Track community doing best to move on after tragedy

Ben Goessling

As many athletes resume competition this weekend, the Big Ten track community is still struggling to cope with the death of Penn State pole vaulter Kevin Dare, who was killed in a fall at last weekend’s Big Ten Championships.

Athletes from most Big Ten schools will compete at “last chance” meets this weekend, which allow them one more opportunity to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

Those athletes who established NCAA qualifying marks last weekend will be allowed to count them, but many athletes were not able to do so because of the meet’s cancellation.

According to Gophers high jumper Scott Berggren, the aftermath of last weekend still overshadows the chance to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

“It’s been hanging over the locker room and the Fieldhouse the last few days,” Berggren said of the tragedy. “I’ll probably come to grips with it when I start competing again. But when I’m in (the pole vault area), it will still pop into my head.”

Around the Big Ten, reactions to the tragedy are similar. Most coaches gave their athletes Monday off, and many are taking a gradual approach to resuming practice and competition.

But most coaches also believe resuming a normal routine quickly is the best way to move on.

“We’re trying to get to where the kids can move on, because this affected people in different ways,” Michigan State head coach Darroll Gaston said. “The pole vaulters took this very hard. They needed time to show their grief and support, but they’re trying to move on from there.”

Gaston brought in grief counselors to talk to his team.

Ohio State coach Russ Rogers gave his team Monday and Tuesday off, and he isn’t certain any Buckeye athletes will even compete this weekend.

“We talked about (competing) yesterday and we’ll make a final decision today,” Rogers said of going to a last chance meet this weekend. “But it’s still pretty hard to even consider competing.”

At Minnesota, both Berggren and half-miler Toby Henkels said they initially felt deprived of a chance to compete last weekend, but in light of the tragedy, any competition would have been the wrong thing to do.

“(Losing the chance to compete) is in the back of everybody’s mind, but when you compare that to something so tragic, it doesn’t make that big of a difference,” Henkels said.

The Gophers did not practice Monday, and like many other teams in the Big Ten, had a light practice Tuesday. Several pole vaulters did practice, although their workout consisted mostly of basic drills.

Head coach Phil Lundin said this week’s practice schedule is designed to accommodate athletes who are still uncomfortable with practicing.

However, Lundin added the Gophers have several athletes who are capable of qualifying for the NCAA Championships. In order for those athletes to qualify, Minnesota must resume its normal routine soon.

The many athletes who did not get the chance to compete Sunday will be in dire straits this weekend as they attempt to block out the tragedy and focus on their last shot to qualify.

Berggren said he will personally have a difficult time focusing on the competition in light of last weekend’s tragedy.

“It’s hard to get mentally ready to compete again,” he said. “It just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do.”

Henkels said the team’s maturity and ability to handle this week’s events has surprised him.

“It (the tragedy) actually brought our team a little closer,” Henkels said. “There’s been a lot of talk about how precious the opportunity is to compete, and how you can’t take anything for granted.”

The Gophers will send several athletes to a last chance meet at Iowa State this weekend, while several more will compete in the Alex Wilson Invitational at Notre Dame.

Even though this weekend’s competitions bring a high-pressure atmosphere typical of NCAA qualifying meets, Illinois head coach Gary Wieneke said he hasn’t personally returned to a mindset where he can consider the meets to be important.

“A tragedy of that magnitude affects people differently,” Wieneke said. “But I can guarantee I haven’t reached the point where I can get back into full tilt.

“It’s just a process of putting track and field back in its proper place. But how long that will take, I don’t know.”

Ben Goessling welcomes comments at [email protected]