In Jamaica — the country that gave us Usain Bolt, Shelly-Anne Frasier-Pryce, Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake, and more — lightning-fast sprinters are everywhere. Nothing looks more natural over the shoulders of a winner than the yellow cross over a green and black flag.
Out in the rolling farmland alongside the Missouri River, a half a continent away geographically and a world away culturally, the yellow, green, and black of the Jamaican flag are a little more surprising. But Jamaican sprinters also abound here.
And just like the small island nation of Jamaica, little Lincoln University in small-town Jefferson City, Mo., has built the unlikeliest of track dynasties. It has done so with a pipeline from the Caribbean, and a Jamaican coach with a talent for finding hidden speed and desire in his homeland.
Back in March, Lincoln's Venicha Baker passed another runner to take the lead in the final leg of the 4x400m relay – the last event of the day – to give the Blue Tigers just enough points to give Lincoln its fifth NCAA D2 Indoor Track and Field championship, after runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2013.
That 4x400m relay team, which in addition to Baker included Willomena Williams, Jhevere Hall and Kissi-Ann Brown, won in 3:38.87, the fastest time in NCAA D2 Track history.
In addition to the team titles, Yanique Ellington won the 200m hurdle championship and Chrisdale McCarthy won the 60m hurdle title.
Overall, Lincoln has 12 national track and field team championships – so fans of the sport probably aren't surprised to see the Blue Tigers on the medal stand any more.
— Lincoln Blue Tigers (@GoBlueTigers) May 17, 2016
But they should be. Lincoln's improbable dominance comes despite obstacles that go beyond just luring Caribbean kids to cold, rural Mid-Missouri.
Consider: Lincoln has won five indoor track and field championships, but doesn't have an indoor training facility.
Go to Jeff City and you may find runners warming up in the gym – sharing it with the basketball team.
"The left side of the gym is empty, the basketball team is in the middle and we are running on the right side," said Victor Thomas, the Jamaican coach who has overseen this dynasty for about 15 years.
The distraction of another team in the room is far from the only issue inherent in training on a basketball court — even more worrying is the risk of injury. When you sprint down a corridor or across a gym floor, there's not much room for a slow-down before you get to a wall.
"You have to brake early," Thomas said. "You have to be careful."
So often, the team will warm up inside, and then go out and quickly run its distances in the cold before they head back in to stay warm. Sometimes the athletes have to shovel snow off one or two lanes of the track before they get their reps in.
Those long, cold, often snowy Missouri winters one of the biggest sources of culture-shock for the 14 Jamaican runners on this year's women's team of 22 athletes.
The Lincoln MO Women's Track team stands with the D2 Indoor Championship trophy (Courtesy of Lincoln Athletics)
How does Thomas get kids to leave a place like Montego Bay, hometown of freshman hurdler Kimona Shaw, for example, to come to the frosty American Midwest? What does he tell them to expect about the weather?
"I don't tell them," Thomas says.
Probably a good call. Focus on the positives instead.
"I tell them they can get an education and a start in life, and they won't have a payment plan," Thomas said.
Lincoln (MO) Track and Field coach Victor Thomas (right), Courtesy of Lincoln Athletics
And how does he convince Jamaica's track stars to come to a little D2 school many may not have heard of? He has an easy solution for that too. He doesn't recruit stars. He finds kids who love to run, and makes them better.
"I look at the kid who comes seventh, or the kid who comes ninth," Thomas said. "I try and get kids who don't come from a top flight program."
That's because often, those runners have had good coaching. "And then there's not much more room for improvement," he said.
It's a formula that has worked, and while the wider world may not know much about Lincoln, the track and field world recognizes what Thomas has done there. After winning the national championship in March, he was named National Women's Indoor Coach of the Year by the United States Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association.
— Lincoln Blue Tigers (@GoBlueTigers) March 17, 2016
But Thomas says it's mostly about the runners and jumpers. (The school focuses on these events, rather than throwers.)
"If you don't get the quality athletes that can perform, you're not going to win," Thomas said. But what defines quality may be different for Thomas than just a 100m or 400m time.
Mostly, Thomas looks for runners who love the sport. They have to, to want to come to Lincoln because it's not glamorous – though it does come with the likelihood that they'll compete for a national championship.
"I tell them all the time, 'If you don't love the sport, it's not going to love you back,'" Thomas said. "You got to love it."