Catch Us if You Can
Calvin cross country and track and field teams dominate the 90s
By Lynn Bolt Rosendale ‘85
It's a phenomenon that's hard to ignore much less explain. You can't put your finger on a few good athletes or even a handful of good runners that have made it happen. If it's a cyclical thing, there seems to be no downside....Just what is it that makes the Calvin cross and track teams so good?
The Calvin men and women have won every conference cross country and track and field title in the 90s except for one--men's track in 1993. In addition, they have a combined 18 top-seven national finishes in NCAA III with 91 All-American honorees.
As an example of Calvin's dominance in cross country, five of the top seven women finishers in the MIAA conference championship in 1996 were from Calvin; four of the top 10 men were Knights. In 1993, the men's team scored a perfect 15 at the MIAA championship meet, a feat not previously accomplished since 1930. Not to be outdone, the Calvin women posted a perfect 15 in the same meet a year later. In track this year, Calvin won the championship meet by a comfortable 61 points; the women outscored their closest competitor by 73 points.
It hasn't always been this way, as various other teams have had their share of titles: Alma in women's track; Hope in men's and women's cross country; and Albion in men's track. But it is true to say that no other school in recent MIAA history has so dominated a complete area of sport as Calvin men and women have this area for nearly a decade.
Getting back to the question then...what is it that makes the program so good?
It's a question that most every coach in the MIAA has asked or at least wondered at some point. And it's a question that none of the Calvin coaches has an easy answer to.
The influx of new coaches in three of the sports--Brian Diemer and Al Hoekstra in men's cross country, Nancy Meyer in women's cross country and Gregg Afman in women's track--about a decade ago, began the process for raising the programs to a new level.
Prior to this time in cross country, Calvin had had a handful of outstanding runners--Doug Diekema in the late 70s, John Brink and Laura Vroon in the early 80s--but never enough to put together a powerful program. In fact, when Meyer took over the women's program in 1986, she had to recruit runners from the residence halls to form a team.
"There were a lot of recreational runners who never had any formalized coaching,"she said. "They needed a little encouragement."
Deb Vandersteen Lenters ‘90 was one of those runners, although she came out for the team on her own, she explained.
"Deb was on the first team that really turned the tide," she said. "It was during those years that we started scoring well as a team."
"I was not a great runner by any means," said Lenters. "I was encouraged to be a better runner and then I just started winning. The biggest thing was that I enjoyed it. They (the coaches) made it fun so you wanted to stick around."
Lenters also remembers the team motto: "Conceive, believe, achieve."
"When we first started, going to nationals was something we laughed at," she said. "We really didn't think that as possible."
Over Lenters' four years that changed however. "We were shocked to get to nationals my senior year," she said. "It was a big thrill, but we didn't feel a lot of pressure to do well. We had come from never winning the MIAA to this. It was a huge transition for the whole team."
The progress has continued right up to the present. "I think that we have the best running program among Christian colleges," said Meyer. "Good programs attract good athletes and good athletes make better athletes."
Renea Bluekamp posted Calvin's first and only individual national championship in cross country in 1993. Calvin has three times finished second in the nation as a team--in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
"Our goal for the program is to win a national championship," said Meyer. "That is an achievable goal for us."
About the same time the women's program started rolling, the men's program was picking up steam. With the hiring of three-time Olympian Brian Diemer as coach in 1986, some new team goals were set.
Diemer's first year was the only year in the last 11 that the Calvin men have not won the MIAA. "We had a young team that first year and we started coming on like gangbusters even towards the end of that season," he said.
There's been no slowing down ever since as the team has steam rolled their way to numerous victories and accolades.
It hasn't been surprising to Diemer though whose goal was to develop a program that would challenge every year at the national level.
"This is what I set out to do," he said. "This is exactly what I had in mind--a competitive program and a very close-knit team."
Through Diemer and co-coach Al Hoekstra, who joined the program with Diemer in 1986, those two aspects of the program have played off each other to positively promote the program.
"I think the atmosphere, the tradition that we have in this program is a huge key to our success," said Hoekstra. "It's about 20 men or women coming in with common goals and common dreams. That's what helps motivate them to bring out the best in themselves."
Once you have one good runner who is a strong leader the program and the team builds on itself, Hoekstra noted.
"When we came in there was Rick Admiraal ‘88 and then Adam Suarez ‘90 came in and tried to run with Rick; then John Lumkes ‘90 tried to catch Adam and after him Thad Karnehm ‘92 and then Rich Church ‘93 and the list goes on and on," said Hoekstra. "The same is true for the women with Renea Bluekamp ‘95 chased by Amy Kuipers'96 and then Betsy Haverkamp ‘97 and Amy Mizzone ‘99 and now Lisa Timmer ‘00."
Many of those on the list earned All-American status in their careers at least once.
"It's a lot easier to believe that you can get there when you see that other people here have done it," said Hoekstra. "When you can point out All-Americans that have gone here, it makes people believe that they can do it too if they work hard."
The success of the men's cross country program and the coaching of Diemer and Hoekstra has a direct link to both men's and women's track--the duo also coaches the distance events for these teams.
"Brian and Al added a whole dimension to the program in distance," said Ralph Honderd, 21-year coach of men's track. "Their gifts complement each other's so well. We are extremely fortunate to have those two. I don't know of a better situation at any college and I'm not only talking about coaching. I'm talking about the way they help these young people in their Christian walk. We--I mean other coaches--can learn from them."
Former runners attest to the difference being involved in running at Calvin has made in their lives.
John Lumkes ‘90, who has gone on to compete at the national level, said that in his ten years after he started running at Calvin in 1986, his accomplishments have one thing in common: "Brian and Al's help and example."
Lumkes came to Calvin with no interest in running and was convinced just two days before practice to give it a try.
"I never won a conference title in high school," said Lumkes, who went on to win seven MIAA individual titles, two second-place finishes at nationals and one national title at Calvin in both track and cross country. "I improved beyond what I believed was possible for me during my college years. Half of that was due to coaching techniques and the other half was the coaches' confidence in the athletes. Instead of focusing on local competition, we were taught to have confidence in competing against the best in the country--and winning the MIAA in the process."
But beyond the achievements and accolades, Lumkes added this: "What I appreciated the most, and probably stated the least, is the Christian example set forth daily by the coaches. They taught me not only how to run, but how to live and act as a responsible Christian parent, leader and teacher."
A more recent graduate Betsy Haverkamp ‘97, national champion in the 3,000 meters and second in the 5,000 had this to say:
"The team has meant a lot to me" she said. "I have friends that will last a lifetime and the coaches were so supportive in helping me become the best I could be."
Haverkamp was injured four weeks before the national meet this spring, which made the win that much more special, she said. "Brian Diemer and Al Hoekstra believed in me," she said. "There were so many times after my injury that I doubted I would be able to do this but they were always there encouraging me."
Beyond the national championship though, running at Calvin taught Haverkamp about life.
"It taught me a lot about how to work towards goals, how to deal with success and failures, how to get past disappointment," she said. "These are all things that will stick with me in life."
Hoekstra said this is the focus of the program.
"When I first got into coaching, I thought it was about the Xs and Os," he said. "You train athletes and they win. It didn't take long to realize that this is the smallest part of coaching. It's about preparing these young people to take their Christianity, go out into the world and be role models to other people," he said.
While the distance runners under Hoekstra, Diemer and Meyer have set their records on the cross country teams and made their mark on the track teams, it hasn't been only the distance runners who have had such a positive impact on the track programs at Calvin. The sprinters, hurdlers, high jumpers and shot putters (to name a few) have had similar success.
Honderd attributes the overall success of the track program to the dedication of former athletes who have come back to help with the program.
"When I first started, it was just me," he said, "and track is like many sports within one sport. It gives me a lot of satisfaction now to have people that have been through the program come back and help understand the intricacies of the techniques. In fact, I don't know of any other program in Division III that gets better support from former athletes than we do."
Calvin's program has been helped by such former standouts as Norman Zylstra ‘88, an All-American shot putter; Pete Vande Brake ‘88, an All-American decathlete; Steve Seth, an All-American ‘93 in the javelin; Bob Feyen ‘89, All-MIAA in the high jump; Bret Otte '90, who formerly worked with the Canadian national coach in sprinting, " and the list goes on," said Honderd.
"Not only do these former athletes help technically but they give a lot of credibility to the program," said Honderd. "Student-athletes here see the great tradition and want to be a part of that. I think it pushes the program to a higher level because they see the people who have achieved."
Gregg Afman, nine-year coach of the women's track program, agrees with that aspect of the program's success, and emphasized that "people like to be a part of the program not because we win, but because we're a good group to be associated with."
Since the program has reached this level of success, it has been easier to recruit better athletes for more success, Afman explained. "But the best advertisement is students out there talking about the program," he said. "There is such camaraderie and real support; it's hard to explain."
One of the underlying philosophies supports the camaraderie, however, and that is the challenge to do the best you've ever done, said Afman.
"It's easy to get wrapped up in the numbers--the times, the distances--but what is really exciting is to see people come in and do the better than they've ever done before," he said. "Sometimes that can translate into something at the national level, but sometimes it's just at a personal level."
In one instance when Shawn Farmer ‘94, Holly Breuker ‘96, Melissa Dykstra ‘94 and Kathy Haddox ‘95 all went out and ran the best they had ever done before it resulted in a national championship in the 1600-meter relay in 1994.
"That was a case when they dropped the school record by seven seconds and they had never all gone under a minute in a relay together in their lives," said Afman. "Their time was 3:48, so as you can see, they were all considerably under a minute to post that time. That was really fun to see."
It doesn't always end up so dramatically, however. Some times there are slight improvements or just a lot of heart in a particular race or event that is very gratifying.
"Brian Roseberry (who tragically died in a car accident in 1996) had a profound impact on his teammates for his attitude," said Afman. "Was he ever going to win a race? No, but it was his Christian commitment and his interest in serving that impacted so many lives."
Student-athletes like Roseberry and others out serving now is the real proof of the success of the program, said Hoekstra.
"To me Calvin College is easy to to sell," said Hoekstra, who is the heaviest recruiter for the Calvin distance programs. "I believe in the philosophy of this school. I believe in the importance of a Christian college. I have seen little boys and girls come to this school and leave as terrific adult Christian citizens and I believe all of the components of Calvin College make this happen.
"As coaches we take much more responsibility than just making them fast," he added. "I think that is one reason why our program has been blessed."
Blessed as it was once again this spring...A new national champion, as Haverkamp was crowned in the 3000 meters, becoming the seventh Knight in school history to win an individual national championship in track along with two women's relays; seven new All-Americans were named; three school records were broken and 17 MIAA champions were crowned just in track .
Does it appear that things will change in the future?
Based on the gleam in Nancy Meyer's eyes, the excitement in Ralph Honderd's voice, the anticipation in Gregg Afman's inflection, the steady comments by Brian Diemer and the constant recruiting by Al Hoekstra, the challenge remains: Catch us if you can.
Track & Field Cross Country