The Internet Home of Track & Field

From tracksters to flood fighters

With school, practice, and their NoDak state meet stolen by the raging Red River,
student-athletes at Fargo South and other area schools helped fight a historic flood

by SteveU, DyeStat/ESPN RISE Senior Editor

"They understand this experience is much more than just a track season, this is real life.”
- Fargo South Coach Lisa Svaleson

There was supposed to be a track meet at the Fargodome in Fargo ND last weekend – the North Dakota Class A and Class B state championships, as a matter of fact.  But while you may have seen plenty of student-athletes in the facility during the days leading up to that scheduled event, working hard as hard as they ever have, they weren’t racing, jumping or throwing.

In fact, tracksters at Fargo area schools haven’t been racing, jumping or throwing anywhere.  They haven’t even been in school.  That’s because Fargo and surrounding communities spent last week drowning or in danger of drowning from the relentlessly rising Red River.  Given the history of floods in this tabletop-flat area, residents always have to be aware of the sleeping giant that snakes through its midst, but this was unprecedented.  It snowed and snowed all winter, then rained, then snowed again, then melted, then rained and snowed again.  It all had to go somewhere and the river swelled 24 feet beyond its flood stage, finally cresting Saturday in Fargo at 40.82 feet, past all previous records.

So if you were willing, you sandbagged.  And when you ran out of sandbags, you went back to Sandbag Central, a.k.a. the Fargodome, and got some more.  Enough sand probably moved through the facility to fill every long jump pit in the country.

It’s been a nightmare for everyone, but when you’re a spring sports athlete, like the tracksters at the area schools, there’s a sense of your season slipping away from you.  It’s obviously difficult, between the flood and the snow and school being closed for two weeks, to get any kind of training in.

Fortunately – if such a word can be used to describe any aspect of the situation – the first outdoor meets aren’t until mid-April, so none of those have been lost yet.

Some of the student-athletes most affected have been at Fargo South, which is one of the powerhouses in the state and home to the nation’s fastest girls’ 800-meter runner in Laura Roesler

“It’s just been crazy the last week, just seeing everything that’s happened,” said Jen Storm – just a soph, but one of the team leaders – by phone last Saturday.  “Our practices have turned into sandbagging.  Some of us can’t get to practice any more.”

Ironically, Storm had spent her spring break before that engaged in a Hurricane Ike relief project in Texas, helping those still in need from the devastating storm last fall.  She was there through her local church and her company included one of her track teammates, as well as a track athlete from another Fargo school.  “But when we heard about what was going on at home, we cut our trip short.  Now it’s like we’ve done two straight weeks of community service.”

Indeed, it was not just Storm, but nearly all of her teammates that were part of thousands of volunteers trying to build dikes and literally save the community.

They were also making Fargo South girls track and XC coach Lisa Svaleson very proud.  “On our team, we stress good sportsmanship and being a team player, but most importantly being a good citizen,” she said Saturday.  While the team could not practice, meeting up and going “sandbagging” literally became a workout.  “Throughout the past week, our team has had the most incredible team-building experience, helping out others.  The ladies have learned so many lessons that will impact them for the rest of their lives.”

Major floods have been part of the fabric of this area’s history, and Svaleson has been there, done that.  “I remember experiencing this situation before in 1997, when I was in high school myself.  I sandbagged all day long, went to practice, and then went out to fight the good fight until the wee hours of the morning.  Experiencing the rising waters again as a coach is a new experience.”

Time became no object last week for the current Fargo South girls, either.  Storm said some of the sandbagging sessions lasted until 2 a.m. or later.  “I can hardly put it into words,” she said.  “I’m so proud of our team, giving up their whole day to do this.”

Coach Svaleson marveled at her team’s commitment to getting the job done.  “We spent a great deal of time at a house on a bend in the river building a five-foot dike.  Ultimately, the family was airlifted out in a basket by the Coast Guard and eventually lost their home.  However ,the dike we built held strong.  The ladies were upset when I relayed the info about the family, but felt such an incredible sense of pride that what they did mattered.

“I received many phone calls at night from parents wondering when their daughters would be home, but the girls were relentless and would not abandon the home until the dike was completed.  Many places that we sandbagged we only stopped at night due to thunderstorms and massive lighting or when we ran out of sand to fill sandbags.  The blizzard and freezing temps did not discourage them.  Our team joked about how great a meet in 50 degree weather with 30mph winds and rain sounded.”

Of course, the girls at Fargo South were part of legions of volunteers of every age and background, including other student-athletes in the area.  “We were in awe of the many people helping out with the effort, from the 6-year-old little boy opening bags to the cute little ladies pulling sleds down the street full of warm treats and hot tomato soup and hot chocolate and sandwiches,” said Svaleson.  “Everyone pitched in to do their part and felt helpless once they called off the sandbagging efforts.  Sheer exhaustion accompanied by sheer determination gets you through the days. 

“Fargo South track and field was not the only team out helping.  We sandbagged with the NDSU track team around a former Bison trackster’s home on the river.  Many other teams were out in full force as well.  The sense of camaraderie with strangers not just from Fargo, but from all over the country is amazing.  In addition, we have received wonderful support from coaches and teams throughout the state.”

One of those was Bismarck head coach Dave Zittleman.

“We hope for the best in Fargo,” he said late last week.  “What a devastating situation for all involved.  We have canceled all sporting events for Bismarck Public Schools next week as the people in Fargo that are displaced may be coming to our community for shelter.  The city of Bismarck will do everything that it can to help those affected by the flood.  I hope the Red River Valley gets through this without too much damage.”

But Bismarck, situated on the Missouri River, had its own flooding to be concerned with, too.  “We had some flooding in southern Bismarck/Mandan and it has affected many people, but most of the water has started to go down,” Zittleman said.  “We had a huge ice jam on the north and south sides of Bismarck that was causing most of the problems … but they were able to blow up some of the ice jam to get the water moving downstream.

“We are not out of trouble yet and the community has helped a great deal with sandbagging,” he added.  “We had very few kids in school on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as they were helping with the sandbagging effort.  The community of Bismarck has had great participation from all people.  I do not want to downplay our situation compared to Fargo.  Fargo is very bad, but the situation around here is also bad.”

Bismarck distance runner Devin Huizenga was one of those evacuated from his home with his family, though he said it was more of a “precautionary” thing.  The flooding in the area was mostly “kept in check,” he said, and he felt Bismarck may have “dodged a bullet.”

Although he and his teammates had competed in a few earlier meets, they missed being able to compete at the state meet.  “A lot of us wanted to go down there and see what we could do,” he said.  “But with the circumstances, we just hope everyone everyone in the Fargo area doesn’t suffer too much damage.”


Participating in the effort to hold back the water was important for student-athletes in any of the impacted communities; better to do so than to fixate on what was a strong sense of “impending doom.”  But by the end of the week, said Svaleson, “many girls were protecting their own homes and preparing to evacuate, so the girls stayed in their own neighborhoods, doing what they could to help others.”

“We were happy we’ve been able to help save some of the neighborhoods, but there’s still a lot to be done,” said Storm.  “Right now, it’s mostly watching the dikes for leaks and waiting.”

The river crested over the weekend and, with just a few exceptions, the dikes held.  In the days since, the river has fallen, getting down to 37 feet by Wednesday – still well above flood stage, but below the floodwalls and the dikes.  But North Dakota is not out of the woods yet and still at the mercy of Mother Nature.  A blizzard hit early this week, dumping more than a foot of snow in many areas.  The storm made the follow-up work on the flood tough, and also raised worries of a second crest of the river days or a few weeks down the road.  For now, the communities are working toward getting at least some aspects of life back to normal – though Fargo schools won’t open until Monday.

Coaches Svaleson and Zittleman – and their teams – are left to ponder what will become of their track season.  “Prayers are what holds our community together right now,” said Svaleson.  “Our team is spread out with many girls already displaced, but we will be ready to get back out on the track and compete when the time comes.”

“Track and field has been set on the back burner,” said Zittleman.  “We will try to have practice when and wherever we can.  We have limited indoor facilities and coaches are becoming more and more creative each day.  Spring sports in ND will have very, very short seasons.  There is not much we can do about it, but we will do our best and hope that we will be able to get an outdoor season in.  North Dakota people are tough and are always willing to adapt to the situation.”

Like many winter-affected schools across the country, Bismarck makes the best use of school hallways and gym space to try and set up small areas to vault, jump or throw in.  The thing is, usually by late March, folks in most cold-weather areas are able to start to get outside.  “Needless to say we are behind, but the weather will soon heat up and we will be outside.  It is amazing to see how North Dakota athletes can produce great running, jumping and throwing performances year after year.  In cross country we have a chance to compete at the national level but in track and field we are behind because of the weather.”

Svaleson said her team was able to joke while filling and flinging bags about “how great their arms will look in their uniforms.

“Thus far, our team has maintained a mature outlook on the situation, they understand this experience is much more than just a track season, this is real life,” she added.  “Life will go on, we will recover, and we will all be stronger not just as individuals but as a community because of it.

Svaleson said she is thankful to live in “such an amazing community with so many giving and selfless people.  They have taught the young Bruin athletes how to be upstanding citizens.  The determination to accomplish such an enormous task as saving our community will take these ladies to a new level competitively.  Every morning they woke up so sore they could hardly get out of bed and brush their hair, but they went out sandbagging again anyway.  I have never been so proud to be a part of the Fargo South Girls track and field program and the Fargo-Moorhead community!”

Storm and her teammates lamented the lost competitive opportunities, but were taking the most positive approach possible.  “We haven’t had any meets yet and we were really looking forward to indoor state.  We’re a really close-knit team and we train together all year, so it’s tough to lose a meet like this.

“We don’t even know what the season is going to be like; everything’s on hold,” she concluded.  “But all of us are mentally dedicated and that’s going to bring us through this.”