Steady Improvement Has Led Erin Kerkhoff to Her First World Championships
by Al Daniel
With 2023 acting as a prelude to 2024 in her sport, visually impaired sprinter Erin Kerkhoff is planning an exceptional case of déjà vu.
She was a senior at the University of Northern Iowa this past indoor and outdoor college season. Now the 22-year-old is shifting toward the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships in Paris this July 8-17.
She will be a senior for the UNI Panthers track program next winter and spring, exercising a redshirt option after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 outdoor campaign. After that, she intends to follow her last NCAA season at the Paralympic Games Paris 2024.
For now, the Coralville, Iowa, native and 2020 Paralympian has reached the world championships through a stellar performance at the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in Chula Vista, California, last month. First place in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races helped her move on from her latest outdoor collegiate campaign.
“The indoor season this year was one of the best that I’ve had in college,” she said.
At the Missouri Valley Conference indoor championships, reaching the 400 final plus and winning a bronze in the 4x400 relay capped a successful winter.
But the momentum slowed a little in the spring.
“My outdoor season didn’t go as well,” she said. “I didn’t make finals.”
One week after the conference outdoor championships in mid-May, she took to Chula Vista to start a refreshingly active break from campus.
“I almost get bored in the summer because I feel like I don’t have enough to do,” she said between chuckles, recalling her more ordinary years.
There was no disappointment at nationals, especially since Kerkhoff’s class got to run a 200 heat that was missing from the last cycle when she debuted internationally at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. Moreover, an injury to Kym Crosby, the two-time reigning Paralympic bronze medalist in the 400 T13, left Kerkhoff as the most experienced sprinter competing in the class at nationals.
“I don’t think it adds anymore pressure,” she said. “There are always those nerves, but I’m definitely trying to represent the team the best I can. But hopefully she’ll be back soon so we can do it together.”
Their last time together, Kerkhoff made her first global impression by finishing eighth in the 400 at the 2020 Games. Her time of 58.06 seconds fell 1.27 ticks behind the third-place Crosby.
That was all leading up to her junior year at UNI, a critical threshold in her athletic development.
As an underclassman, Kerkhoff had less of a grasp on the finer points of her student-athlete regimen. Her frenzied approach to homework hogged her attention from rest and nutrition goals.
In the last two years, she has trusted her familiarity with UNI’s track program and built a more disciplined schedule around it. The transformation has translated profoundly in her performance.
Pre-Tokyo, Kerkhoff says, she took to her heats “just freely.” Post-Tokyo, she has been more tactical from her block start to her homestretch curves.
“The whole time I’m running my race I’m very calculated,” she said. “I never had that in my head when I was a freshman and sophomore.”
Nor did her resume have any 400 times under 58 seconds. Conversely, on April 8 of this year, she blistered to a career-best 56.86 seconds at the Fighting Illini Challenge. Three weeks later, at the Kip Janvrin Open, she clocked in at 57.09 seconds, good for fourth place and almost a full tick quicker than her Paralympic mark in the event.
At the MVC outdoor championships, she surpassed the 57-second threshold again, completing a 56.94-second lap. It may not have nudged her to the finals, but she gratefully acknowledges that she has constantly upped her personal best.
Consider where she was at this point in 2021. Leading up to the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis, she had notched a collegiate career-high 58.27-second 400 run at the South Dakota Tune-Up. A week later, she posted 59.25 at the MVC meet.
From there, Kerkhoff took to Minneapolis and qualified by placing second in the 100 and the 400. Two years later, she is bound for her first world championships after finishing first in Chula Vista’s in all three races she competed in.
“I’m really excited to see what I can do in the 200 and 400,” Kerkhoff said. “The end goal is to medal in the 400.”
If she does that, and if all else goes according to plan, she will present a friendly challenge to a triumphantly returning Crosby 13 months later.
“Hopefully both of us can be on the podium in Paris 2024,” Kerkhoff said.
Al Daniel is a freelance features writer and contributor to USParaTrackAndField.org on behalf of