U benefits from Haronoja’s obscurity

by Jim Schortemeyer

Running track is something Minna Haronoja has done for a long time, but unlike those who are naturals at the sport, Haronoja has earned every mile she has run.
Four years ago, Haronoja wasn’t even planning on running after high school. That was before Minnesota head coach Gary Wilson paid her homeland of Finland a recruiting visit.
Wilson initially went to see 10 or so young girls run in the national championships. Haronoja’s results were less than impressive.
“The national coach watched her run, and shook his head, like saying, You don’t want her,'” Wilson said.
At 17, Haronoja was struggling through the worst running season of her career. While most runners improve consistently from season-to-season, Haronoja was running slower than she did when she was 15.
“In my last year I concentrated on school,” Haronoja said. “We have really big tests in Finland that are very important.”
Despite the poor results, Wilson had a “gut feeling” about Haronoja that led him to the Finnish countryside to visit with her family. He was sold on Haronoja after spending one evening with her family.
Wilson is a self-proclaimed fan of farm kids. After all, he grew up on a farm in New York, and knows what type of children they often produce.
“It means their kids get up and do chores and have a great work ethic,” Wilson said.
Wilson decided to offer her a tender as soon as he left town — literally. He took the scholarship papers, went to the next biggest town, and mailed them to Haronoja.
It wasn’t all glitter and gold for Haronoja when she first ran for the Gophers track and field team. She ran a five minute, 23 second mile in her first indoor race, a time that is definitely not enviable. Her track woes continued through much of her freshman year.
“I was doing terrible,” Haronoja said. “I just didn’t think I could go fast.”
By the end of last year’s season, her first with the Gophers, Haronoja had dropped about 30 seconds off of her 1500-meter time, an encouraging sign of what was to come this year.
But Haronoja had concerns outside of running that almost led her back to Finland. She was unsure if her degree at Minnesota would allow her to get her master’s degree in Finland, and mentally prepared to return to her native country.
Early this year, however, Haronoja ran a race in competition. Before her cool-down, Wilson told her he needed to know if she was leaving so he could spend her scholarship money. By the time she was done cooling down, she had reversed her decision. As Haronoja said, the reality of the situation had finally struck her.
“I had already decided to go home, but I didn’t think about what that meant,” Haronoja said.
It’s beginning to look like Haronoja’s decision to stay was a good one for her and Minnesota. She ran the eighth-fastest 1,500-meter time in Minnesota history at the Drake Relays in April. The time of 4:30.35 puts her well within reach of the top five times in the Gophers record book and a strong finish at this year’s Big Ten Championships.
She has also set a personal record in the 800-meter run, her first new record in that event since she was 15. Haronoja said the new record was a relief, after several years of frustration.
Throughout it all, Haronoja has been thankful for Wilson, who has helped her adjust to her new surroundings. The respect between runner and coach is a two-way street.
“She’s a great kid,” Wilson said. “She’s like a daughter to me.”
The phrase that consistently came up from Wilson was “work ethic,” when describing Haronoja. Because she doesn’t possess the same physical gifts as some top runners, it’s her work that has gotten results. Her farm-girl devotion to running has garnered her fast times, and Wilson is certainly hoping for further improvement.
So it would seem Wilson’s gamble has paid off. Haronoja has developed into one of the premier runners on the Gophers roster.
“Everyone in Finland told me, Don’t take her,’ but something told me that she was a good kid,” Wilson said.