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Justin Austin is going home—for the weekend, anyway.
The University of Iowa junior and Wisconsin native begins defense of his 200-meter title this weekend at the 2012 Big Ten Outdoor Championships in Madison, Wis. The 200-meter preliminary race begins Saturday, May 12, at 5:40 p.m., but the big race, the finals, the one Austin has been looking forward to all season, begins Sunday, May 13, at 2:42 p.m. By the time the clock hits 2:43 p.m., Austin wants to give his family something to celebrate.
"It's definitely a homecoming for me," says Austin, who won seven state titles while prepping at Brown Deer High School in Milwaukee. "I'm going back to Wisconsin, I'm going to have a lot of family there. When I cross the (finish) and you see the time you'll know the emotions I was feeling before that race."
Austin will first have to make some strides to even consider defending his conference title. Unlike last season, when he entered the field with the Big Ten's top time, Austin enters the 2012 Championships on the outside looking in. His season-best time of 21.21 ranks 11th in the conference, and only the top eight preliminary times advance to Sunday's finals.
But Austin says until now he hasn't been himself physically this season. He was unable to defend his indoor conference title in the 200 meters, but he still considers himself the man to beat at the outdoor championships.
"I definitely still have something to prove, and I'm peaking at the right time," says Austin. "I'm injury-free right now, and I'm running as fast as I've ever been in my life, so it feels like a pretty good peak to me."
Austin was named 2011 Big Ten Track Athlete of the Year and Track Athlete of the Championships following Iowa's championship run last year in Iowa City. He contributed 21 points toward the team title. No athlete in school history has won either award twice, but Austin will have a shot at it if he can pile up the points again this season. He's expected to compete in four events: the open 100, 200, and the 400- and 1,600-meter relay teams.
"Every race and every point count, we found that out last season," Austin says. "We definitely know it takes a lot to win a Big Ten Championship, so I know we'll be fighting hard to get to the finals from day one."
Iowa director of track and field Larry Wieczorek says Austin's approach is the same mantra he has been preaching his team all season: Get in the hunt and give yourself a chance to reclaim the big prize.
"There are two sides to the coin," Wieczorek says of defending the title. "Some people might say, 'Hey, there's added pressure because I'm the defending champ.' The other part, the positive part, is that you know you can win because you have won."
He also knows his team has the legs to get it done again. The men's team has nine school record holders competing this weekend, including Austin, who owns the top spot in both the 100 and 200 meters.
"I would say we have the best collection of track and field athletes that have ever been at the University of Iowa all at once," says Wieczorek. "I've tried to impress on the guys the rare opportunity they have in any sport—repeat as champions. I've told them it's a chance of a lifetime and a lifetime of chance. I'm hoping, and I think they understand it."