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.)

Blissfield's Miller Set for Senior Success After 3 Junior-Year Finals Trips

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

August 15, 2023

BLISSFIELD – Last fall, June Miller raced for an MHSAA cross country title at Michigan International Speedway. During the winter she played in the Division 3 Basketball Final at the Breslin Center. In the spring, she competed at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 track & field championships in Kent City. 

Southeast & BorderAs she embarks on her senior year at Blissfield Community Schools in southeast Michigan, Miller isn’t concerned about an encore. 

“I don’t worry about topping my junior season,” she said. “I don’t feel the need to. I’ll fight for it to the best of my ability, but if I don’t make it that’s okay. There were a lot of factors that went into last year, and I can’t control all of them this year.  

“I’ll leave my best out there and know that I gave it my all, and in the end that’s the true accomplishment. If it takes me that far or further, then great. If not, that’s okay.” 

Miller’s remarkable run to MHSAA Finals in three sports remains even more impressive when considering she had eight goals and five assists playing defense for the Royals soccer team. 

“Shows up to work, busts her tail every practice, every game,” said Blissfield girls basketball coach Ryan Gilbert. “Never have to worry about June Miller.” 

Miller is as steady an athlete as they come, never getting too high or too low in pressure situations. In basketball, Gilbert said Miller never met a shot she didn’t like. Miller started all 29 games last season, leading the team in 3-pointers.  

Gilbert said Miller is even-keeled. 

“It takes a while to get into the ‘June Miller circle,’ but I’m almost in,” he said. “This is her senior year; this is my year. She’s very funny when you get to know her and has a brilliant mind. 

“She wants to win over everything,” Gilbert said. 

Miller wasn’t the fastest runner on the cross country team last fall – that spot would belong to her younger sister, Hope. June has no problem with that.  

“I love running with my sister,” she said. “She’s an amazing and incredibly kind person. Her dedication to running inspires me and keeps me fighting for it. We train together sometimes and she’s the one that pushes me, and I love that.  

“I always knew she’d be faster than me someday, and I couldn’t be prouder of how fast she’s become and how much she’s achieved. (People might) think I’d hold some resentment for her beating me while I’m older, but she’s lived in my shadow for years and I’m so glad she’s been able to find her place that she can dominate.” 

Miller pulls up for a jumper during last season’s basketball postseason run.Blissfield is eyeing a big season in cross country after winning a Regional and just missing the top 10 at the Final a year ago. The Miller sisters are a big reason for the giddiness. 

“I’m ready to leave it all out there,” Miller said. “It’s my senior season, and I want to go out strong. I think the end goal for all of us is to really push it this season and improve with each race so by the time we hit Regionals we’re in the best shape physically and mentally so we can leave it all on the course to get to states again.” 

Because of her work schedule this summer, Miller missed some of the team workouts but was able to get the details from her sister and went out on her own time and trained to build up her mileage in preparation for the season. 

“I think the experience from last year will give us something to fight for,” she said. “It allows us to look at the season with our end goal being the state meet. It gives us a passion and something to fight for.” 

Blissfield cross country coach Ryan Bills called Miller a strong competitor. 

“She is fun kid,” he said. “You never know which June you’re going to get – funny, chatty June or serious, no-nonsense June. Either way she always gives it her all during competition, which is why she has seen so much success the past year.” 

The four-sport athlete spent the first couple of weeks of summer refreshing her body before kicking it into high gear. 

She did take some time to reflect on all the places she got to play and compete last year and is grateful to be part of a team that helped her reach those places. 

“It was a unique experience,” she said. “When I’m playing basketball or running track and cross country, I’m not focused on where I am physically – instead I’m in my head focused on what I need to do. 

“Once you get to someplace, you stop thinking about getting there and you move on to the next step of being there and doing what you need to there.” 

Miller is one of the top students in her class. She’s currently trying to decide whether she wants to pursue playing soccer in college. She wants to major in business and minor in sustainability, eventually getting a master’s degree in architecture. 

“I want to be a sustainable design architect,” she said, “who can better the world through the art of architecture.” 

Miller’s future looks bright, as does the outlook for this athletic year. In all three sports for which she reached the Finals last year, the Royals have enough returning talent to make lengthy runs again. 

“I’m looking forward to it,” Miller said, about four days before the first cross country event of the season. “I want to make it to all those state tournaments again, but I want to do it with my teammates because they’re the ones that make it memorable and something to remember forever.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Blissfield’s June Miller (750) races during a cross country meet last fall. (Middle) Miller pulls up for a jumper during last season’s basketball postseason run. (Cross country photo by Deloris Clark-Osborne; basketball photo by Gary Sullivan.)