By Jake Knabel, sports information director, Concordia University (Neb.)
The story of the Concordia women’s 4x800 meter relay team at the 2013 NAIA Indoor Track and Field National Championships nearly ended just as it got started. Barely a minute into the preliminary race, senior Jena Schwalenberg, navigating the turn on her second lap, got tangled up with the competitor behind her and fell hard to the track. Eight minutes and 18 seconds later, Bulldog freshman Kim Wood raced across the finish line in 9:23.73, somehow in front of the rest of the pack.
Stunning. Shocking. Inspiring. Improbable. Gutty. It was a performance too incredible to tag with just one word. So impactful were the efforts of these four Bulldogs that the moment transcended school allegiances, if only for a few seconds.
The crowd of spectators, coaches and athletes looked on in wonderment inside the spacious SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio. Coaches from conference rivals like Morningside and Dordt morphed into fans for that stretch run as Wood sprinted to the finish. The only thing missing was Al Michaels.
“When they won the heat I put my hand in the air as if it was my own girls, and I didn’t even know any of them,” Morningside head coach David Nash said. “I shouted, ‘Yes!’ It was that inspiring of a moment. Things like that happen very rarely.”
Sheer joy pulsated throughout Schwalenberg and fellow 4x800 meter teammates in juniors Jenean Williams and Megan Letts as they watched the race come to a dramatic conclusion. Cheers reverberated inside the complex as Wood motored past a trio of runners in the final 150 meters.
“I can’t explain how excited our team was when we saw Kim finish that race in first place,” Schwalenberg said. “I’ve never seen Megan Letts jump so high.”
Added Williams, “I was in complete shock.”
Letts would not argue with Schwalenberg’s assessment. Letts, a native of Lakewood, Colo., leapt high into the air and then darted over to Wood to embrace her teammate as part of a magical moment seldom duplicated.
“I could not contain my joy and instantly started screaming,” Letts said. “And then I ran to give Kim the biggest hug ever. I was smiling so big, and had to be glowing with how much happiness was inside of me. I knew that my prayer had been answered, and couldn't thank God enough for letting something good come of what seemed to be a hopeless situation.”
The emotional high contrasted starkly with the letdown Concordia head coach Kregg Einspahr felt after watching Schwalenberg plunge to the track. A slip up like that at the national meet typically spells doom. The 23-year head coach failed to recall such an example of perseverance with so much on the line.
“I was just beside myself,” Einspahr said. “I figured beforehand that we had a chance to finish in the top five of the finals, so I was mad at the time.
“I couldn’t believe that they had caught up. I went from being angry to disappointed to overjoyed. I don’t know that I’ve seen that ever. I’m real proud of them.”
As Schwalenberg went down, the crowd gasped, and an audible “Oh no” can be heard in the video placed on the Concordia Track and Field YouTube channel. Schwalenberg picked herself back up and continued competing tenaciously despite the long odds of Concordia getting back into contention.
“I didn’t think I’d see anything like that ever again in my life,” Nash said. “At that point, whatever chance they had – it wasn’t looking good. I mean, you’re going against the best in the country. You can’t have a disadvantage like that.”
Williams, a junior from North Mankato, Minn., took the baton from Schwalenberg for the second leg with the team still in last by a wide margin. About 2:20 after, Williams had surpassed one competitor when she handed off to Letts, determined to make up the ground that had been lost. Letts posted roughly the same split as Williams to move Concordia into fifth place out of the eight teams in the heat. Wood took over from there, shining in perhaps the most exciting finish to a race at this year’s championships.
That momentum carried the quartet to a fourth-place, All-America finish (9:20.04) in the finals of the event to complete an incredible, storybook weekend. Faced with congratulatory outpourings from many coaches and fellow athletes, the group deflected credit at every turn.
“I had no idea how we were going to end up in that race after I had handed off to Jenean, but I just kept praying and cheering on my teammates,” Schwalenberg said. “The team was able to accomplish all that we did through the grace of God. Without Him, none of this would have been possible.”
The riveting race made one particular athlete, who sat in the infield half-heartedly paying attention after initially seeing the fall on the first leg, look up surprised to see Concordia cross the finish line first in the preliminary. ‘Did your team just win that?’ he asked in bewilderment.
“Words don't do it justice,” Letts said. “I am beyond blessed to have been part of a race like that. Nothing will ever top how proud I was of my teammates that we never stopped believing in ourselves and each other. To God be the glory.”
There were also several pats on the back from spectators and coaches, appreciative of being treated to an unlikely comeback that saw a team of fierce competitors rise from dead-in-the-water to smiling, plaque-wielding Bulldogs perched upon the medal stand.
“It was an amazing feeling,” Williams said. “I think it was even more satisfying knowing that we had been in dead last at one point during the prelims and then ended up in fourth overall.”
While the relay team from Morningside seized the national title in the event, the Mustang head coach left the championships moved by the mettle displayed by the Concordia foursome.
“My girls had a special day in the same relay, but the Concordia women will always stick in my mind,” Nash said. “I will share this story to others for many seasons to come.”
To see video of the preliminary or final race, click here.