Five freshman track and field athletes, five unique events — one common goal. The Gophers international newcomers all aspire to compete for their own countries in the Olympics someday. But for now, Minnesota lays claim to the talents and potential of its very own fab-five.
“I have no doubt that every one of these athletes would rank among the top three in U.S. high schools in their events,” coach Gary Wilson said. “They are all extremely talented.”
Nicole Chimko, Natalie Smith, Christine Gulbrandsen, Minna Haronoja and Daphne Panhuysen each possess impressive athletic ability, but Wilson thinks their character far outweighs their talent.
“We couldn’t have asked for better kids,” Wilson said. “They’ve bonded well with the entire team. They want to be good, but they’re not prima donnas. They’re just wonderful people.”
These freshman will get a chance to display their talents this weekend at the Mount Sac Relays in Walnut, Calif.
Only three weeks into the outdoor season, the Gophers’ lone javelin thrower, Chimko, is quickly making a name for herself. She provisionally qualified for the NCAA championships at the Raleigh Relays with a throw of 156 feet, 11 inches — the fifth best javelin throw in Gophers history.
She is currently ranked No. 1 in the javelin among Big Ten competitors. Chimko, a native of Aldersyde, Alberta, also throws discus for the Gophers and occasionally the shot put.
“My near-future goal is to place in the top three in disc and jav at the Big Tens and hopefully qualify for NCAAs,” Chimko said. “My long term goal is to compete in the Olympics in 2000.”
The decision to join the Gophers program wasn’t an easy one for Chimko. After hearing horror stories of how coaches mistreated athletes in the United States, Chimko was apprehensive.
“I always heard about how U.S. coaches would make their athletes compete even when they were hurt and injure them permanently,” Chimko said.
But after a reassuring phone call from Gophers throws coach Lynn Anderson, Chimko decided to take a chance and come to Minnesota.
“By the sound of her voice and the things that she said, I knew she was someone I could trust,” Chimko said.
The apprehension that she once felt has been replaced with appreciation for the Gophers’ coaching and training staff
“The coaches really care for the athletes here,” Chimko said. “They always want to do what’s best for us.”
Smith, a long and triple jump specialist has also made the Gophers all-time top 10 list. She is currently seventh in the long jump (18 feet, 3 inches) and sixth in the triple jump (37-10 1/2).
The bitter, Minnesota winter didn’t stop Smith from joining the Gophers, even though she was unaware of the extreme.
“At first, it was very difficult to motivate myself to train in the winter,” Smith said. “It’s better now that the weather is getting warmer.”
A native of St. Thomas, Barbados, Smith confessed to taking the bus across campus as much as possible to avoid a chilly walk but will expose herself to frigid conditions in order to compete. Last weekend at the Missouri Invitational (Columbia, Mo.) while light snowflakes fell, Smith leapt to second place finishes in the long and triple jump. And after this year, she’s ready for anything.
“Even though Big Tens is in June, you never know. There could be some big, freak snow shower and it could be freezing. I have to be ready to put up with it.”
Smith is not new to determination and goal setting. She expressed exactly what her plans are for her future track and field career.
“My eligibility will be up in 2000, and I would like to have utilized the four years here to prepare me for the Olympic games in Sydney. I’m going to represent Barbados in 2000, it’s not that I want to, I’m going to.”
Gulbrandsen hit the record books during her first indoor season with the Gophers. She currently holds the No. 1 position in the indoor triple jump after jumping 41-3 3/4 inches at the Iowa State Classic on Feb. 7.
Phil Lundin (the Gophers men’s track and field coach) first met Gulbrandsen in Norway when she was 15. A standout throughout her high school career, she decided to continue training with the Gophers.
Besides missing her family and friends, Gulbrandsen (from Kristiansand, Norway) enjoys the opportunities she has received with the Gophers.
“I love to travel to new places,” Gulbrandsen said. “I also like the fact that you can mix school and track and field, instead of just choosing one or the other.”
After the outdoor season, Gulbrandsen will return to Norway just in time to compete with her team at home.
“I’ll go home this summer and compete all over Europe,” Gulbrandson said. “Then I’ll come back here next year and practice again.”
All of the training and competing should lend itself to heightened success for Gulbrandsen in the future, but not unless she’s enjoying herself.
“As long as I appreciate it and have fun, I will compete and go for higher levels,” Gulbrandsen said. “I want to be as good as I can be and then go to the Olympics or do whatever else I can do.”
A glimpse of Haronoja’s talent was seen during this year’s cross country season. Haronoja ran in seven meets for the Gophers and finished first, second or third in each.
After a disappointing indoor season, Haronoja has rebounded strong. She finished sixth overall in the 3,000-meters at the Tom Botts Invitational with a time of 4:46.77. She credits Wilson for pulling her out of a mid-year slump.
“My indoor season was pretty bad, and I didn’t have any belief in myself,” Haronoja said. “I thought the outdoor season would be bad too, but he believed in me, and that made me believe in myself, and it got better.”
Overall, Haronoja (a native of Illo, Finland) enjoys the Gophers program.
“I really like it here,” Haronoja said. “At home I had to run against the same people all the time, it got boring. Here I get to compete against new people, it’s nice.”
Haronoja doesn’t have a rigid life plan for her track career, but the word Olympics did arise.
“I don’t like to talk about goals like Big Tens or Olympics, I just want to improve my times.”
Since joining the Gophers midway through the year, Panhuysen has proven herself among the top middle distance runners on the team. She already holds the Gophers fifth best indoor time in the mile and sixth best time in the 3,000.
Wilson met Panhuysen and watched her compete last June in the Netherlands. He started recruiting her then and she decided to come to Minnesota at the beginning of winter quarter — just in time for the indoor season.
“I just came here for fun, not really for school” Panhuysen said.
Even though school was a second thought, Panhuysen said she enjoys the diverse class load she is taking.
“I have Spanish and art and kinesiology, and I like them all,” Panhuysen said.
The Gophers may only have Panhuysen in the lineup for a short amount of time, however. She expects to compete for one more full year here, and then return home.
“I will stay here one more year and room with my friend Minna,” Panhuysen said. “I want to compete in cross country next fall.”
Panhuysen also dreams of competing for her own country in the future.
“I want to compete in the national championships, then the European championships and then the 2004 Olympic games,” Panhuysen said.+
If the progress of these five athletes continues, they may meet again wearing their home country’s colors in future Olympic competitions. But for now, Minnesota’s maroon and gold will adorn them all.