To paraphrase Sansa out of one the great late period episodes of Game of Thrones: “I’m a slow learner, it’s true.”
Because when I headed up to La Crosse for the 2001 WIAA state track meet, I did not pack any good rain gear nor did I bring along any long pants and in the end, I surmised many others did likewise.
It was the first weekend in June: I said to myself, “It was going to be warm, it was going to be dry!”
To which the weather gods fell to the ground laughing hysterically!
Yes, 2001 was one of THOSE years, one of those years where only the tough-minded, as well as talented would thrive as they made powerful memories for all who survived and bore witness to the misery of that weekend.
Among those steely-eyed track performers were distance ace Brooke Novak and the Kaukauna girls team which was right at home in the chilly and damp weather and the fast-rising boys sprint crew of Milwaukee Vincent, led by Marques Johnson and Greg Bracey, who seemed immune to all the disasters Mother Nature would hurl at them from the Bluffs this particular weekend.
And there were many other athletes who would also cast a disparaging eye at the sky and say: “This is the worst you can do?”
Because they would do much, much better than anyone would have expected under those conditions and in doing so, some made legends of themselves.
Though trust me, it was not easy!
After the great second day fiasco of the first year in La Crosse in 1990, there had been state meets where we got hit with rain on occasion. It caused some inconvenience, some short delays, but it never threatened to really blow up the meet.
And it had never really been as cold as that second day in 1990 since.
But, as I said, 2001 was one of those years. The morning program on Friday had barely gotten started, and there had already been one startling result as Novak, who had pushed aside the legendary Suzy Favor‘s 1,600 record with a 4:48.13 showing in 2000, obliterated her own mark in that race with a stunning 4:43.2 time that still stands untouched to this day.
It was also Novak’s third straight victory in the event. Please check out this great La Crosse Tribune story from 2001 about that race:
However, the euphoria was short-lived, as 15 minutes later, everyone in the press pit, the grandstands and in the tent city of teams that stood on the west end zone looked up to the sky and instantly had 10,000 pound pits form in their stomachs.
Because what came upon us was not sprinkles, was not a light rain, was not even a moderately heavy rain. No, it was like someone turned a fire hose on full blast.
And left it on for 5 damn hours!!!
We in the press corps hid out underneath the stadium in our room, occasionally peering out at the sideways blowing rain knowing that our deadlines were drowning in all that water, while fans and athletes raced off to nearby Mitchell Hall, the university’s phys-ed and indoor sports facility, where they desperately tried to dry off.
When it finally let up all those hours later, the WIAA and the La Crosse officials tried their best to expedite the numerous heats that were left to be run on that long first day. I cheerfully turned to one fellow reporter at about 5 p.m. that day, about an hour after the meet resumed, and said that we could still get things done by 8:30 p.m.
As I said before, I’m a slow learner as it turned out to be a sad and heartbreaking affair in the end for the athletes, as the first day didn’t conclude until after 11:30 p.m. The kids in the 4 x 400 relays, the last races of the day, who had dreams of running on a beautiful, sunny early evening in front of thousands of people yelling their heads off had the disappointing reality of shivering in damp uniforms, desperately trying to stay warm.
When they finally got to race, it was before a tiny handful of diehards in the Memorial Stadium stands, as they tried to remind themselves of how hard they had worked to get to this moment. The applause they received was mere crickets as opposed to the lions’ roars they had expected.
Current Brookfield Central Athletic Director Don Kurth was then the coach of the Franklin girls. The Sabers had finished seventh the year before in the team standings behind a victory in the 4 x 400 relay.
They would go on to win that signature event again in 2001 too, but it was not easy and Kurth said he needed help to make it work. He still shakes his head at how it all transpired that cold, wet night.
“That was miserable weather,” he said. “If I recall correctly, our kids warmed up four or five times and were absolutely soaking wet. We were waiting in the fieldhouse and they were starting to let the night get to them.”
Enter Franklin graduate and key member of that 2000 championship 4 x 400 relay Kay Mikolajczak. Mikolajczak was just embarking on what would become a hall of fame career in basketball and track at UW-Oshkosh and decided to come up to La Crosse to support her sister Lyn (also a member of the 4 x 400) and her teammates.
And it was a good thing she did, said Kurth.
“(At the worst of the delay) Kay decided to take the girls into the restroom and had them take off their uniforms so she could dry them out for them,” said Kurth years later. “It made all the difference in the world. Made sitting around more tolerable.
“When we were finally able to run our kids were able to do so in dry clothes thanks to Kay.”
The Sabers successfully qualified for the final and on Saturday cruised to a three-plus second win over Brookfield Central on a day that, though mercifully dry, was still distinctly unpleasant in other ways, as temperatures scarcely rose above the mid-to-high 40s and the sun never broke the thick cloud cover.
IGNORING THE WEATHER
But as noted, there were many who pushed aside the depressing conditions and succeeded mightily.
Few shone brighter than Novak as she led Kaukauna to the girls D1 team championship, for along with her record-setting win in the 1,600 on Friday, she also won the 3,200 and for good measure was part of the winning 4 x 800 relay.
The chilled crowd at Memorial Stadium gave her a long, healthy round of applause worthy of her efforts after she closed her prep career late on Saturday afternoon with a stunning 10:17.07 in the 3,200. Novak’s time was the best in that particular race since Sauk Prairie’s Lori Wolter pounded the pavement and set the state mark of 10:15.4 in 1985.
Equally impressive was the effort of the Vincent boys, as the Vikings who had finished seventh the year before, broke through under coach Glen Gardiner earning their first state team title. It was the start of a dominant five year run, as Vincent would win three WIAA D1 team titles in that time and finish second the other two years.
As with their powerful predecessors, the five-time Milwaukee South state champions from the 1980s, the Vikings built their title around relays, in fact, taking down South’s long-standing 4 x 100 relay record with a 41.67 effort in the rain-soaked trials.
Both Bracey and Johnson were on that unit. Johnson was the man for the Vikings as he ran a leg on the championship 4 x 100 relay just minutes after manning up and taking the open 400 (the event immediately precedes the relay). He then later won the 200 dash.
Those athletes set powerful examples for the dank weekend and were followed in number and intensity. Included among them were five young women and one high-flying young man who finished wildly successful careers on high notes.
FINAL BOWS TAKEN
Kate Juedes of Clear Lake was one of them as she won her fourth straight D3 high jump title (and still owns a share of the division record at 5-9). Meanwhile, Amanda Nechuta of Mosinee won her third straight D2 shot put title setting a division record with a 45-1 1/2 effort (she also finished second in the 100 high hurdles, just for fun), and Jenna Eschenbauch of Rosholt claimed her third straight D3 100 high hurdles crown.
In addition, then D1 shot put record-holder Jenny Prochazka of Sussex Hamilton won her third straight championship in the event and Jamie Rebella of Merrill claimed her third consecutive D1 triple jump title.
Another final bow was taken by Oshkosh North high jumper Darrin Charles who won his third straight D1 boys high jump title with his second consecutive effort of 6-10. Charles, as I pointed out in an earlier post, went on to have a fine career as a receiver for the Wisconsin football team and made some inroads in professional football and acting.
Two other girls reached the halfway mark to eventual four-peats in their respective events. Stoughton sprinter Anna Monson won her second of what would be four 100 dash titles and added the 200 dash and 4 x 100 relay crowns just for good measure. Meanwhile, Amber Curtis of Brodhead earned her second crown and took down Holly Hyland’s seven-year old D2 discus record with a 148-2 toss.
Curtis would impressively improve on her own mark a year later.
Meanwhile, Melissa Talbot of Freedom was warming up for what would be a historic 2002 season as she won her second of what would be three D2 300 low hurdles titles including a record of 44.29 in the prelims. She also won the 100 high hurdles in the first of two championships in that event.
D2 girls team champ McFarland continued the building trend of relay power by claiming its title on the back of event wins in the 4 x 100, 4 x 200 and 4 x 800 relays.
In D3, two sprinters dominated the proceedings as Nicki Anderson of Pittsville accomplished the daunting task of earning victories in the girls sprint triple crown, winning the 100, 200 and 400 dashes. Meanwhile, Jordan Klein of boys runner-up Arcadia equaled Anderson’s feat of claiming his own sprint trifecta.
As I alluded to earlier, the 2001 meet, lousy weather and all, saw the introduction of the girls pole vault and the re-introduction of the boys 4 x 200 relay. Stevens Point, Kewaskum (with a then D2 class record) and Edgar won boys 4 x 200 state titles while in the girls pole vault, Liza Lewis of Ashwaubenon, Blaire Luthmers of Park Falls/Butternut (first state record-holder at 10-9) and Amanda Meyer of Somerset won the first state championships in the event.
And as previously noted, this was also the initial big, all-comers state track meet as 40-plus WISAA schools competed for the first time in the WIAA state track championships, and three private school entries would earn championships.
Whitefish Bay Dominican sprinter Demi Omole started a record setting career by winning the D2 boys 100 dash, and meanwhile, Chippewa Falls McDonnell’s Anne Wilkom would win the D3 girls 300 low hurdles after earlier anchoring the Macks’ 4 x 200 relay to an eyelash (.02 of a second) win over Rosholt.
Private schools were now fully blooded in the state track series, close races, long road trips and bad weather all included. It would be far from the last time we would hear from them either.
And oh yes, in 2000, a skinny freshman distance runner from Stevens Point named Chris Solinsky would make a good first impression at state, taking sixth in the D1 3,200. He would make a bigger splash a year later in 2001 winning the 3,200 and taking second in the 1,600.
He was already very fast, and as we all know, he would get much, much faster still.
Oh, and FYI, it’s been 19 years since that awful weekend and I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with bad weather in La Crosse.
Turns out I’m still a slow learner.
NEXT UP: Talbot and Solinsky leave permanent marks. Madison La Follette’s near perfect boys team and the big guy throwing firm of Bethay, Houle, Ball and Thomas muscles its way into history.