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Steeplechase victories: a Calvin tradition

Friday, June 01, 2012

By Jeff Febus

Nick Kramer, left; Alyssa Penning, right Mention the word “steeplechase” and a sparkle comes to Brian Diemer’s eyes, with good reason. A three-time U.S. Olympian in the track and field race, including a bronze medalist at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Diemer holds the steeplechase close to his heart.

Consisting of 3,000 meters and several jumps over barriers and a daunting water pit, the steeplechase is not for the faint of heart. But Diemer and his Calvin distance runners would not have it any other way.

Since Diemer and Al Hoekstra took over as codistance coaches of the Calvin men’s and women’s track and field teams in the mid-1980’s, the results in the steeplechase have been astonishing. Since 1987, Calvin has produced 13 All-America performances including national championship finishes by Pat McNamara (1989), John Lumkes (1990) and Nick Kramer (2012). Lumkes later qualified for the 1996 U.S. Olympic track and field trials in the steeplechase and competed at the trials held in Atlanta with Diemer, who was bidding to make his fourth U.S. Olympic team.

The steeplechase became an official event at the MIAA field Day for men’s track and field in 2000, and since then Calvin has taken first place 13 straight years. In 2003, steeplechase became an official NCAA III event on the women’s side and in the MIAA. A Calvin women’s runner has taken first place at the MIAA field day 10 straight years. At the national level, the Calvin women’s track and field team has produced four All-America performances and sent several other individuals onto the national meet.

“I think success breeds confidence,” said Diemer, who was named the Division III Men’s Assistant Track and Field Coach of the Year. “Our distance running program is centered around building strength so that runners are still fresh at the end of the year. Kids see what others have done before with our training program, and they have the confidence that they can do it, too.”

Al Hoekstra sees it a bit more succinctly: “We are not lacking for people to try this race,” he said. “Runners see the success and tradition in this program and they see that Brian Diemer is America’s guru in this race, and they want to do it themselves. It’s something exciting. It’s something they haven’t done in high school. When you become a steeplechaser, you fall in love with the event.”

That was the case for Calvin junior Alyssa Penning. A two-time national qualifier in the steeplechase, Penning grabbed All-America honors with a fifth-place finish at the NCAA III Championships in May.

“In high school I really didn’t like track,” said Penning. “It wasn’t until I tried the steeplechase at Calvin that things clicked in because I absolutely loved it. It takes your mind off the circles of running around and around. It’s fun.”

Penning has passed down her excitement for the event to her younger sister Kimby—a sophomore at Calvin, who finished second at the MIAA Field Day behind Alyssa.

According to Diemer and Hoekstra, there are several components that go into developing an elite steeplechaser. Those elements include athleticism, speed, endurance and a lack of fear.

“A steeplechaser needs athleticism because they need to hurdle,” said Diemer. “They also need endurance because it is 3,000 meters, and speed is important because you need to accelerate between hurdles. And you can’t be afraid of the barriers or the water pit. You have to attack them instead of being tentative.”

As a high school athlete, Diemer loved basketball and other sports in addition to distance running. When scouting for his next great steeplechaser, he often looks for someone with those same traits. Four years ago, Nick Kramer fit that description after playing soccer, basketball and also running distance races at Illiana Christian High School.

“(Coach) Diemer knew I had played some basketball and had some coordination so he asked me to give the steeplechase a try,” said Kramer. “I ended up having the fastest debut in a steeplechase race of any other Calvin runner, so from that point on I was hooked.”

Kramer continued on to claim three consecutive All-America finishes in the steeplechase, finishing fourth at the 2010 national meet, third in 2011 and then winning the national title this spring with a school record time of 8:51.01.

“It’s just a gift from God,” said Kramer of the national title after the race. “I’m truly blessed to be coached by distance coaches like Brian Diemer and Al Hoekstra. Having someone like Brian who has such an insight into this race and having someone like Al who provides the encouragement I need has been invaluable. Knowing that they want the best for you is an incredible feeling.”

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