Track Gaining Speed Toward Future with Electronic Starting Devices

By Steve Vedder
Special for

May 23, 2023

Aubrey Greenfield thinks it might be the perfect time to reevaluate 130 years of tradition.

For a number of reasons, from technical to personal, the Oxford senior sprinter believes it makes sense for the crack of a starting pistol to be eliminated from high school track meets.

Because track meets would benefit in various ways from lowering costs to easier setup at meets to the human factor of competitors not having to flinch at the crack of a pistol shot, Greenfield believes the sport has a chance to embrace new technology – electronic starting devices (ESD).

In essence, an ESD replaces the starting pistol with a light flash, tone sound or both to begin a race.

"High school sports should put the athlete first," Greenfield said. "We should promote sports, and eliminating starting pistols promotes health in terms of PTSD or trauma for athletes and spectators and that would be good. I would like to think people would say that's a good idea."

In fact, Greenfield would go as far as to say if there was not an implementation of electronic starting devices, many of her teammates would have considered giving up the sport.

"If it's something that helps us compete safely, we're all for it," she said.

Greenfield's opinion apparently is spreading. Michigan High School Athletic Association senior assistant director Cody Inglis said the use of ESD makes it both affordable for meet starters and sensible for athletes and fans to rethink the use of starting pistols. While the MHSAA is not mandating electronic starting devices, it does promote the use of what Inglis calls "emerging technology." He notes that ESD are becoming the norm for organizations such as USA Track & Field, the NCAA and an increasing number of high schools.

An electronic starting device provided by Vs Athletics was used to start races at the 2022 LPD1 Finals."I think we have to embrace new technology, and we think this will be something that takes hold," Inglis said.

A key part of embracing ESD is the human element. The tragic Oxford High School shooting Nov. 30, 2021, that took the lives of four students while injuring seven others should not be relived even for a fleeting instance at a high school sporting event. Oxford athletic director Tony DeMare said the school began using ESD at every meet, including the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals last June. He said that decision was embraced by virtually all schools Oxford encountered.

"We were very convinced that the alternative (of ESD) would promote a healthy attitude," DeMare said. "We were overwhelmed with the positive response. If a school was on the fence about it or might not be for it, I think we've started to see the tide turn in favor of people willing to listen and learn about electronic starting devices."

Inglis said the MHSAA is acutely aware of what the crack of a starting pistol can mean to athletes and fans.

"It's unimaginable what Oxford went through, and this is a small way we can help," he said. "We look at a (starting pistol) and think, ‘Could we do something else?’ It's a way of helping to solve a problem."

Over the last several years, the MHSAA has embraced finding an alternative to starting pistols. Inglis noted the discussion started with the cost and diminishing availability of 32-caliber ammunition that meet starters use. A box of ammunition, if it can be found, is around $75 a box.

In addition to cost, there is potential damage from excessive exposure to 150-plus decibels of sound generated by the traditional 32-caliber blanks. Medical studies show damage to ears caused by decibel levels above 120 dB.

The tragedy at Oxford accelerated the conversation.

Inglis said the cost of ESD can be likened to a school sinking money into artificial surfaces at football fields. Yes, there is a great cost at first, but over time money is ultimately saved. An ESD system itself ranges between $200 and $500. Speakers also may need to be purchased, but with ESD starting events like the 800 and 1,600-meter relays positioned near the outside lanes 8, 7, 6 and 5 would result in improved hearing by athletes at the start of a race.

There is one challenge with ESD that track administrators are working to overcome – lighting conditions that lessen the ability to see the ESD’s LED light or strobe when the button is pressed by a starter to begin a race. But that vision difficulty resulting from clear blue skies and backgrounds of setting suns can be substantially improved by incorporating a black background with an ESD – something as simple as a starter holding up black cardboard behind the lighting mechanism at the start of an event.

Inglis said when all factors are considered, the use of ESD makes sense.

An MHSAA official prepares to start a race at the LPD1 Finals last spring. "With the climate we live in nowadays, no lookalike guns is good," he said. "We're not mandating this. But people are saying this is affordable."

While switching to ESD would break 130 years of tradition, the timing could be a step forward, said Jeff Hollobaugh, co-author of the book "The Fleet Feet of Spring: Michigan's High School State Championships in Track & Field." He said while no definitive answer is possible, it's likely starting pistols were used at the inaugural state meet at the Jackson Fairgounds in 1895. The meet, which included events like tossing a 16-pound shot put, bike races and a 100-meter sprint, was sponsored by the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Association (a predecessor to the MHSAA) and comprised mostly of the state's larger schools.

Hollobaugh's sentiments echo what many involved in today's high school track & field believe in terms of making a transition from starting pistols to electronic starting devices.

"It's a change, not necessarily good or bad, just different," he said. "It's not a drastic change, but it will take some getting used to. But it is the future. In the end, we'll all be fine."

DeMare believes the future of high school track will definitely include ESD.

"Our desire is that the practicality and sensibility of this will overcome the alternative," he said. "I think we'll see the automation and electronics taking hold of certain elements in track, and people will embrace it."

PHOTOS (Top) Runners watch official Bertha Smiley as they prepare to begin a race during last season's Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals at Rockford. (Middle) An electronic starting device provided by VS Athletics was used to start those races. (Below) Smiley sets to begin an event. (Photos provided by David Kuderka/VS Athletics.)

Finals Title Next Step for Versatile Swan Valley Record-Breaker Kuhn

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

May 22, 2024

Sydney Kuhn’s habit for smashing school records at Saginaw Swan Valley has forced the track & field program to start taking cost-cutting measures.

Bay & Thumb“We stopped changing out the records on our record board,” Swan Valley coach Dave Dawson said. “We just figured she has another year and she’ll break it again, so we figured we’re going to save money this way.”

Kuhn, a junior, owns the school records in the 200, 400, 800 and 1,600 meters. She also has the program record in 60 meters, an indoor track event. She’s run the school’s second-fastest 300 hurdles time, and one of the top five 100-meter times. The 1,600-meter relay team she’s part of with Mackenzie Morgan, Grace Spear and Mackenzie Powell is close to setting a record, as well, and has qualified for the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals on June 1.

“Her ninth-grade year, everybody knew, depending on what happens and her attitude, they knew she could be something special. There was potential there,” Dawson said. “Lauren Huebner, she graduated in 2016 and went to SVSU and was a two-time Division II national champion, she had eight records on the board. Sydney feeds off that. Especially now that Lauren is helping coach, she’s definitely been pivotal in this.”

Kuhn qualified for the Finals in the three events she ran at last week’s Regional: the 200, 400 and 1,600 relay. She will be the No. 1 seed in the 400, and has run the fastest time in the state regardless of division, at 55.11 seconds. She’s the No. 2 seed in the 200, where her personal best of 24.89 is the fifth-fastest time in the state this year, regardless of division. She finished third and sixth, respectively, at the Finals in the events a year ago.

“I feel good,” Kuhn said. “I’m just getting ready. It’s been a good year, it’s been going smoothly. The 400 looks pretty good, and the 200 there will be some good competition. Freshman year, I got fifth, then third (as a sophomore) in the 400, so hopefully this year is first.”

She did not run the 800 at the Regional, as it was decided it was too close in the meet order to her other events. She’s run 2:12.75 in the event, the fourth-fastest time recorded in the state this season.

That could be where she has the most potential, however, as it’s a race she had never run competitively until her sophomore season. The first time she ran it in a varsity meet, she recorded a 2:21, setting the school record.

Kuhn anchors a relay during the Tri-Valley Conference Red meet May 8 at Frankenmuth.“(Coach) Andrew Wendler put a bug in her ear, ‘If you’re running this fast in the 400, think of what your 800 would be,’” Dawson said. “She says, ‘Yeah, I’ll try it.’ So, in one of our first conference meets, she ran against a girl that’s pretty good in the 800 and we just said to follow her – stick with her and see what you can do. With 200 meters left, she just took off and broke the school record the first time she ran it.”

A year later, they tried the same thing with the 1,600. And again, Kuhn responded by running 5:12.73 in her first try, setting the school record. She’s since run 5:06.45.

“The first time I ran the 800, I ran against Mary Richmond from Frankenmuth who is really fast, and I sort of paced behind her the first 400, then the last 300 I took off. Same thing with the 1,600. I felt like staying behind her, I wasn’t really racing, so I could just go, I thought.”

Richmond is a three-time all-state finisher in both the 1,600 and the 3,200, as well as a four-time all-state cross country runner. 

With Kuhn’s instant success in every race she’s tried, the logical next question is, what about the 3,200?

“My coach mentioned that,” Kuhn said with a laugh. “But I usually just shake my head. You never know.”

There is a real question, however, about what event, or events, Kuhn is best suited for moving forward. She said that she would like to shift some focus to the 800 for her senior year, and several college coaches who have been in contact with her have indicated that’s where she could land.

“The pattern typically is they would probably turn her into a half-miler or a miler,” Dawson said. “Some college coaches want her for the heptathlon with her hurdle experience, and she is not a stranger to the weight room. That’s the fun part about this, she tries something and it’s usually pretty fun. It’s usually a positive experience.”

Kuhn is ready for whatever is thrown at her.

“They’re mostly like 800, 1,500, those types of races,” she said. “Some of them just say whatever you like best. One coach mentioned the steeplechase – I don’t know about that. One coach did mention (heptathlon). I’d be open to whatever is best.”

While she’s taken some unofficial visits, she said she’s in no hurry to choose a college. Her focus remains on winning a Finals title at Swan Valley, and a series of times she’s set as goals for herself: 24.4, 54.9, 2:09.9, 4:59.9.

They’re all saved on her phone screen, where they’re easy to change as she reaches them. And at no cost.

“Every time I look at my phone, I see the times I want to get,” she said. “I’ve changed my screen saver a lot when I do break it.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Saginaw Swan Valley’s Sydney Kuhn runs toward the finish during the Korf/Schultz Saginaw County Invitational on May 10 at Hemlock. (Middle) Kuhn anchors a relay during the Tri-Valley Conference Red meet May 8 at Frankenmuth. (Photos by Eagle Eye Photography.)