North Carolina finished in 57th place at the 2021 NCAA Men's Outdoor Track and Field Championships on June 11.
Represented by only five athletes, UNC was not in a position to be competitive for the team title, but still had some impressive individual performances at the championships held at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
Finishing seventh in the men's 5,000-meter race, UNC graduate student Thomas Ratcliffe set a program record and earned First Team All-American status with a time of 13 minutes, 20.88 seconds. Teammate Conor Lundy, also a graduate student, finished the 5,000-meter race in 18th place, earning a personal-best time of 13 minutes, 39.67 seconds.
Ratcliffe’s finish was the highest of any Tar Heel at the NCAA Championships since Jim Farmer earned fourth place in 1988. Ratcliffe crushed the previous UNC record of 13 minutes, 32.50 seconds, which Ralph King set in 1977, and his time qualified him for the Olympic trials.
After facing several injuries during the season, Ratcliffe was not expecting to break the program record. In a season full of ups and downs, a solid last few weeks, hard training and dedication gave him the ability to leave the championships with a personal best for himself and for the program.
“Even though he’s a guy that’s my age, he’s a role model in not only performance, but also how he approaches training and competing," Lundy said. "It’s been amazing to see him overcome hardships in the last year and perform at such a high level, and I wish him the best of luck at the Olympic trials.”
Qualifying for the Olympic Trials was not at the forefront of Ratcliffe's mind, but it was a goal he made early in his collegiate track and field career, starting from the time Chris Miltenberg recruited him to run at Stanford six years ago.
“Honestly, I wasn’t thinking about the record or the time that much,” Ratcliffe said. “I was really just trying to finish as high up in the race as possible, but it’s so special to be able to qualify for the trials.”
Ratcliffe said a lot of people helped him reach this goal, but he credits his accomplishment to Miltenberg.
When Miltenberg left Stanford to become the director of track and field at UNC, Ratcliffe followed him across the country to finish his final year of eligibility. After facing adversity throughout his college career at Stanford and fifth year at UNC, Miltenberg has been by Ratcliffe's side through it all.
“It’s really been a great journey with Thomas,” Miltenberg said. “Going back six-plus years ago when I recruited him, I remember clear as day telling him and his dad that if he came with me, to Stanford at the time, our goal was going to be to set him up to compete at the highest level in college and also to go on to be a world-class professional athlete after college.”
It was deja vu for Ratcliffe at the first round of the trials on Thursday, June 24. Competing at the same Hayward Field in Eugene, he once again placed seventh in the 5,000-meter race against pros like Woody Kincaid and Olympic silver medalist Paul Chelimo, earning a spot in the finals.
Ratcliffe did not finish in the final event on Sunday after dropping out mid-race.
“The Olympic trials and the Olympics are the pinnacle of track and field, and I think it’s something that every collegiate runner probably has in the back of their mind, so it’s definitely something I was happy to check off,” Ratcliffe said.