What separates the best of the best from the rest? How do the athletes at the very top of a game differ from everyone else?
Honestly, I couldn’t tell you. If you ever talk to the Lionel Messis or Mike Trouts or pre-Lakers Lebrons of the world, let me know.
But I did get to talk to some of the best of Cal’s track and field team a week before the NCAA Indoor Championships. This may not be the Olympics, but make no mistake — it’s a national championship.
“The margin of error is so small,” said head coach Tony Sandoval. “Everyone there is elite.”
Three Bears are headed to Birmingham, Alabama to compete for an NCAA title. McKay Johnson will throw in shot put, and teammates Tyler Brendel and Tuomas Kaukolahti will participate in the heptathlon and triple jump, respectively.
“The goal is always to compete,” Johnson said.
That seems to be the key. All three athletes share that attitude. They’re happy to be there and to give it their all at the highest level.
Sandoval had more specific goals: “Obviously, we would like to come back with three All-Americans.”
That means three top-eight finishes. Johnson is best positioned to achieve that honor, entering the championship weekend for the second consecutive year. This time, he is ranked fifth, with his best more than 2 feet ahead of the eighth seed.
Things are never that simple, though.
“In the field events, there are three preliminary performances,” Sandoval said. “You have to be on from the very beginning.”
This means that the entire field of 16 will be chasing Johnson and the top eight, and the top of the rankings may be even more intimidating. Jordan Geist, who nudged out Johnson for an MPSF Championship, is ranked second behind Payton Otterdahl, who holds the NCAA indoor record in shot put. Johnson remained unperturbed despite the apparent challenges.
“Competition is fun,” Johnson said.
Brendel and Kaukolahti face steeper battles toward top finishes and All-American Honors.
Kaukolahti is ranked 11th in the triple jump, roughly 9 inches outside of the top eight. He is returning to the NCAA Indoor Championships for the second year in a row after a fifth-place finish in 2018, despite struggling with a heel injury.
“I’m hoping to improve last year’s postseason,” Kaukolahti said. “Just got to be ready — the top guys are jumping very well this year.”
Kaukolahti would have to beat his personal record by more than 2 inches to break into the top eight as it stands, and it’s more than likely that athletes will perform above and beyond those marks in Birmingham.
He remains optimistic and upbeat, though: “Goal is to get to the top eight and hopefully score a new PR (Personal record),” Kaukolahti said.
Brendel is the last athlete representing Cal at the NCAA Indoor Championships, earning the 16th and final qualifying spot in the heptathlon after a yearlong recovery from a stress fracture in his leg. Two years ago, Brendel finished 17th nationally in the same event and was the first athlete not to qualify for the Indoor Championships.
“It’s a little bit of poetic justice,” Brendel said.
Brendel has high goals: targeting All-American Honors and potentially breaking the school record — “which is 5872 (points), held by Mike Morrison.”
That would place Brendel in the top five. Though, every other heptathlon athlete will surely put out their best before the dust settles. His injury from last season remains a concern, and Brendel will be doing all he can to manage it before the meet.
Each athlete carries with them expectations of themselves, as well as those of the school they represent. Despite that, all three Bears remain loose and hopeful.
“I made it to nationals,” Brendel said. “It’s kind of just having fun at this point.”
Those at the top are there because they’re having fun, responding to the elite competition with smiles and their very best.
“Competition brings out some different things in people,” Johnson said. “It should be fun.”
Jasper Sundeen covers track and field. Contact him at