At the end of UND’s heroic but failed bid to reach collegiate hockey’s Frozen Four last weekend, I watched Jordan Kawaguchi stand alone for a moment, stunned, and I tried to imagine the pain he felt.
Despite that crushing loss to Minnesota-Duluth, he is a great athlete with a great heart. I watched him and three other seniors, determined young men I got to know a little beyond the hockey arena, as students, and I felt for them.
I thought about other student athletes whose paths briefly crossed mine this unhappy COVID year – a football player, a member of the women’s tennis team, a volleyball player – what they had lost, but also the dedication, desire and effort they had shown.
And I thought about the finest UND student athlete I ever watched, a Dutch-Canadian runner who half a century ago demonstrated the beauty, inspiration and nobility of athletic striving.
I was 21, a student myself and a stringer for the Fargo newspaper, covering UND football, basketball and hockey, and occasionally one of the less attended, less celebrated sports. On a sunny day in June 1970, I was inside the track at old Memorial Stadium, watching the end of an era.
“There were two or three other events going on at the same time, but nobody was watching them,” I wrote. “Track meet officials stopped playing with their stop watches for a while, resting athletes stood up for a better look and UND track Coach Frank Zazula paused for a few seconds and smiled gently.
“Arjan Gelling, seven times named an All-America runner, was crossing the finish line – a full lap ahead of everyone – for one of the last times as a North Dakota Sioux.”
Later in that story, after recounting track championships Gelling had won across the country, and his disappointment that ailments had kept him from achieving all he had hoped for, I shared some of what he had told me as we talked before the meet.
“I was running one morning in Lincoln Park and some young kids said something sarcastic – I don’t even remember what they said. But then I ran by an old man with a cane.
“When I passed him, he looked up at me and said, ‘Keep running, young fella.’
“It made me run faster, and it made me want to run forever.”
He said he thought better when he ran, and he thought best while running along a lake shore or on a winding forest path.
“It seems more real that way,” he said. “I think about the trees and the path, listen to myself run and feel my heart beat – just sort of dissolve into life itself.”
And he told me he had one more big personal goal.
“I want to go back to Holland, where I was born,” he said, “and go for a very long run by myself along the seacoast. I think I’d like that.”
And he did it, though it would take a while.
In 2008, the Herald’s Brad Elliott Schlossman reached Gelling at his home in British Columbia, Canada, for a “where are they now” feature, and Arjan’s words stirred me once again.
He had made that run along the Dutch coast in 1991.
"It was a very memorable run for me," Gelling said. "I went running as the town was waking up itself. It was a beautiful scene. The sun was hanging over the flower fields. It was in the spring so the bulbs were in their prime. I saw a deer, startled some pheasants. I could hear the sounds of farms in the background.
"Then, you combine that with the sea. While I was running along the sea, I thought about how I wanted to do this for such a long, long time. It was a wonderful feeling. There was one guy out there fishing for shrimp and one other person I passed. Other than that, I had the entire thing to myself."
The memory helped to sustain him years later through treatment for an aggressive form of prostate cancer, which had forced him to stop running. "For a guy who ran long distance for such a long time," he told Schlossman, "it's a very strange experience to be winded after walking up the stairs."
He intended to fight the disease, to live, to run again.
"If I get to that point, it'll be like being reborn again. I'd really like to go for some wonderful runs in the parks, through the forests and on the beaches."
And he did. He was planning even more ambitious runs when he returned to UND for a reunion in 2012, though the cancer had returned and he was facing another round of debilitating treatment. I’m sure, though, that he strode down a few more forest paths and along a few more lakeshores, listening to himself run, feeling his heart, before he died, at 70, in 2017.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.