Charlie Gruber competed in the 1,500 meters in 2004.
To make the Olympic team, Stigler says, he would likely have to run between a 47.9 and 48.4. Stigler thinks his chances are good.
“I definitely feel like I’m close,” said Stigler, who made the finals of the Olympic trials in 2012. “I can taste it. I just got to keep working.”
But first things first, beginning with one final college goal. For the last two years Stigler has finished runner-up in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA outdoor championships. He has been close, but now he would like to add an outdoor NCAA title to his growing resume.
“I definitely feel that I have unfinished business,” Stigler said. “Just going there two years in a row, placing runner-up, it’s definitely something that I don’t want to do this year. My goal is bring home a national title and put a national title under my belt before I leave KU.”
When his collegiate career is over, Stigler says he will remain in Lawrence and continue working out with KU sprint and hurdles coach Elisha Brewer. For now, Stigler can call himself the fastest 400-meter hurdler in the world — a title he relishes, even if it might be temporary. It comes with perks. Before Friday’s race, the PA announcer introduced Stigler with a quick flourish: “In Lane 5, currently ranked Number 1 in the world …”
“It does put a little adrenalin rush through my body,” Stigler conceded, “just hearing my name.”
Moments later, Stigler looked down toward the ground. His Jordan socks, that gift from his younger brother, were soaked in sweat. Jesse Stigler is ready to watch his brother chase a dream. And Stigler is ready for the next step.
“I’ve accomplished a lot,” Stigler said. “But I’m not done yet.”