Running Free: Running a Perfect Match for Solon Senior Kerkhoff

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Photo by Jeff Yoder

Susan Harman

Your Prep Sports

SOLON – Some sports are just a perfect match for a particular athlete. Track and cross country, while different endeavors, fill the bill for Solon senior Erin Kerkhoff.

“I think she ran before she walked,” joked Erin’s father, Scott Kerkhoff.

Rather than precariously lurch across the floor like most toddlers, Erin bolted across the living room.

“She’s always been extremely athletic and strong,” Erin’s mother, Teri Kerkhoff, said.

“She’s always been so energetic,” Scott added.

With Erin whizzing around at an early age Solon’s elementary track and field day was a match made in heaven.

“I’ve always loved running, track especially, but I’ve always loved since I was a little kid the joy that it brings me,” Erin said. “I just feel like nothing can hurt me when I’m running. I have a lot of obstacles, ups and downs, but when I’m running nothing bothers me. I just feel so confident; I feel good doing it. I love it.”

It’s hard to believe any particular third- or fourth-grader can stand out in the chaos that is an elementary track and field day, but Erin did.

“My assistant coach at the time, Dan Dall, saw her running around the track at one of her races and said, “We need to get this girl to run cross country for us,” Solon cross country coach Emy Williams recalled.

A natural and enthusiastic sprinter, cross country was more of a stretch for Erin, but that’s the fall sport that she chose and in which she has had great success.

But cross country presented different issues for Erin than did track.

Her vision is 20/300 in her right eye and 20/400 in her left.  Legal blindness, as defined by the Social Security regulations, is 20/200 or worse in your best eye.

“For me to see something clearly, it’s about three feet,” Erin said. “So facial recognition has always been super difficult for me.

“It’s like a block, I feel. So everything is there, but as it gets farther and farther it blurs and disappears.”

This is where cross country comes into the picture as a good fit for her. While she’s not a big fan of running distances and prefers the sprints, this is a sport that reveals the inner strength, determination and drive of its participants.

This is Erin Kerkhoff.

In seventh and eighth grade she competed in cross country and was just one of the crowd.

“I didn’t know anything different, so I just kind of went out and did it and ran it,” she said. “I can still see all my surroundings and things like that and see where other girls were going.”

But when it came time to become a varsity runner Williams contacted the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union to see what, if any, issues were raised by Kerkhoff’s sight.

Williams emphasized to the Union that this was a competitive varsity runner not a dabbler looking for participation.

After much discussion the parties agreed to use a guide runner. Emily Moser, a second-grade teacher at Solon and a former Wartburg runner, agreed to be Kerkhoff’s guide runner.

As the guide runner, Moser is dressed in black and stays behind Kerkhoff. She will advise as to the turns and the topography ahead as well as note obstacles like tree branches that may impede her path.

The mere idea of a guide runner was a challenge for Kerkhoff, who fiercely guards her own independence.

 “The stress of being on varsity was enough and then not being able to see everything that was coming up…It was definitely scary at first,” Erin said. “But Emily was right behind me telling me if there was a turn coming up. That helped me feel a lot more comfortable.”

Kerkhoff and Moser had to work out what was needed on a race-by-race basis. As a senior Kerkhoff is familiar with the courses the team runs and doesn’t need much if any input from Moser.

“She said, ‘I want to do this on my own,’” Moser remembered. “So let’s figure out a way you can do this.

“She’s paying closer attention to the course and not relying on me to get through it. Now I’m behind her. She has to rely on herself. She’ll ask me a question, ‘Where am I?’ She’s really building her own independence. She’s started to embrace the positive role she is taking.”

Moser will help in the last mile by advising Kerkhoff of the distance remaining to the finish line.

Kerkhoff has a strong kick, but needs to know where she is before she unleashes it.

As she has become more familiar with courses and confident in her abilities she has concentrated more on tactics and which opponent jerseys to watch for.

Probably the team’s top runner her first two seasons, Kerkhoff is part of a strong group that chases Spartan leaders, 16th-ranked freshman Emma Bock and sophomore Kiersten Conway.

Kerkhoff helped lead the Spartans to the state cross country meet her sophomore season after finishing ninth at the state-qualifying meet.

This year’s team is very likely to earn a return trip to state.

While cross country is a begrudging, albeit inspiring, mate for Kerkhoff, her heart belongs to track. She has excelled in the sprints from the very beginning.

As a sophomore and junior she anchored Solon’s state runner-up 4x400 relay and set a school record in the event. She has medaled in the 400 meters all three years.

She won the 100, 200 and 400 meters at the WAMAC conference meet as a junior. She earned four medals at state as a junior, the only Solon track athlete to do so.

“We were prepared to do way more than we ever really needed to do,” Solon track coach Brent Sands said of accommodating Kerkhoff in track. “She was able to handle everything on her own.”

While Erin can see the lane lines and has a flat, unencumbered surface in track, there are still some tricky parts.

“When you’re coming out of the turn and you’re in the last 100 many tracks have a lot of intersecting lines with exchange zones and cross lines,” Sands said.

A walk through before the meet can help establish what to look for.

Similarly, exchange zones during relay handoffs can be an issue and require communication not just by the runners but by a teammate who is near the zone and can verbally prepare Kerkhoff for the ingoing or outgoing runner.

Even at that, Sands thinks very few people are aware of what Kerkhoff deals with while they watch a meet. She’s just another skilled competitor.

“In terms of competing, obviously I haven’t seen anything that’s holding her back,” he said. “She’s at an extremely high level. Typically until we get to the state meet she’s out in front of a lot of races. But how may times have I seen when there’s competition around her that’s when she kicks it into gear.”

She is also on the basketball team and last season led Solon in steals.

“I’ve played with these girls since sixth grade and they always say my name when they toss me the ball,” Kerkhoff said. “I can kind of see the blur of the orange coming. The rim is probably the hardest part to see when I’m shooting. The backboard is pretty big, so that’s what I can focus on.”

Kerkhoff reads greatly enlarged text to keep up in classes.

It takes several hours each night for her to get her homework done, but she has earned a 3.6 cumulative grade-point average and is a member of the school’s National Honor Society.

This kind of everyday drive to succeed has matched up well with the miles and the grind of cross country even if she insists she’s not a long-distance runner.

“She’s always positive and works so hard and is a great leader on our team,” Williams said.

“Erin is just another teammate. If you came to practice you would never know. The way she runs, and the way that she goes, you would never know.”

Competing for Solon has been empowering for her, even while she fights a daily battle to just be another teammate.

“I think I’ve grown as a person,” she said. “I’m a lot more confident and have a lot more self-esteem. My attitude is I don’t really care if I have a guide runner now. At first I was so self-conscious of it. It was hard. But you know what, this is how it is; this is how I have to do it, and I don’t really care if other people are going to look at me as a little different.”

With a warm, open personality and a drive that knows no limits she’s decided to try the 400 hurdles next spring. Think about that.

Erin Kerkhoff, Solon senior

Track resume

* Drake Relays 2018 (Junior)

            4x100 anchor (team didn’t make finals)

            4x400 anchor (finished 5th)

            4x200 3rd leg Team was 8th

            100M 25th in prelims

Team won 2018 Wamac East track title (she won 100, 200, 400)

* State track 2018 (Junior)

            400 meters 5th in final 58.74

            4x200 (3rd leg) placed 4th in final

            4x400 relay anchor finished 2nd in final (school record)

            Sprint medley relay anchor placed 4th in final

* State track 2017 (Soph)

            400 Meters 6th in 58.76

            4x100 anchor 11th (didn’t make final)

            4x400 anchor 2nd in finals

            Sprint med 10th, anchored

* State track 2016 (Fresh)

            400 meters 6th

* Cross country 2016 (Soph)

            Team qualified for State. Erin 9th at District.

            Team 15th (last); Erin 60th in 21:10.1 (2nd on team)

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