After a season that saw UNLV barely lose the women’s indoor track and field Mountain West championship to Colorado State, the Rebels turned the tables with a huge win over the Rams to capture its first-ever conference title.
Which would be an impressive enough feat on its own, for UNLV and Coach of the Year Yvonne Wade, but that the team did it after having their gear ripped off from a parking lot right before the meet borders on cartoonish. It’s like the plot of every sports underdog movie suddenly came to life.
The day before the championship, the team was just settling in at an Albuquerque, New Mexico, restaurant when a customer came into the place and informed Wade and her staff that their vans had been broken into.
Thieves made off with the student-athletes’ gear, just hours before they were supposed to run to redeem 2017’s heartbreak. The University of New Mexico was gracious, offering up what equipment they could. Wade called the team’s equipment manager down from Las Vegas to bring fresh gear. It’s no small ask for performance-tuned athletes to run in fresh shoes over kicks broken in to particular gaits.
“They were willing to swap gear, wear other people's shoes, wear shoes a little too small or too big to get it done,” Wade said during an unseasonably chilly March practice, as Lil Wayne and Godsmack drift across a wind-swept field from the neighboring football practice. There aren’t any crowds here to watch or film, like there were next door. “I was very impressed with how they stayed focused.”
The win was a long time coming for Wade, who took over the program in 2007 when she came from Long Beach State University. She saw a team that needed changes to its academic and social culture. She focused first on developing the track team into five-time academic All-Americans. Then, she knew, the caliber of athletes would follow.
Now the team boasts student-athletes that have come from as far as Germany and Italy. Freshman Avi’Tal Perteete, with a 4.0 grade point average, maintains the team’s academic tradition, while at the same time shattering a 27-year-old school record for freshman in the 800-meter by two seconds.
Senior Destiny Smith-Barnett, battling injuries and out of training, announced two weeks ahead of the conference championship she was going to go from zero to competing in the finals, just to help the team any way she could. She took third in the 60 meters. Wade expects her to be competitive on the Olympic trail once she leaves UNLV.
“People start calling us now,” Wade said. “We don't have to beg so much for the top athletes. They're starting to consider us.”
Wade is married to her assistant coach, Larry — himself a former standout collegiate runner at Texas A&M, and assistant coach at San Diego State. Having a family dynamic in place on the staff spills over to the team. It informs Wade’s coaching philosophy. Women who have transferred to UNLV from the big conferences have found a more attentive environment when they come here.
Of course, that can also come with a healthy dose of tough love, too.
“That expectation is going to be high, and I'm going to hold them accountable to it. They're like our daughters. It's not just how they perform on the track,” Wade said. “We care about them off the track as well. I would want these girls treated the same way if they were my own flesh and blood. We have a very structured program. Girls are focused, they're well-behaved, they're academically sound, and they're athletically trying to do some damage out there.”
Wade is no stranger to what it means to compete and succeed at this level, either. She ran hurdles at the University of Colorado, where she was an NCAA All-American. Born in Japan but raised in America, she qualified to represent her native country in 1996 in Atlanta, then came back in 2000 to compete in the Sydney Olympics.
Track is big in Japan. Every soccer stadium there has a track ringing the outer edges, and the sport gets attention more than once every four years like it seems to in the United States.
She sees a possibility to generating some of that hype in Las Vegas. It would require rebuilding the infrastructure in place. The 20-year old track needs resurfacing to minimize injuries. Myron Partridge Stadium needs lights so the team to run at night during summer practices and bleachers if it’s ever going to host high-profile events.
Building facilities will take millions, she said. Getting that money can be enough of a headache. Building a team, though, is more subtle, yet attainable.
“We try to approach it holistically,,” she said. “If we build the relationships with the student-athletes, the performance will come. But also, they as people will come. We want to take over from where their parents left off and groom them the next four or five years to be great people.”