Monday, December 15, 2014

The Holidays & My Second Chance at Life

The holiday season always makes me nostalgic and grateful. I like to honestly assess my life, past and present, and soak up the things around me I’m grateful for. And never far from my mind is the knowledge I shouldn’t be here to see any of it. And then I smile in disbelief at my unlikely life.

On July 1st, 1998 I had a bad day. I was a couple months into decathlon training after taking almost two years off to pursue the sport of bobsledding. I was single, 28 years old and I had been training as a post-collegiate athlete in Eugene, Oregon since graduating from Eastern Illinois University. I was having serious doubts about whether or not to continue. There are thousands of Olympic hopefuls who take their own version of the road I was on. I had some accomplishments of note, but at some point I knew I would have to retire. I had experienced years when I was both, well below the poverty line and dangerously close to homelessness, and years I was financially comfortable. The uncertainty of it all was a calculated risk and very little of it deterred me. It wasn't about failure. I hate losing but I've never feared it. It was really just that black cloud of my uncertain future and the pressure I felt to transition into a more predictable life. Olympic hopefuls live their lives in four-year increments. After each Olympics, most take some time to reassess where they are in their life and career, what they want to do and what they believe they can do. As a summer and winter sport athlete, I assessed every two years.  The 2000 Sydney Games were only two years away, but at some point I had to walk away from athletics. Was I at that point? On July 1st, 1998, I was deep in my personal assessment.

My practice that day was nearly done. I was wrapping up in the Hayward Field weight room, doing some hanging leg lifts when I suffered a very minor abdominal strain. It was type of injury that would take less than a week to recover from, but with my current doubts, I didn’t handle it well. I drove home to my apartment and stared at the ceiling, thinking a million thoughts. One thought that went through my head was about a waterfall. Two weeks earlier I had driven to one of my favorite places in the Cascade mountain range.  Highway 242 is one of the most scenic drives you’ll ever take. The byway winds you from the edge of the Willamette Valley up into the Cascades, through the lava fields and eventually to Sisters, Oregon. Because of the deep snows in the higher elevations, sections of 242 are only open during the summer months. I drove in as far as I could, eventually coming to a barricade just past the Linton Lake trail-head. I had never seen Linton Lake, so I pulled in and started to hike. After about 30 minutes, I came to the beautiful mountain lake. It was bigger than I expected. I noticed across the lake, up into the mountain there was a beautiful waterfall. It was quite a distance from where I was, so I made a mental note that one day I would return to hike to the waterfall. The only clear thing in my head as I was staring at my ceiling was I was going to return to Linton Lake the next day and hike the falls.

I woke up the next morning and without saying a word to anyone, grabbed my camera and ultralight rod and reel, jumped in my car and started the gorgeous 1.5 hour drive. I parked my old Ford at the trail-head, foolishly walked right past the trail map and free wilderness permits and started my adventure. It took almost two hours to hike to where the stream from the falls fed into the lake. There was a clear trail heading up the mountain I was sure would lead me to the falls.

Lower Linton Falls (the smaller falls)
The hike was a lot more difficult than I had anticipated, with trees and thick vegetation hiding most of the stream from the trail. The sound of the falls grew louder and louder as I climbed. Finally I reached a place where the falls were in full view. They were spectacular. I quickly made my way through the wet moss and ferns to reach the bottom of the falls. The mist was thick and I was surprised by the intensity of the sound. My adrenaline was flowing. I snapped off a couple pictures and decided I wanted to see the view from the top. I made my way back through the moss and ferns to the trail but saw it had all but disappeared where I was standing. I headed up anyway. Once again, my view of the falls was obstructed, but I was confident I could find my way to the top. I finally came to a clearing where I could see the water, but I had inadvertently climbed past the top of the falls. I turned to head back, but higher up the mountain I heard the faint sound of what I thought must be another waterfall. There was no way I was going to turn back without seeing it, so I continued my climb. At this point the hike was extremely difficult and at times, treacherous. But the sound above me was growing more and more powerful. It was exhilarating. I kept climbing and then, there it was. Wow… This waterfall was massive. Much bigger than the lower one. Once again I made my way through the wet marsh and vegetation. I was slipping on mossy rocks and mud but my eyes were fixed on the falls. When I finally arrived at the bottom, the spray was so strong it seemed to be raining sideways. The sound was deafening. I was filled with anxiety and adrenaline. I threw up my arms and screamed like a maniac. It’s hard to put into words, but I couldn’t stay there long because of the enormity of it all. It was too intense, too close to fully enjoy. I still hadn’t gotten my picture from the top, so I turned back and started to walk. I was surprised at how far I had actually walked through all the wetness. I looked around for an alternative route. I saw a rock face to my right and walked to it. It was a huge cliff- 80-100’, but looked like really easy climbing. It looked like I only needed to climb 20-25’ to get to a place I could exit the cliff and return down the mountain. I was feeling great and without a second thought, started climbing. I was right about the ease of it all. The hand holds were plentiful and the risk was small. I was climbing like a pro and gaining confidence. I made a couple of big moves, but most of them were easy.

I reached the place on the cliff I had seen from the bottom and reasoned I could exit. Well, whatever I had seen from the ground wasn’t there now and I couldn’t get off. Going back down was the obvious choice, but the descent was difficult because of the big moves I had made. There was nothing but rocks waiting for me at the bottom and a fall from this height would be a serious one. I looked up and saw the face of the cliff seemed pretty constant all the way up. I’m not an experienced rock climber, but I was an athlete and the climb up until this point had been easy and fun. I found the decision to keep climbing an exciting one, so I took a deep breath and continued my climb. I was all in now. I was covering a lot of ground, climbing fast and having the time of my life. I was about ¾ up the rock face now. Then everything changed. The face surface that had been so accommodating changed. Significantly. What had been smooth and hard rock turned to something like sand stone. I checked it and realized I could actually scratch right into the surface. Above me there was a large stone sticking out from the wall. I reached up and pulled at it. It seemed solid. I reached up again and started pulling myself up. I was eye level with it when it gave way and pulled out of the cliff. I started falling. My hands and feet clawed frantically at the wall. I fell 2-3’ when my right toe grabbed and stopped my fall. The stone immediately hit me on the head, breaking in two. One piece fell behind me but the other came to rest between my chest and the cliff. I was teetering on the toe of my boot with neither hand having a hold. I didn’t know which direction I would fall. I didn't want to so much as breathe. Finally, I contorted my chest inward and was able to release the stone. I leaned in to the cliff, acutely aware of how long it took to hear the sound of the stone hit the ground.

I didn’t have time to process what just happened because it was still happening. I looked above me and saw the soft rock face. I looked to my left and saw nowhere to go. I looked to my right and saw a dead tree that had grown out of the cliff about eight feet away. The base of the tree was about eye level and looked to be 1-2” thick. Not an option. I looked back up. Nothing. Back to the left. Nothing. Back to the tree. “It’s dead.” I thought. “It will either break right off or pull out of the rock.” I looked around again. I was trying hard not to panic. I would start to give in to it, then rage against it. But the truth of my situation was impossible to ignore. I did almost die a minute ago. That happened. My only hope was that skinny dead tree and if it didn’t hold, this day would be my last.
Linton Falls above Linton Lake

I stared at the tree, knowing it was my only chance. I tried to build myself up. “You can do this! Lesser men have done more. You’re an elite athlete. You can do this!” I knew what had to be done but I was in no hurry to do it. When my right calf started to cramp, the moment of truth had arrived. I let myself slowly lean to the right and started to fall. I pushed off my right toe and lunged in the direction of the tree. With both hands I grabbed the base and my body swung violently underneath. The tree more than held. It felt like a piece of iron. It took every ounce of strength in my body to pull myself all the way up. I put one foot between the tree and the cliff. For the moment I was alive.

I looked around to assess my situation. The good news was the rock face before me was hard again. The bad news was it was smooth with virtually no hand-holds.  I contemplated waiting for a rescue team. I could maybe fold myself over the base of this tree and bed down for the night. Maybe tomorrow someone would come. That was when I remembered I hadn’t told anyone where I was going. I also hadn’t filled out the hiking permit, required for just such a contingency. I had been reckless enough to cost me my life. Even if I was lucky enough for someone to realize I was missing and they found my car- even if I was lucky enough for someone to think maybe I would try to hike across Linton Lake and up to the lower falls; the odds that anyone would assume I would hike above those falls- after the trail ended, to a hidden waterfall most recreational hikers didn’t even know existed, was ridiculously remote. This climb was going to end in one of two ways. I was either climbing out on my own or falling to my death.

About five feet above me there appeared to be a soft ledge. The tree that saved me rose above this ledge, but it wasn’t the kind of tree you could climb. Even though the base was like hickory, the branches were very brittle. I could break them with little effort. I stared at the ledge. The rock face wasn’t an option. I looked at the tree. If it was thicker I could climb it like a rope. But how could it hold me further up where it was even thinner? I decided to just test it. I reached up (breaking branches) and gripped the tree with both hands. I slowly pulled myself up a few inches. It held.  I pulled a little more. When it held the second time something in me snapped and I started climbing up, right through the dead branches as fast as I could. With one final pull I let go of the tree and grabbed the ledge. It was an out of body experience and I still don’t fully understand how it happened.

I sat on the ledge and tried to process what had just happened. I looked around to see I was sitting in a crevice. Above me was a massive rock ceiling protruding well out from the rest of the cliff. My ledge seemed to be forming a 45 degree angle with the ceiling. It was like sitting on the roof of a house. This crevice looked about 20’ long and if I could cross it, I could exit the cliff. I realized quickly this would be no simple task. God knows how many years of erosion had created a ledge surface like deep pea gravel. One move in the direction I needed to go caused an avalanche of rock to cascade off the ledge. There was no other way, though. On my back, I slid as deep into the crevice as I could go, putting the back of my head against the floor and my forehead against the ceiling. I slid my right hand and right foot over about a foot and dug them both as deep as I could into the loose rock. The sound of the cascading pebbles was terrifying. I slid my left hand and left foot over a foot and dug them in. Then I slowly slid my body to the right. I repeated that move, all the while hearing the smooth rock pour over the cliff. Foot by foot I moved like a crab across that rocky crevice. Slowly, deliberately, I made my way. Ten feet to go...  Five feet to go… One foot; and it was over.

I’d love to say I celebrated like a hero and said something cool about cheating death, but I didn’t. I just dropped to my knees and cried. I stayed there on the ground with my heart racing, trying to wrap my brain around it all. I was shaking, terrified. I saw an unremarkable seedling growing next to me and I stared at it for several minutes. How close I had come to never seeing it. Eventually I calmed down, rose to my feet and started the long hike home. Nothing on that walk back to my car escaped my gaze. I kept saying, “I shouldn’t be seeing that flower. I shouldn’t be seeing that bird, that tree, that snow-capped mountain…”  My fear was quickly turning to joy. I hiked and thought about my life, but this time from the perspective of a man granted a second chance at that life. Whenever the trail allowed it, I would smile and break into a run. Things were so much clearer now. Of course I would keep training. Why wouldn’t I? I was healthy and loved competing. I loved pursuing big, impossible dreams. I was going all-in with my decathlon training. I loved my complicated and uncertain life. For better or worse these were my choices, my successes and failures. And all of it was a priceless gift.  

I’m happy to say I’ve never stopped being a man given a second chance at life. The change that came over me on my hike home was permanent. It takes a lot to upset me these days. I look at all the amazing things I've experienced since that day. The best decathlon year of my life came one year later in 1999 when I finished eighth at the World Championships. The 2000 Olympic Trials were supposed to be where I finally made that life-long dream of competing in the Summer Olympics come true. Instead I finished 5th and watched the 2000 Games from home. I would fall in love and have my heart broken. Against all odds I would win an Olympic medal in Bobsledding. I would walk away from a lucrative business career just for the opportunity to be a low paid assistant track and field coach. I would fall in love again, start a family and discover a world I love more than anything I dreamed possible. My assessment as I look around me is this; I'm lucky beyond belief for every second of this difficult, wonderful, heartbreaking, loving and thrilling life of mine. Perspective is a beautiful thing.

This holiday season, I’ll once again think about the cliff and remind myself that every single thing I have in my life- good and bad, is a priceless gift. I'll soak it up. And then I'll smile.  

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Coaching Compass

I originally started writing this article as a helpful guide for the young coaches I worked with. It is the kind of guide I wish I had been given when I started out. But once I started putting these ideas down on paper, I realized they could benefit not only my direct reports, but probably many other beginning coaches. And while I do not consider myself a leading authority on coaching, I do feel I have learned – both instinctively and experientially, some fundamental teaching principles. This coaching guide is my attempt to share those principles.

Keep it Fun
Above all else, keep sports fun. This isn’t life and death here. It’s just sports and sports are supposed to be fun! If you are a coach who thinks you motivate kids by yelling at them and offering frequent and harsh criticism with very little praise; please get out of coaching now. No great coaches teach this way. Great should be in coaching.
coaches LOVE kids. They love the teaching process. If you experience great joy when a pupil finally "gets" what you are teaching, then you are probably the kind of person who
Find the positives. Build on their strengths and encourage them at every opportunity. Be rigid in your expectations, but compassionate to their ability level and training age. Try to offer at least a 5-1 ratio of praise to criticism. Let’s face it; there is a lot about training and learning that isn’t fun. This truth should be balanced out by celebrating the improvements, cultivating team camaraderie and sharing loads of laughs. Get creative and figure it out or you’ll turn some good kids off and lose them before you even find out they were the kinds of kids you’ve always dreamed of working with. Remember, if the coach is having fun, you can bet the athletes are having fun too.

The Fundamentals of Training
One of the most important criterion for being a good coach is having a rock-solid command of the fundamentals of the sport you coach. It sounds simple, I know, but you would be surprised by the number of coaches who don’t have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of the sport or event area they are teaching. There is no excuse for this, as it is merely a matter of effort. There are numerous publications and clinics available and easily accessible for improving knowledge in any sport you coach. If you teach kids the basics, they will be far ahead of the game. Very few beginning coaches or athletes need to work beyond the basics because it takes considerable time and commitment to become fundamentally sound in any sport. Most athletes actually never get there. Fundamentals can and should be worked into all areas of training. The warm-up routine is a wonderful opportunity to work on fundamentals and should be based on actively working through them. This takes discipline from the coaches and athletes but pays big dividends.
Note: Even with a solid understanding of fundamentals, there are going to be some things you will be unclear on as a new coach. That is normal. When in doubt, keep it fun and model the best in the world (not the best on your team or in your conference).

Coaching is Teaching
This is really the essence of what we do. Conversely, if you can’t teach, you can’t coach. It doesn’t matter what you know if you can’t convey it to someone trying to learn it. All good coaches are creative problem solvers. This is a critical point because many of the problems you’ll face as a coach will not be found in a textbook or clinic. Remember, these aren’t computers we are programming. They are young people who learn and apply their skills in unique ways. There is a pervasive myth within our profession that most good or great athletes will also make good coaches. There is absolutely no empirical evidence to support this. Bei
ng a former athlete gives you many wonderful tools for the coaching toolbox, but you still have to know how and when to apply them. A great mechanic isn’t great because of his mastery of tools. He is great because of his mastery of problem solving.
The problems of bad technique, little ability, poor fitness, lack of confidence and countless others are all yours to solve. Having a clear picture of proper technique means nothing without the ability to help an athlete overcome the myriad obstacles hindering their mastery of that technique. It isn’t enough for a coach to have an understanding of the fundamentals or even to have world-class experience as an athlete. You also have to understand (among countless other things) the prioritization of skill acquisition and application, the role of fear, physical limits and opportunities for improvement of an athlete – and then apply creative problem solving skills to that understanding.
Unfortunately, there are many examples of terrible coaches who are rarely – if ever, held accountable. They stand above criticism simply because they were good or great athletes. Most of us have experienced a brilliant teacher or professor who simply couldn’t teach. You know they know their stuff, so it is extremely frustrating. You know they know how to do it. But you also figure out pretty quickly, this individual- credentialed or not, can’t teach you what they know, or more importantly, what you desire to learn. We seem to live in a society that incorrectly equates subject knowledge and technical expertise with teaching ability. And while subject knowledge is extremely important, it is only one piece of the coaching puzzle.

Competing on Fresh Legs
Over-training is one of the most common mistakes we all make at ALL levels. As long as the kids are fit, err on the side of rest and recovery. This is particularly effective with speed/power athletes (fast twitch athletes). A really hard practice or competition can exhaust the nervous system. It takes about 48 hours for the nervous system to fully recover, so two days of active rest is often necessary. When the speed athletes I work with compete on Saturday, I will rest them on Sunday and give them a light day on Monday. By Tuesday they are ready to go hard again. On the other hand, the slower twitch athletes usually feel flat after two days of rest. In most cases you just have to know your athletes and pay attention to how they are moving and feeling after competitions and/or hard work days. Some go flat with rest and some thrive.
You should never train an athlete hard when they are physically "off". Their body is talking to them and the coach should always listen. These are moments that athlete is very susceptible to injury. Never be afraid to throw out the play book. You can write the perfect training program, but the kids might not respond the way you expect. We never really know how much sleep they’re getting, what they’ve eaten, how their boyfriend or girlfriend made them feel or countless other variables that can have major affects on their training and performance. All we can really do is pay close attention and make appropriate adjustments as needed.

Know Your Horse
All good coaches study the athletes they work with individually to better understand what makes them tick. It is how we connect with them. Motivating athletes is an essential part of the coaching job. If you don’t know what drives them, how can you best motivate them? Remember, an athlete will rarely succeed beyond the level they believe themselves to be. Raising that level is our job. Helping an athlete redefine himself as something better is not always easy, but it is part of the job. Once you’ve connected with an athlete, the coaching becomes a lot easier. Work together for a common goal, and that goal not only becomes more attainable, it also becomes more meaningful. Once you know your athlete, you’ll better understand when to over-coach (for example; when they’re freaking out and their brain stops working) and when to get out of their way and let them achieve their athletic destiny.

Make a Difference
If you are a coach worth your salt, your life is better for the experience. When you’re old and gray and looking back on what you left behind – one thing that will come to mind will be the time you spent working with these kids. So make a meaningful difference. We serve as role models for our athletes- most likely having one of the largest influences of any adult in their lives. So present the value of fun and the lessons of a battle well-fought and a life well-lived. Teach and coach in ways that will make you proud when you’re old enough to have proper perspective on winning and losing. Promote good sportsmanship, character and resilience. Produce better athletes, better citizens and better people. Let them know you care about them and you will make a positive impact on their lives. That should make you very proud. And above all else, keep it fun!

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Steve Lynn: Coach, Husband, Father, Friend

Steve Lynn
I was an inexperienced sprints coach at the University of Oregon when I met Steve Lynn. I had traveled to Ames, Iowa to compete in a track meet with a young and talented 4x400m relay squad. My boss at the time told me that if I was traveling all the way to Iowa to compete in a track meet, make sure we got into the fast section. Being inexperienced, I entered my relay with a fast time we hadn't yet run. This was common practice at the time, but my entry was particularly ambitious. By the time I arrived at the track for the meet, there was much consternation among some of the other coaches- some of the top coaches in the country, that some of the teams (Oregon, among others) had entered the meet with bogus marks. I knew I had screwed up and feared being embarrassed in front of respected coaches I looked up to and tried to emulate. Enter Steve Lynn. Steve was the meet director and long time head coach at Iowa State University and had a reputation for staging some of the best indoor track meets in the world. Knowing he had a situation on his hands, Steve called all the relay coaches over for an impromptu meeting. He was well aware of who had entered their teams with bogus marks, but instead of embarrassing anyone, he said very calmly: "Look men; we have some great relay teams here today and we're all here to run fast times. Trust me when I tell you I'm going to set up these heats fairly and you'll all have an opportunity to run fast." He then pointed to each coach and patiently asked the same question, "What has your team run this year?" We all answered honestly and he wrote down the new times. "The new heat sheets will be posted in 15 minutes." And that was that. No public humiliation. In the end, we ran the fastest relay times in the country that day. I also learned a lot from Steve Lynn that day. 

Steve, K'Lynn, Erica & Scott
Years later when I arrived on the UNI campus as the new head track and field coach, I had come a long way but I still had a lot to learn. One of the first people that reached out to me was Steve Lynn. His son, Scott was a hurdler on the team and Steve asked if he could help with my transition in any way and if he could be a volunteer coach for me. Steve was a wealth of information and had coached some of the best athletes in the world. Steve was regarded as one of the best hurdles coaches in the country, so I was thrilled to have him on my staff. When I needed to hire an assistant coach, Steve suggested I consider hiring renown throws coach, Dan O'mara. Dan and Steve were close friends after working together for years at Iowa State. Steve facilitated my hiring of Dan O'mara- the best hiring decision of my career.

For my first two years, Steve was a strong and well-reasoned presence in my program. He had more experience than all of the paid coaches put together and could have out-shined all of us at any moment. But it's not who he was. He was there to coach his son and to help guide me in building the UNI program. In his own even-handed way, Steve looked out for all of us. Spend five minutes with him and you understand why everyone loves him. Steve cares about every person in his life. I've never seen anything like it. Every kid Steve worked with was equally important to him and in return, the kids loved him deeply. I don't care who you were or what your background was; if your heart was in the right place, Steve had time for you. He was all about being good and fair and decent and enjoying the process. I'm sure there were times when he knew I was making poor decisions, but he never criticized. Like any great mentor, he was quick to point out when I got it right and wise enough to let me fail on occasion in order to grow. I always appreciated that.

Chances are if you're reading this, you already know Steve left us much too soon this week. He died Wednesday, January 16th, at the age of 61. He meant more to the UNI program than most people probably realize. For two years Steve commuted the 90 miles from Ames, to volunteer with our program. Even after Scott graduated, Steve's friendship was all around us. He assisted with our home meets and last year stepped in at the last minute to serve as the 2012 Missouri Valley Conference Meet Referee at the Indoor Championships. He was the unanimous choice among the conference coaches and did an amazing job.

There is no question his track presence will be missed, but it is his friendship that makes saying goodbye so damn hard. He had a positive effect on so many. I loved getting his phone calls. We'd share stories about our families- he was all about family. I'll miss hearing him gush over his wife, K'Lynn, his daughter, Erica and son, Scott- the family he adored and was so proud of. He would always ask about my family and genuinely wanted to know how they were doing. He'd ask sincere questions of how our athletes and coaches were doing. And of course we would talk on and on about track and field. I'll miss all of that. I always felt better after getting off the phone with Steve. I think anybody who is lucky enough to have him as a friend feels the same way. You hang up feeling like you matter to a really, really good person. You can't put a price on that. He was a true friend to me and a great friend of the UNI program.

On Saturday he will be laid to rest.

If you know nothing else about Steve Lynn, know this: He was one of the finest people you could ever meet. He was as decent a man as ever lived. He loved his family and friends and was loved greatly in return. As another coach put it when he found out the sad news: "Steve was one of the good ones." Those close to him know he was one of the best.

RIP Friend. You will be missed more than you know.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

2012 UNI Track & Field Graduating Class

The 2012 UNI Track & Field graduating class is comprised of an extraordinary group of people who walked onto this campus as boys and girls and who leave us as young men and women. Each had a journey all their own, experiencing high and low points, thrilling victories and disappointing defeats. There is value in both, winning and losing. After all, college is supposed to be about learning and experiencing things that will help you later in life.

As with each graduating class, I am excited to watch their futures unfold. Some are going on to teach, some to coach, some to mentor. One has an internship with DreamWorks Animation in Los Angeles, and another with USA Track and Field in Indianapolis. But wherever they go, wherever their lives take them, they will always be part of the UNI family. All of them had an impact on this program and in the lives of their teammates. The UNI Athletic Department is a family business and they will always have a home here.

Meet the 2012 UNI Track & Field Graduating Class:

Justin Bartels 

  • 800m PR of 1:53.70 at the 2011 MVC Outdoor Championships
  • Placed 5th in the 800m at the 2011 MVC Outdoor Championships
  • Indoor 800m PR of 1:53.64 at Notre Dame this year
  • All-MVC with a runner-up finish in the distance medley this year
  • Twice ran on a relay that earned a top 7 finish at the Drake Relays 

Justin in his own words

Leah Blanchard

  • 7th place in the steeplechase at the 2010 MVC Outdoor Championships
  • 15th place in the mile at the 2012 MVC Indoor
  • 2-time Top 20 finisher in the 1500m at the MVC Championships
  • Owned the 5th-fastest 6k time for the 2011 XC season
  • UNI’s No. 5 finisher at the 2010 MVC Cross Country Championships
  • 1500m PR of 4:51.33
  • Outdoor 3,000m PR of 10:18.88

Leah in her own words

Michaela Brungardt

  • No. 2 all-time at UNI in the indoor 400m (54.84)
  • No. 3 all-time at UNI in the indoor 300m (39.96)
  • No. 2 & No. 4 all-time at UNI in the indoor 4x4 (3:42.87 & 3:42.97)
  • No. 3 & No. 5 all-time at UNI in the outdoor 4x4 (3:40.36 & 3:42.21)
  • No. 5 all-time at UNI in the outdoor 400m (55.09)
  • Back-to-back MVC Champion in the indoor 4x400m relay in 2011 and 2012
  • 3rd place and All-MVC in the 400m at the 2012 MVC Indoor
  • 7-time placewinner in the 400m dash at the MVC Championships

Michaela in her own words

Beau Dielschneider

  • 400m PR of 48.99
  • 800m PR of 1:50.90
  • 5th in 400m at 2011 MVC Indoor
  • All-MVC in the 4x4 and indoor 800m
  • Member of Drake Relays runner-up 4x8 in 2009
  • Ran on DMR that placed 14th at the 2009 NCAA Indoor Championships 

Beau in his own words

Brady Fritz

  • 8-time All-MVC performer
  • 2nd in the 800m at the MVC Indoor and Outdoor in 2010
  • Anchored UNI’s 2nd place DMR at the 2012 MVC Indoor
  • Also All-MVC in the mile and 1500m
  • Mile PR of 4:06.83 – ranks No. 3 all-time at UNI
  • 800m PR of 1:51.15

Brady in his own words

Traci Harms

  • No. 2 all-time at UNI in the hammer throw (190-4)
  • No. 2 all-time at UNI in the indoor shot put (49-9)
  • No. 2 all-time at UNI in the weight throw (62-11 ½)
  • No. 4 all-time at UNI in the outdoor shot put (48-6)
  • 2011 NCAA West Preliminary Rounds qualifier in the hammer throw
  • 6th place in the weight throw at the 2012 MVC Indoor Championships
  • 8th place in the hammer throw at the 2011 MVC Outdoor Championships

Traci in her own words

Jarred Herring

  • 60m PR of 6.81
  • 100m PR of 10.42
  • 200m PR of 21.27
  • 2-time MVC champion in the 100m, winning the event as a freshman and as a junior
  • MVC champion in the 4x100m relay
  • Also All-MVC in the 200m
  • 8-time All-MVC performer
  • Regional qualifier (100m, 200m) in 2009, West Preliminary Rounds Qualifier in 2011 (100m, 4x1)
  • No. 3 all-time at UNI in the 4x100m relay

Jarred in his own words

Tanner Hurt

  • School record-holder in the hammer throw (206 feet, 1 inch)
  • No. 4 all-time at UNI in the weight throw
  • 2nd place in the hammer at the 2011 MVC Outdoor, setting the school record
  • 2nd place in the discus at the 2009 MVC Championships
  • 4th in the weight throw at the 2011 and 2012 MVC Indoor
  • Qualified for the NCAA West Preliminary Rounds in 2011, placing 22nd in the hammer
Tanner in his own words

Timmy Johnson

  • 60m PR of 6.90
  • 100m PR of 10.80
  • Placed in the top 5 of the 60m dash at MVC 3 times
  • 4th place in the 60m dash at the 2011 MVC Indoor with a personal-best 6.90
  • 5th place in the 60m dash at the 2010 MVC Indoor
  • 5th place in the 60m dash at the 2009 MVC Indoor

Timmy in his own words

Sam Kranz

  • Indoor PR of 17-06.25 (5.34m) established in 2010 – No. 5 all-time at UNI
  • Outdoor PR of 17-02.75 (5.25m) at the 2010 NCAA West Preliminary Rounds
  • Regional qualifier in 2009, NCAA Preliminary Rounds qualifier in 2010 and 2011
  • MVC Indoor Champion in 2010 and 2011
  • MVC Outdoor Champion in 2011
  • 5-time All-MVC 

Sam in his own words

Jill Lageschulte

  • School record-holder in the 3,000m steeplechase at 10:44.44 (broke the record twice this season)
  • 10th in the 5k at the 2012 MVC Indoor Championships
  • No. 1 or No. 2 finisher for UNI at 6 out of 7 cross country meets in 2011
  • Panthers’ No. 2 finisher at the 2011 MVC Cross Country Championship (19th overall)

Jill in her own words

David Nielsen

  • Owned UNI’s 3rd-fastest 8k time in 2011 (26:22)
  • Owned UNI’s 4th-fastest 6k time in 2011 (20:43)
  • UNI’s No. 6 finisher at the 2011 MVC Cross Country Championships
  • On the MVC XC Championships roster for each of the past 3 seasons

David in his own words

Olimpia Nowak

  • School record-holder in the 60m hurdles, 100m hurdles, pentathlon, heptathlon, and shuttle hurdle
  • No. 2 all-time at UNI in the 400m hurdles (58.77)
  • No. 3 all-time at UNI in the indoor long jump (19-4 ¾)
  • On the indoor 4x4 team that ranks No. 4 all-time at UNI
  • On the outdoor 4x4 team that ranks No. 5 all-time at UNI
  • Currently No. 5 in the nation in the heptathlon
  • 3-time NCAA Indoor qualifier in the pentathlon (8th in 2012, 12th in 2011, 14th in 2008)
  • 3-time NCAA Outdoor qualifier in the heptathlon 
  • First team All-American in the pentathlon
  • 2-time MVC champ in the pentathlon
  • 2-time MVC runner-up in the heptathlon

 Olimpia in her own words

Carly Olsen

  • No. 5 all-time at UNI in the 1500m (4:33.90 in 2009)
  • On the outdoor DMR teams that rank No. 3 and No. 5 all-time at UNI
  • No. 6 all-time in the 6k in cross country (21:45 in 2008)
  • 3rd place and All-MVC in the DMR at the 2010 MVC Indoor championships
  • 6th place in the 1500m at the 2009 MVC Outdoor championships
  • UNI’s No. 3 finisher at the MVC Cross Country Championships in 2009 and 2010

Carly in her own words

Justin Romero

  • School record-holder in the outdoor shot put: 61'-1 1/2" (18.63m)
  • No. 2 all-time at UNI in the indoor shot put: 59-02.75
  • MVC Indoor champion in 2011 and 2012
  • MVC Outdoor runner-up in 2011
  • 4-time All-MVC in total
  • 4th in the discus at the 2011 MVC Outdoor Championships
  • 4th at the 2011 Drake Relays in the shot put
  • 2011 & 2012 NCAA West Preliminary Rounds qualifier 

Justin in his own words

Johanna Smith

  • High jump PR of 5-5 (1.65m), set at Jim Duncan Invitational this year
  • 4-time top 10 finisher in the multi-events at the MVC Championships
  • 7th in the heptathlon at the 2011 MVC Outdoor
  • 7th in the heptathlon at the 2010 MVC Outdoor
  • 9th in the pentathlon at the 2010 MVC Indoor
  • 10th in the pentathlon at the 2011 MVC Indoor

Johanna in her own words

Aaron Stockstell

  • Outdoor 800m PR of 1:49.29 – fastest at UNI in the last 3 years
  • Indoor 800m PR of 1:49.45 – fastest at UNI in the lat 3 years
  • 2012 MVC Indoor champion in the 4x4
  • 4-time All-MVC performer
  • 2011 NCAA West Preliminary Rounds qualifier in the 800m
  • Ran on 3 relays that placed in the top 8 at the Drake Relays

Aaron in his own words

Brendan Thompson

  • 3,000m steeplechase PR of 10:00.75
  • Indoor 5K PR of 15:38.44
  • UNI’s No. 4 finisher at the 2011 MVC Cross Country Championships
  • 4th-fastest 8k on the team in 2011 (26:36)
  • UNI’s No. 2 finisher at the 2011 Bulldog Classic at Drake

Brendan in his own words

Wilmot Wellington

  • MVC Champion in the 4x100m relay in 2011
  • Honorable mention All-American in the 4x1 after advancing to the national semifinals
  • Currently on the 4x1 team that ranks No. 3 all-time at UNI
  • 5th in the 200m dash at the 2011 MVC Indoor
  • 6th in the 60m dash at the 2011 MVC Indoor 

Wil in his own words

Friday, March 23, 2012

Olimpia Nowak: The Courage to Hope

Many times in my coaching career I have looked up at a scoreboard waiting for the final results from a multi events competition to post. Last weekend in Boise, Idaho at the 2012 Indoor NCAA Championships was no exception. UNI senior, Olimpia Nowak was in a dogfight for a coveted First Team All-America title. I have looked up at a lot of scoreboards in my career, but I don’t ever recall hoping that hard for an athlete.  

A Little Background
When I started coaching at UNI on October 1st, 2009, I met a terrific student athlete named Olimpia. A citizen of Poland, she was coming off a surgery to correct an injury to her foot. It was easy to identify her as an elite athlete, capable of becoming a First-Team NCAA All-American (top eight) in both the indoor pentathlon and outdoor heptathlon. As not only the head coach, but also the multi events coach, I immediately went to work training her.
Never one to complain, Olimpia quietly worked hard at everything she did. She has an amazing work ethic I assume was developed in Poland, long before she ever arrived at UNI. So you can imagine my surprise when she said to me: “Coach, I appreciate that you think I can be great, but I am afraid you think I am better than I really am.” It took me awhile, but I eventually understand why she felt that way. 

Olimpia (far right) as a teenage phenom in Poland
When Olimpia was 16 years old, she was one of the most promising athletes in Poland. She was training at a high level and earmarked for greatness. She dreamed of being in the Olympics. Unfortunately, her body started to break down. An accomplished long jumper and high jumper, Olimpia pounded her feet and legs in practice. This constant pounding is speculated to have lead to her injuries. One injury became two, two became three; one disappointment followed another. After years of injuries and disappointments, Olimpia was afraid to hope.

First time in America
Olimpia arrived in Cedar Falls, IA in January of 2008. She had never been to the USA before and her English was poor. She struggled academically in that first term, but only two weeks into the semester Olimpia established a new UNI school record in the pentathlon. That record would be one of the last bright moments for her first season as a Panther. Her chronic foot injury worsened and after the outdoor season it was determined she needed surgery. Olimpia red-shirted the 2010 seasons as she rehabbed her foot. She told me she withdrew emotionally from the track and field program that year, resolved to focus on her academics instead of athletics. Her English had improved significantly by her 2nd year and she was becoming a committed student. She was focusing on her future, but in her mind, her track and field career was over.
Her UNI Career
In her career at UNI, Olimpia has re-injured her foot four or five times, causing frustration and extreme discouragement. Literally every time she takes a jump in a track meet we run the risk of a season ending injury. We turned our focus instead to the running events and she improved at an amazing rate. As she became healthier, her frustration turned to joy. Her smile returned and she became reconnected with her team. In 2011 she was a member of the MVC champion 4x4 squad and one of the top combination hurdlers in the country, qualifying for the first round of the NCAA Outdoor Championships in both events in addition to the heptathlon. I am fully confident she will graduate as the school record holder in the pentathlon, heptathlon, 60m, 100m and 400m hurdle events. 

By 2012, her final collegiate season, Olimpia had accomplished far more than most. She is now an honor student with her sights set on graduate school. The athlete I coach today is very different from the one I met in 2009. Between the pentathlon and heptathlon, she has been to the NCAA Championships four times. Still, that First Team All-America honor had eluded her. But she had never looked better. She was faster and healthier than she had ever been as a Panther. She finally broke her 2008 school record in the pentathlon at the 2012 MVC Championships. Two weeks ago, there was finally hope in the eyes of Olimpia Nowak heading into the NCAA Indoor Championships in Boise, ID.

The 2012 Indoor NCAA Championships

First event: 60m Hurdles. The UNI school record holder had established herself as one of the top 60m hurdlers in the country in 2012. As expected, she ran a fantastic race in Boise to start out the competition in 4th place.

Second event: High Jump. She had been looking better and better in practice. The bar kept going up and she kept making it. In fact, the more she jumped the better she looked. At 5’7” she had her first miss. Then her second. She dug down on the third attempt and looked fantastic, making it easily. I was ecstatic but she didn’t celebrate. My big smile was met with a serious face and tears welling up in her eyes. I had seen that look too many times over the past three years. “I did it again” she said.
“Your foot?” I asked.
She knodded. “I needed to make that bar… I was too aggressive.”
“Do you need to stop?” I asked.
“This is my last indoor meet. I am going to finish.” The foot and ankle began swelling immediately. Our athletic trainer, Erik Caouch, gave her Ibuprofen.

Third event: Shot Put. She figured out quickly in warm-ups she couldn’t use her full throw because her ankle couldn’t handle the weight. She took three standing throws and incredibly, still managed a good performance.

Fourth event: Long Jump. After not being able to handle full throws in the shot put, I didn’t know how she was going to get through the impact of the long jump. I met with Erik. “She’s about to try something that is nearly impossible. I want you to tape her foot really tight. This needs to be the best tape job of your career.” He did an amazing job but it caused her excruciating pain because the tape was squeezing down on her swollen ankle. I pulled her aside one last time. “You don’t have to do this Olimpia.”
“I’ll be ok.” She answered.
I could barely watch. From a short approach she took her first jump. It was shockingly good. She could have stopped there but she wanted a better mark. Amazingly, her second jump was technically excellent, and even farther than the first.

I will always be in awe at the courage and strength she found to sprint down the runway and take those jumps. The event I expected to knock her out of the competition actually put her in contention for All-American with only one event remaining. Truly inspiring to witness.

Fifth event: 800m. Olimpia was in ninth place heading into the final event, the 800m. She knew she needed a great performance and opted out of taping her ankle. "Tape will slow me down." She said. She started the first of two sections with a visible limp, but her stride got smoother as the race went on. Watching her run her heart out was really something to see. I was just so proud of her. She had come so far. Her time was excellent and after watching the second section I thought it just might be enough to move her into the top eight. All we could do was wait.
When I saw the name, Olimpia Nowak come up in eighth place, I got that emotional jolt I live for as a coach. She was finally a First-Team All-American, only the third female track and field athlete in UNI history to so.

In one of the gutsiest performances I have ever witnessed, Olimpia Nowak had once again found the courage to hope. 

Olimpia with Champion, Brianne Theisen

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The 2012 MVC Indoor Meet

I'm having trouble being anything but proud of how the Panthers competed this past weekend at the 2012 Missouri Valley Conference Indoor Track and Field Championships. I know I am supposed to be upset about not winning the team titles, but I don't remember having so many moments to celebrate. 


Corey Szamlewski. Less than a year ago I watched a senior pole vaulter from McHenry High School in Illinois compete at the Illinois Prep Top Times meet. There was something special in this kid. He was raw, athletic and fearless. On Friday Corey entered his first MVC meet as a Panther. Coach Bertoli told me Corey was ready to jump high. "Trust me," he said. Corey started the competition with a personal best of 15'7". He cleared 15'9; we cheered. He cleared 16'1"; we screamed.  He cleared 16'5; we went crazy. He cleared 16'9" and we lost our minds knowing we were witnessing something we'd never forget. Four PR's in a row and Corey finished the best MVC Vault competition in history with a 3rd place finish. And a claim on the future. 
Corey's Four(!) Personal Bests


Every so often you get a senior who decides to run down a dream in their last year. Michaela Brungardt has always been talented. But a change has come over her in her final year that has been absolutely thrilling to observe. She quietly put in the extra work last summer. She has quietly moved up the rankings all indoor season and improved her personal best nearly every week. In the finals of the 400m on Saturday, Michaela's gutsy race produced the greatest performance in the history of Northern Iowa. She was better than even she thought she could be. That's one of the greatest things any coach can witness. Michaela followed that performance up with a terrific leg on the best 4x400m relay in UNI history. Does hard work and discipline pay off? I have a very happy senior that knows the answer.

As a freshman in the fall of 2010, sprinter Cam Brown tried out for the UNI track team. He had a thin resume and a bad hamstring. He was told what most athletes are told when they aren't ready to have a meaningful experience in our program; train on your own, get better, and try out again next fall. Most we never see again. Cam took the news like a man and did exactly what we told him to do.This fall Cam tried out again, healthier, stronger and faster. I threw everything I had at him to get him to break. But he didn't break. In fact, he was as good as any of our recruited athletes. I hadn't planned on adding any roster spots with this fall's try-outs, but created one for the kind of kid I want in our program. Now that he is officially a UNI athlete, Cam works his tail off, never complains and asks for nothing but the opportunity to compete as a Panther. Last Friday Cam sprinted his way into the MVC 60 meter Finals in his very first conference meet. Like Cam Brown, the two points he earned on Saturday are made of the salt of the Earth.

As a freshman in the fall of 2008, Derek Kramer joined the Panther team as a broken athlete. Marred with injuries, he barely was able to compete. His injuries continued into the fall of 2009. I told him to take the year off and get healthy. Never giving up, he came out again in the fall of 2010, this time reasonably healthy. Derek heroically made the 60m MVC Finals last year. Incredibly, he went on to run on the 2011 MVC Champion 4x100m relay squad and later earned 2nd team All-America honors in the same event. This 2012 indoor season, Derek has established himself as a bonifide MVC sprint threat. "We're going to sweep the 60," he said to me a couple of months ago. With two-time MVC 60m Champion, Carlos Anderson and two-time MVC 100m  Champion, Jared Herring; Derek Kramer's prediction came true. With those three athletes and the help of the unlikely Cam Brown, UNI scored an eye-popping 26 points in the 60m on Saturday. 


You would never know the unflappable Daniel Gooris has had a rough road. Always positive, always happy, the excellent student, Gooris epitomizes that which we all strive for in athletics. Four years ago as a true freshman, he won the the MVC Heptathlon title. One week later he nearly lost his life in a horrific motorcycle accident. His journey to this second title was a long one. He was the overwhelming favorite this year and most people didn't see his win as very extraordinary. His parents, on the other hand, traveled all the way from New Mexico to watch him win it. They know a miracle when they see one.  
Daniel's 2nd MVC Title

Olimpia Nowak has accomplished nearly everything you can as a collegiate athlete. On Friday in the Pentathlon she was simply brilliant. Olimpia broke her own school records in the 60m hurdles and the pentathlon en route to one of the top scores in the country. Next week she will have one final indoor meet as a panther when she takes on the very best in America at the NCAA Championships. Also a stellar student, Olimpia represents all we strive to be in UNI Track and Field.
Olimpia's 60m Hurdles School Record   

UNI pole vaulter and school record holder, Jenna Wexter has attempted to clear 13' for three years. I have witnessed the hard work and the frustration. Even though she has experienced much success in these three seasons, that 13' barrier had eluded her until Saturday. Our joy in watching her clear that bar was exceeded only by her own.

Jenna's School Record

In the most inspired performance of the 2011 Indoor MVC Championships, Justin Romero stole the Shot Put title. All year Justin has been predicting a repeat performance. Justin wasn't even close to being the favorite this year, but that didn't stop him from delivering on his promise.  
 Justin Romero's Win

The 4x400m Relay is my favorite event in track and field. This weekend, the Panthers won both men's and women's titles in dramatic fashion. Six of the eight athletes were true freshman, but all competed like seasoned veterans. The videos below are worth the viewing. 
MVC Men's 4x400m Relay

MVC Women's 4x400m Relay

All in all, the Panther men and women did a terrific job. We set PR's all over the place and stepped up and competed wonderfully. I am very proud of these teams. Like I said at the beginning of this post; I don't remember having so many moments to celebrate.

GO Panthers!