Former Free State track athlete wins D-II triple jump and team championship in track finals

photo by: Derek Livingston/PSU Athletics

Auna Childress leaps in the triple jump in an indoor track meet at Pittsburg State University.

Auna Childress needed to relax.

Childress said she joked with some media in Pittsburg that she saved her best stuff for her last outdoor meet, but in reality, the anxiety was intense. Fear of not being able to help her team raced through her mind. It was the NCAA Division II national track meet, and she and the Pittsburg State track and field team had a lot to prove. There was a lot to think about in not a lot of time.

But, like when competing in the triple jump, slowing down allows her to think through it all. On the day of her jump, she was focused. Prayer and a night’s rest cleared her mind to where she was zeroed in on the runway, not feeling or thinking of anything else.

There are three phases in the triple jump: the hop, the skip and the jump. Childress has developed her ability to slow down both physically and mentally to focus on each phase at a time. A hop, skip and a jump, and she could be a three-time national champion.

Childress ran, hopped on her right foot, skipped to her left and jumped 13.26 meters. One jump was all it took — the next closest triple jump of the entire meet was her teammate Taylor Nelloms at 13.06 meters. Childress was a national champion.

Childress, a Lawrence native and Free State alumna, finished her final outdoor track season with an individual title and helped the Pittsburg State Gorillas out on their way to winning the men’s and women’s team titles at the Division II National Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Phase One: Fast to slow in the hop

The first phase of the triple jump is the running start and the hop. It requires power on each step, which Childress has a lot of. The more power she can put into the ground, the better. Pittsburg State jumps coach Jesse Miller says it’s a little counterintuitive, but the more pressure and power a jumper puts to the ground on each step, the smoother it is for the jumper.

The key is to think through each step and action. The problem is that Childress runs so fast that she doesn’t have much time to think each step through. So Miller tells her to slow down, which is a hurdle in itself.

“I’m like, ‘Everything’s going to go fast, what am I going to do?'” Childress said, recounting conversations with her coach. “He said, ‘Auna, once you get off that first foot, slow down.’ I (thought) that does not make sense, because how am I going to go from being fast to slowing everything down?”

But it worked, and Childress slowed just enough to give her time to think on her feet. Her mind-muscle connection helps her distinctly accentuate what needs to be done to be fast and powerful while thinking it through.

The first phase of Childress’s triple jump career also started fast. Childress started track at West Middle School in Lawrence and competed in the long jump, the 100-meter dash and the 4×100-meter relay. A teammate of hers would consistently get the better of her at the long jump, so when the only middle school meet where she had the chance to triple jump came, Childress jumped on it.

“I had one day to learn it — I almost broke my ankle,” Childress said. “Then I competed the next day, and I ended up breaking my middle school’s record, so it kind of started from there.”

As a Free State Firebird, Childress had an impressive high school career. Her high school personal record at the triple jump of 40 feet, 9 inches would’ve bested everyone at the 2024 Kansas state meet last weekend.

But from Childress’s senior high school season to her sophomore college season, things had to slow down. She didn’t get to compete in her senior year of high school, as she graduated in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Then, Childress was quick to choose Pittsburg State — she committed two days after her visit to the campus — but she had to adjust to the new level of competition and the conditioning without a senior year. To finish it off, Childress developed bone spurs that required surgery the day before the start of her sophomore year.

“They had to shave it down because it was causing too much pain in my foot to where I could barely run,” Childress said. “The pain (started) midway through my freshman year, and I thought it was just pain. I could have redshirted, but I couldn’t do it. Sitting out was not my thing.”

Childress continued to improve nonetheless. Her consistent jumps went from being around 38 feet to over 40 feet. She became a two-time national champion in her junior year, winning the indoor and outdoor triple jump titles.

Phase Two: Technique in the skip

Her first outdoor title last May was more than just a championship — it was history. Childress set the Division II triple jump record at 13.37 meters and could’ve set it above 13.40 meters with a different attempt had the wind been slightly less at her back.

Another wrinkle appeared for Childress this season — her academic responsibilities. As a nursing major, Childress worked over 400 hours during the season, which forced Miller to adjust their practices to give her more time off her feet.

“We had a less is more approach,” Miller said. “It’s not just 400 hours of her standing. It’s 400 hours of her working. From a technical standpoint, we sharpened up and did everything that everyone else does, but the biggest thing was, how do we manage how hard we can work?”

The two became “surgical” with film study. Instead of hammering repetitions after repetitions, Miller and Childress pored over every angle of her jumps. Track and field is literally a game of inches. Every minor adjustment, such as the flexion of a toe, can make a monumental difference in only a few inches.

Childress is coachable and has impeccable body control to make minor adjustments as she jumps. It makes practice time particularly productive. It doesn’t take many tries to pick up an adjustment that Miller gives her, and she can feel the difference.

Along with her tangible strengths, Childress is one of the most competitive athletes Miller has worked with. Sometimes to a fault, like when she admittedly didn’t give herself enough recovery time after her surgery to fix her bone spurs. However, her competitive attitude has pushed her to get the most out of her training, no matter what obstacles interfere.

“When I got the job here, working with Auna, I was like, ‘This girl has the juice,'” Miller said. “We got to work. We were doing a lot of high-level work, a lot of cool stuff. We got to the point where she’s fast as all get-out, as strong as the Earth is round, and she’s already naturally powerful.”

Once the two dialed in the technique, Miller called her unstoppable.

Phase Three: Jump through the finish

Miller tells his jumpers that the sand isn’t going anywhere. He wants them to stay in the air as long as possible to gain as many inches and centimeters as possible.

Childress finished her fourth year at Pittsburg State but isn’t going anywhere yet. She still holds another year of eligibility and will compete in one last indoor track season.

But this past week was the last of her outdoor career with Pittsburg State. The team knew they had a good chance, especially the men’s team that capped its outdoor season with its third straight national title. But the women’s team was in a fight. Based on rankings ahead of the meet, the Gorillas were expected to be in a tight race for second place. However, as Miller and the Pittsburg State coaching staff told their athletes, it is anyone’s game once they get to the meet.

The Gorillas scored points all over. Some were in events where they weren’t projected to score any points. They scored more than expected in many events, including the triple jump. That event with Childress and Nelloms was a known strength, but the team collected 18 points from the duo as they finished first and second. Miller said that his excitement and cheer in the coaches’ box would’ve been grounds for being kicked out of the room.

“I knew they were sick of me,” Miller said. “It was nuts. Words can’t explain how much those girls went through on and off the track, and to go one and two was just nuts.”

It was one feat to win the triple jump. It was another to score 100 points and win the team title. Sharing the glory with the men’s team was the perfect way to tie it together.

“It was icing on the cake to end my year,” Childress said. “I put it on my prayer wall that I will win nationals individually and with my team. We just kept scoring. I was like, ‘There’s no way we’re not going to win this because this is insane.'”

After freshman Olivia Vanderweide won the javelin throw at 51.93 meters, the team knew the math would be in their favor. Childress was adamant about the team not celebrating until they officially won. Once they did, she joined in with excitement.

Once her college career ends, Childress will stay close to the track in whatever capacity possible. Olympic qualifiers occur in June, and the former Firebird plans to attend. That’ll mark the start of her professional career she’s chasing. Even though she’ll be busy with nursing school, she won’t miss her final indoor season.

A small part of Childress thought of ending her college career this May, but that’s not who she is. She’s not leaving the sport when she doesn’t have to. The sand isn’t going anywhere, and she will stay in the air, competing and improving as long as possible.

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