TEMPE – Junior Sun Devil Track & Field star Austin Kratz has always had a knack for running. It started in seventh grade from racing against his older sister, and he quickly ascended from there.
"I'd always known I was fast, but at that time, I was playing lacrosse and I really enjoyed it," Kratz said. "I thought I was going to stick with that, but I have an older sister and she's three grades above me. I saw her run track in seventh and eighth grade and I saw how much she enjoyed it and how well she was doing, and I was like, 'you know what, that might be fun. Let me try it. If I don't like it, I can go back to lacrosse my eighth-grade year.'"
Kratz fell in love with the sport immediately and began to shift his focus toward track as he entered high school.
"When I got to high school, I was like, 'alright, I'm spending all my time on track. I'm spending three seasons of the year just focusing on track.'"
But when was the point that Kratz found out that he was good enough to run track at the NCAA Division I level?
"Growing up people always told me, 'Yeah, you're good at sports, but very few people go to college,'" Kratz said. "Even getting into high school, I didn't think that was an option. I think the first time I realized it was a possibility was during my sophomore year. I won state and I went to nationals and did well. I was like, 'This could actually be an option for me.' I thought that was a possibility, but I don't think until really my junior year is when I said, 'Alright, I'm running in college, and I know this can be a big thing to help me get into college.'"
During his junior year of high school is when Kratz blossomed into an All-American and highly sought-after recruit. Top track schools chased Kratz, but there was something special about the Sun Devil Track & Field program and Arizona State as a university that stuck out to him.
"It was the perfect school in so many ways," Kratz said. "Academically, I didn't want to go to an Ivy League school because I just know myself and I know I need a school that is intense, but not the most elite. I saw [associate director of student-athlete development Denzel Burrell] and the coaches and I spoke with them about helping me with my academics and figuring out my plan, and that was really nice."
"Out of all schools I went to, ASU was my favorite campus. You have Palm Walk, the weather is perfect, the buildings are all newer, and I love that. One thing I realized about the team is that it was more of a family than any other team I'd been to. I made other visits and at some visits, you had people not talking to each other - they didn't know about the other groups. I came to ASU and saw the sprinters talking to the jumpers, the jumpers talking to the pole vaulters, the pole vaulters talking to distance runners, and the throwers talking to everyone. Everyone enjoys talking to each other and learning about each other, and it was just a perfect fit. Everything just felt like this was going to be the perfect school."
Kratz grew up in Pennsylvania, about 2,000 miles away from Tempe, and being that far away from home created some hesitation for him.
"That was a big issue for me," Kratz said. "When I started looking at schools my junior year of high school I wanted to stay on the East Coast, but I realized that if I was just going to stay on the East Coast, I was going to really hinder myself from looking at better schools. I realized that a two-hour plane ride is no different than a five-hour plane ride. When I started looking into more schools during my senior year, I realized that no matter where I went, as long as it's a school that I love, a place that I love, the location isn't going to be an issue."
From the coaches' point of view in recruiting Kratz, it was quite the roller coaster ride. Assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Javonie Small, who had a big role in Kratz's recruitment, recalled the story of his recruiting process.
"I was one of the originals that helped in recruiting Austin," Small said. "He jumped on our recruiting scene in 2018. He was always fast, but if you go back and look, he was just okay in 2017. His times were pretty average, he wasn't blazing fast. He comes out at the Arcadia Invitational in California and sets his own personal records in the 100m and 200m. He was the fastest runner in the country at the time and he had just come off of winning indoors. He ran a 21.01 in the 200m, which is the New Balance Indoor Championship record, and we weren't even in his top-five schools."
What stood out about Kratz to Small even more than his dominance on the track was his character.
"He was very humble. He didn't talk a lot, but you could tell that he was observing everything," Small said. "You want a kid that is a thinker when it comes to major decisions, someone who says, 'Hey, before I go do something stupid, I'm going to make sure I think this thing through.' He didn't follow the crowd. He took his time. He said, 'I want to go to a place that is going to be for me,' and he wasn't afraid of the challenge of coming to Arizona State because we had nothing. He didn't let anyone rush his decision. He was in control over his destiny."
Devon West, the head coach at the time, continued to pursue Kratz and was able to convince him to commit to an official visit because of the patience of the Sun Devil coaching staff. The Sun Devils were Kratz's final official visit selection.
"Going back to the Arcadia Invitational, the guy sitting next to me asks, 'Who are you going with?' said Small. "I say, 'I'm going with the guy in lane one, Austin Kratz." He says, 'That kid? No way. He's not beating [current 200m USC NCAA semifinalist] Eric Allen.' The gun goes off, Austin pulls away, and he destroys everyone and runs the 100m in 10.31 seconds. Everyone is wondering, 'Who IS that kid?'"
Kratz had won the 200M in 20.7 seconds. It was the best time in the country.
"Now everybody is recruiting him and it's a major challenge," Small adds. "Fast forward to when he comes on a visit with his mom and dad. I was with Austin the whole 48 hours he was here, showing him around campus. His parents said, 'We want our kid to go to a place where people are going to take care of him.' We get to the last meeting and you know when a recruit is having a good time. His mom and dad were comfortable; however, this is not the Arizona State track team from its glory days in 2006-2008. This is a team that had not produced in the past couple of years on the track."
"His mother then tells us, 'This is the deal. We only gave you our business because you guys were patient. You're good people. You're friendly. We did not expect to like this visit as much as we did. You guys have made this decision very hard for us.' They said they were not going to make a decision for two or three weeks."
West, Small, and the coaching staff waited for the next few weeks for a call to come. Small remembers the exact day that Kratz finally called.
"His decision came early in the morning," Small explained. "Devin gets a phone call while we're in weight training and Austin says, 'Hey coach, do you still want me to be at Arizona State?' Devin looks at me and goes 'He's coming!' Signing Austin Kratz was a big deal because it allowed us to sign a lot of the top guys that we have today."
While Kratz and the Sun Devil coaching staff celebrated his commitment, a major problem began to linger during Kratz's senior year of high school.
"I found out my senior year of high school that I had a spinal problem called spondylolisthesis," Kratz said. "One of my discs in my spine had shifted and then re-healed, so it was out of place."
Fortunately for Kratz, his injury did not affect his recruitment.
"I didn't really make it public, so a lot of people really didn't know about it," Kratz said. "It was something that we were told, but they said it wouldn't affect me running and I was still going to be able to run as long as there was no pain. There wasn't an issue. During my senior year, every single meet indoor and outdoor I set a personal record, so that was never really an issue."
From there, it was an uphill battle for Kratz for the next couple of years.
"We were trying to figure out freshman year at ASU what I could and what I couldn't do, so in the weight room, I wasn't doing much," Kratz said. "When it came to practices, I didn't do much either. Then at the end of the fall season, I pulled my left hamstring because I was so weak, and I was out for about a month because of that."
"Then we started indoor and during my fourth meet, we're at Arkansas and I slightly tore my right hamstring. That kept me out again for another month and a half and that's why I didn't run outdoor. We decided to just finish my season right there because they knew there was just so many things wrong and we were just going to reconvene and figure out my future."
Kratz didn't compete for ASU for almost a full year, the final meet of his senior year was the New Mexico Classic in February 2019 and he didn't return until January 2020 for Northern Arizona's Lumberjack Challenge. He then ran five meets before the COVID-19 pandemic paused competition across the country. Kratz and his coaches worked tirelessly this past fall to get him to his best form ahead of the return to action.
Current head coach Dion Miller had lots of praise for Kratz this past fall, and he attributes some of that to COVID-19 forcing coaches into doing more one-on-one training instead of as a group to decrease possible exposure to the virus. When asked about a silver lining despite all of the obvious challenges and hardships that the pandemic's brought, Coach Miller said the additional time to focus on and work with a few athletes at a time has been a plus.
"There's been laser focus with the smaller groups, particularly when we break them up into groups. I feel like the athletes are able to focus in more with less distraction. One coach can focus on one particular individual, so we've been able to pay attention to detail and really find out all of the kinks that sometimes you may miss. Particularly with Austin, we've been able to really communicate and really focus more on putting a plan together that works best for him."
Coach Small agreed with the benefits of working with Kratz one-on-one.
"It's a blessing in disguise," Small said. "There's been some setbacks, but for Austin, it was God's timing and this was the time for him to catch up, as far as development, and figuring out what type of runner he's going to be. That one-on-one time is so important when it comes to putting a season together, putting a workout regimen together, and getting acclimated to a system that's going to work for you."
The positive feedback from his coaches has been very encouraging for Kratz.
"It means so much to me, mostly because during my freshman fall season, I didn't do well," Kratz said. "Last year I did okay, but we both talked to each other and agreed that fall season had not been good for me, so to hear him say that I've been doing so well really meant a lot. He's really been working with me a lot. It's been really great, and my confidence this year has been better than it has been the other two years because I've stayed strong and haven't missed any practices due to injury."
The praise from coaches and progress he has made recovering from his injuries has created a lot of excitement for Kratz heading into the outdoor season.
"I'm ecstatic, I can't wait," Kratz said. "I've been thinking about it every week. Every time we practice it's all I can think about, just getting back on the track. I can't wait to get back to outdoor because at least I was able to have two indoor seasons, but outdoor is the main part of track. No one really cares about indoor. We all care about outdoor and it's been two and a half years, can't wait."
Because of the pandemic, 2021 is now an Olympic year and being part of the Olympics is a dream for every track & field athlete. Kratz obviously would love to qualify, but he is focused on the big picture and gradual improvement.
"To be honest, it's like one of those things where if I run that fast, of course I'm going to go," Kratz said. "But I really want to focus this year on just making sure I can get back to where I was and just do my best to set a personal record. If I run the times to qualify for Olympic trials, that's awesome, I'm never going to take it out of my possibilities, but I'm not focusing on it."
What can Sun Devil Track & Field fans and followers expect to see from Kratz during this outdoor season?
"Expect some new personal records from me. Expect me at Nationals for at least one indoor or outdoor event," Kratz said, with enthusiasm. "Personal records in the 100m and 200m for sure."