The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and made life for people who are deaf, blind, limited to wheelchairs or who otherwise have disadvantageous conditions just a little bit easier.
I know it has made life a bit more tolerable for my powerhouse, civic activist and still very social sister, who has been limited to a motorized chair for far too long by MS.
I am immensely grateful for that small bit of relief for her.
And the ADA also expanded the opportunities for kids whose yearning for athletic success did not disappear simply because their legs, ears or eyes won’t cooperate. It took time, but the ADA’s final rules regarding schools providing athletic opportunities to disabled athletes were revised in 2010 and went into effect in 2011.
The language I found, written by someone aspiring to earn an on-line masters degree in athletic administration from Ohio University read as such:
“The ADA specifies that students with disabilities must have the same opportunities to participate in sports and activities as anyone else. Equal access to team facilities, including fields, courts, locker rooms, meeting areas, exercise equipment and other amenities must be provided. However, equal access does not mean ‘special treatment,’ or give any student an advantage over others.
“The ADA explicitly states that student athletes with disabilities must be held to the same standards as their teammates. Equal opportunity means that coaches and athletic administrators might need to make appropriate accommodations to allow students to participate.”
The WIAA Board of Control got a jump-start on this concept sometime in 2009, approving a plan to give such athletes an opportunity to compete at the WIAA state track meet effective in 2010.
I had initially seen these competitors in the 1992 Olympic Trials in New Orleans as part of an exhibition and had been starting to see them in selected high school meets in the late 2000s. Some were in stylized, expensive, made for racing three-wheel cycles that looked like stripped down dragsters, while others plugged gamely along in modified versions of the standard wheelchair.
I admired and respected these differently-abled athletes for their tenacity, their imagination and their will in channeling their competitive drive in a slightly different direction, but with the same goals of doing the best they could every time out.
Even though they were largely competing just against themselves in the regular season, they got the chance to be together and challenge each other in La Crosse in June 2010. The events were the 100 and 400 meter dashes, the 800 and 1,600 and the shot put.
That year, 10 earned the right and opportunity to compete at Memorial Stadium. They included two young women Kaley Wockenfus of New London and Melanie Watson of Oconomowoc; and eight young men, Brett Wolff of Waupun, Sedrick Washington of Milwaukee Vincent, Trey Roy of West Bend East, Devon Radloff of Janesville Craig, Tyler Haletek of Portage, Luke Russell of Verona, Nathaniel Day of McFarland, and a determined individual who I would see repeatedly over the next four years at North Shore Conference and sectional qualifying meets Nathan Whitrock of Cedarburg.
All had their moments in the sun in La Crosse in that first 2010 meet, as the large crowd cheered enthusiastically at this expansion of opportunity, this evolving definition of the term athlete. Like the others, they were honored on the podium and received state medals.
It would come to be a regular feature in future years in La Crosse as others joined in and carried on the example of this original 10. But before they were done, Watson and Roy would carve powerful record-setting legacies for themselves.
Simply marvelous !
BENSON AND HOMESTEAD GET A TITLE
As well as for good things happening to good people.
The history of Homestead boys track is filled with numerous conference titles, many individual state titles, but relatively few big gold trophies. There were those impressive back-to-back Class B titles under coach Bob Thelen, fueled by the multi-time state champion Dan Snider in 1963 and 1964 (the first when it was still known as Thiensville-Mequon High School) but following that, the Highlanders could never quite reach the pinnacle.
But things were building. The Highlanders had taken a back seat in the North Shore Conference to powerful Germantown teams led by Todd Brawner for almost the entire first decade of the 2000s. But veteran well-liked and well-respected coach Homestead coach Dan Benson and Brawner built up a personal and professional rapport over time and after Brawner left Germantown in 2008, Benson brought him on the staff to work with his sprint group.
Brawner had used the then popular Baylor training method to make Germantown almost unstoppable and brought that over to Homestead. It was a good fit and made the deep Highlander sprint corps capable of running state level times from the 200 through 800. It would also make Homestead especially dominant in the relays.
The kids were focused and they bought in, said Benson.
“The 2010 team was an experienced and focused group that really enjoyed the day-to-day process,” said Benson. “They were also ‘priority’ track athletes who loved track but also excelled in other sports.
“Todd’s (Brawner’s) group of long sprinters was locked in . They bought into everything it took to be really good and they worked extremely hard which led to being incredibly consistent. Todd always kept them in the moment.”
A serious talent pool across a number of disciplines didn’t hurt either, paced by the dual NCAA D1 sports threat Gabe Genovesi. The Highlanders built off a ninth in state in 2009 behind a junior dominated group and then took off from there.
And for Genovesi, it was a quantum leap forward.
“Did I forget to mention that Gabe Genovesi had a pretty good season,” Benson all but chuckled to me in a recent text.
Genovesi did, as became unstoppable in both the 400 and the 800. He had placed third in the 400 in 2009 and anchored good 4 x 400 and 4 x 800 relays that same year. And in 2010 he upped the ante’ staying on anchor for the two relays and and replacing the 400 with the 800.
In 2010, Genovesi’s Highlanders won the North Shore Conference title and then cruised through WIAA regional and sectional qualifying, beating both Arrowhead and Menomonee Falls in the process, the teams that had gone one-two in the D1 boys state team standings in 2009.
And once at state, the relays, the strength through multiple disciplines and the talent of Genovesi proved to be a potent combination for the Highlanders. He began his state meet in spectacular fashion on Friday, taking down Joe Kapheim of Appleton East’s 29-year old D1 state mark of 1:51.79 in the 800 with a 1:51.55 effort.
Then later on Saturday, he brought home both relays, opening the day with a robust, dominant effort in the 4 x 800 with a 7:46.82 clocking which at the time was the fourth fastest time in the event in state history.
Then as a light rain started to come down, Geneovesi put the capper on Homestead’s first state team title in 46 years in gritty fashion holding off defending event and state team champion Arrowhead as the Highlanders won the 4 x 400 in 3:18.78.
Genovesi, whose business-like demeanor carried the Highlanders all season, finally showed a little flair at the finish of that 4 x 4. He dipped a little low at the line, flashed a true gamer’s smile of triumph and then stuck out three fingers to indicate the number of wins he was a part of this weekend.
The final tally had Homestead with 54 1/2 points well ahead of runner-up Marquette (35).
“This is such a great feeling,” Genovesi told me at the time. “Even though we were favorites, we knew we couldn’t rest on our laurels. We expected it to be tough and it was so we needed our best races.
“It was not a given that this was going to happen.”
Genovesi would go on to be part of Akron’s national championship soccer team in the fall of 2010 and then go on to be a multi-time Mid-American Conference (MAC) track champion for the Zips in the 800 while also earning All-American status.
Homestead’s win in the 4 x 400 also marked the fifth time in the last six years a 4 x 400 relay from that northwest side of Milwaukee sectional had won the event, and Brawner had coached three of them.
“There was no magic, just talent and training,” said Brawner recently. “The performances in the open 800, 4×4, 4×8 were awesome but not surprising based on the training. It was an obvious boost to be led daily by an athlete like Gabe (who was) just like Marcus Wallace (anchor of Germantown’s state champion 4 x 400 in 2006). Guys could see what ‘The Best’ was doing on a daily basis. Success breeds success.”
And Brawner, who eventually would succeed Benson a few years later as Homestead head coach, said he had a blast changing schools. “It really rejuvenated me,” he said. “The situation was perfect.”
As for Benson, who inherited the coaching gene from his late Dad Dan Sr., a legend at Tosa West, this was all very satisfying.
“With the kids we had and the coaching staff firmly locked into place, we knew we had something special early on,” he said at the time, “but the season is a long 13 weeks and things don’t always work out.
“But everyone bought into it and that made it a heck of a lot of fun.”
What made it more fun for him was how he got to share it with the people who meant the most to him. He got back to his home in Menomonee Falls at about 1 a.m. that night. His kids were still small then and so were long in bed, but he made sure to leave the big gold championship trophy on the breakfast table so they could see it first thing in the morning.
That’s called being a good Dad!
FALLS GETS ITS RELAY TITLE
Menomonee Falls has invested a lot in the 4 x 200 relay since the event was reintroduced into the state program after an 18-year hiatus in 2001. But multiple state medals and many state qualifications not withstanding, there was always a sense of something missing for the Phoenix.
In 2006, an exchange issue in sectional and a fluke injury denied them a probable top two state finish. Then in 2009, they were the fastest team by a wide margin heading into the state finals, but soggy, cold conditions relegated them to second place in the finals.
Now came 2010, and Falls had lost a lot of talent off its dominant 2009 state runner-up squad but also had one big-time dominant athlete returning, defending 110 high hurdle champ Matt Widule who led a formidable and mentally tough senior class, who had earned one set of success after another this school year, including a state D1 runner-up football finish in the fall.
They wanted to finish things correctly this track season. Widule did his work emphatically and with gusto, setting one record after another. A major apex point came in early May. I was at the North Shore Conference Outdoor when my phone dinged with a text. It was from Widule’s event coach Jim Geisthardt.
All it said was “13.96” with about 100 exclamation points behind it. At the Greater Metro Conference Outdoor that same day, Widule had become the first and still the only male athlete in Wisconsin history to break 14 seconds in the high hurdles electronically timed.
He went to state with all intentions of breaking Jay Payton of Madison West’s ancient and revered state record of 14.09. He was clearly annoyed at “only” repeating his high hurdle title with a fine 14.21, but then turned his focus to the Phoenix’s main goal this weekend, the 4 x 200.
And that’s when exorcised years of state frustration demons. The top sprinter in school history Washington Farrington had graduated a year earlier, but senior “go-to” senior Brad Tietyen had turned himself into a relay all-star and fellow senior Travis Townsend, who had not been out for track since freshman year exploded onto the scene and became the anchor Falls could make history with.
They did, as Widule, Tietyen (who split an impossible 20.8 for his leg) and Townsend, along with sophomore Matt Christensen held off a determined bid by Tosa West to not only win, but break Milwaukee Vincent’s two-year old state record 1:27.29 with a 1:27.03 clocking. Tosa West would also go under the old state mark with a 1:27.24 time.
And still the track gods played games with Falls. Then coach Mike Burling looked at the tape of the race afterwards and peered closely at the exchange between third runner Christensen and the anchor Townsend. and realized that Townsend may have gotten the stick with only two fingers.
“I looked at the tape and realized that Matt (Christensen) was completely off-balance,” said Burling, “but they made the pass and finally things went right for us in that race.”
“It was a piece of unfinished business,” Widule told me at the time, “and we got it done.”
NEBLETT WINS ONE OF THE BEST RACES EVER
And Widule had more eventful race that day. He had finished third in the 300 intermediate hurdles in 2009 had finished second in 2010 sectional qualifying to good friend Dexter Schleis of Germantown and would have been content to just to get another personal best and state medal in what would be the final race of his high school career.
Instead, he helped make that 300 hurdle final one of the most memorable races of the decade.
Lechein Neblett of Madison Memorial, who finished second to Widule in the high hurdles, had qualified third for the 300 final while Widule had claimed the fifth spot. Everybody thought that it would be a fast, wide-open final and it proved to be.
Conducted in a light drizzle the runners were oblivious too, Neblett took the lead and looked like he was going to cruise to a long sought state title, but then as the runners came off the curve, Widule found another gear and began tracking him down.
The crowd got louder and louder as the pair drew ever closer and neared the finish line. Widule finally got to Neblett’s shoulder just as they hit the barrier together to a thunderous roar.
Before the race, all that Widule had wanted was to be fast and he and Neblett brought along a whole pile of fast with them. Neblett tied the state record with a 37.49 clocking holding off Widule by .01 of a second (37.5).
300 hurdle races clocked under 38 seconds are rare in Wisconsin prep track, but as noted, Neblett and Widule had company, as a still state best five competitors broke the barrier in that final including Aaron Thompson of Brookfield East (37.73), Cory Wilch of Waukesha North (37.82) and Kevin Hanneken of Greenfield (37.96). Further, D2 champ Tyler Hilar of Northland Pines also found great success of his own with a 37.95 winning time.
Neblett still shares the state record while Widule is still among the top five all time.
“I knew he had me (at the finish),” said Widule of Neblett, “but it was just a really sound race. Then I looked at the scoreboard (for the time) and realized it was really a heck of a race!”
BROOKFIELD ACADEMY HAS SPEED TO BURN
Brookfield Academy had finished 14th in the D3 team standings in 2009 and had a state title contender in Nathan Heppe returning. Heppe had lost the 2009 by just .02 of a second. The Blue Knights had a few other athletes returning but were not exactly on the radar for a state team title until rangy, talented, powerful sprinter Fred Willis transferred in.
And as the way it is in small school competition, one or two athletes can make all the difference in the world. With Willis’ arrival, Academy went from solid team to prohibitive state favorite.
Coupled with sophomore sprinter Ethan Jaynes blossoming into a force in his own right, Academy scored 80 points to far outdistance Webster and Burlington Catholic Central which tied for second with 30 points.
Willis and Jaynes went one-two, respectively, in both the 100 and 200 dashes, while Jaynes ran lead-off and Willis anchored the winning the 4 x 200 relay. For good measure, Willis was second in the high jump with an impressive 6-7 effort.
And as for Heppe, he made up for last year’s frustration by running away from the field to win the 800.
“It was just like what I told my coach I’d do,” he told me. “I just went out there and ran like an animal. I hit the stretch, no one was going to get close to me.” Heppe also anchored the third place 4 x 800 and was fifth in the 1,600.
“It’s just a great way to go out,” he said of the state team title. “Just a great, great feeling.”
And in 2011, Willis would prove that what he did in 2010 was just the start to something truly great.
Also in D3, two very sound records were set. Tom Helstern of Shell Lake won his third and final 400 dash crown with a 48.32 effort that beat Ryan Jacobson of Gibraltar’s 10-year old record by more than half-a-second, while John McCann of New Lisbon cleared 6-10 in the high jump to take down John Pierpont of Mercer’s 26-year old mark by an inch.
For McCann, this was redemption. He had won the 2008 title at 6-8 as a sophomore, but then having to jump in the miserable rain and cold of Saturday in 2009, he faltered and finished fourth at 6-0.
He had cleared 6-10 earlier in the 2010 season and was wearing his famed lucky talisman, a blue glove given to him by a friend from Wonewoc, when he did it again in La Crosse. He was the all-classes best high jumper by a wide margin at this state meet.
Nick Hughes of Milwaukee King and Danny Schiller of Homestead, who had both cleared 6-10 at sectional the week before, could not quite reach those lofty heights again in D1 state competition.
Both Helstern and McCann’s marks are still on the D3 books, the only two boys marks from any division that year that are still standing.
And they must be really good standards too, because in the decade to come, records would fall like well-placed dominos over and over again.
UP NEXT: Tech girls take a victory lap burying the recordbook in the process, Edgar girls continue to roll, a decade of legends starts and another hurdles’ race for the ages, this one by the women.