GULF SHORES, Ala. — University of Rio Grande senior Dean Freitag won a national championship on Thursday night, taking top honors in the men’s 5,000-meter race walk as part of the NAIA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships at Mickey Miller Blackwell Stadium.
The Magnolia, Ohio native finished in a time 22:05.79, topping Missouri Baptist’s Jordan Crawford by just under 21 seconds.
“It feels amazing to represent my school, my teammates, my family and to make my coaches proud,” said Freitag, who had the third-best qualifying time and who had twice previously earned All-American honors in the indoor version of the event. “It was a battle, but I made a big push with about 800 meters to go to pull away.”
Freitag found himself in third place at the 3,800-meter mark, trailing race leader Steven Smith of West Virginia University-Tech by 12 seconds and Crawford by one second, but Smith — who defeated Freitag in the River States Conference Championship — was disqualified moments later and Freitag made his move.
He held a 3-1/2 second lead over Crawford at the 4,200-meter mark and tacked on 17 more seconds to his advantage over the final 800 meters.
“When I saw (Smith) get DQ’d, that’s when I went for it,” said Freitag.
Freitag’s win gave Rio Grande its first individual national champion since Tyanna Petty-Craft won the women’s high jump crown in 2018 and his victory was the school’s first for a male athlete since Matt Boyles won the second of his two championships in the 5,000-meter race walk in 2005.
“It’s huge for Dean. It couldn’t have happened to a better kid,” said veteran Rio Grande head coach Bob Willey. “He works hard, he’s a team player — he’s very deserving.”
Willey said he instructed assistant coach Jordan Cunningham to employ a bit of a different strategy with Freitag entering Thursday’s championship.
“Usually, we try to look at the field and figure things out in terms of how to approach it and where to make a move,” Willey said. “Dean had never beaten the kid from Tech before, but he’s in the best shape of his life and I told Jordan to tell him just to read it and go from the start — to trust himself when to push it. That’s exactly what he did. When he saw Smith get disqualified, he put the hammer down and reached for another gear.”
Each of the other three athletes representing Rio Grande came up short in their championship efforts.
Junior Cody Booth (New Philadelphia, OH) finished 10th in his heat and 28th overall in the preliminary round of the men’s 5,000-meter run. He led throughout the first 1,800 meters of his heat, but faded down the stretch and finished in a time of 15:19.85.
On Wednesday night, senior Chanavier Robinson (Ravenna, OH) placed 16th in the women’s long jump with a top effort of 5.46m and sophomore Sierra Cress (Greenville, OH) was 19th in the women’s hammer throw with a best toss of 47.74m.
Randy Payton is the Sports Information Director at the University of Rio Grande.