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Run, Run, Run! Todd County Falcons Ready to Defend Dakota Cross Country Title

Few sports have so pushed the bounds of human physical potential harder than track and field and distance running.

Eric Liddell’s sprint from the back of the pack to win the 440-meter in the 1924 Paris Olympics.

Jesse Owens setting three world records and tying another in less than an hour at a 1935 Big 10 track meet -- and winning four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics the next year.

Billy Mills’ record-setting run in the 10,000-meter at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Ernst Van Dyk of South Africa winning his 10th Boston Marathon in the wheelchair division in 2014.

And in South Dakota, there was Kelsie Herman of the Todd County Falcons winning the Chamberlain Invite/Big Dakota Conference 4000-meter -- at age 12.

And Tobias Weddell, also of the Todd County Falcons, pulling away from No. 1 ranked Cole Sargent of Miller High School to win the 5K by 4 seconds at the regional meet – just three weeks after finishing 90 seconds behind Sargent to finish 15th at the Chamberlain Invite.

All eyes will be on the Falcons, of Todd County High School on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, at the Class A State Cross Country Meet in Huron, South Dakota, on October 25.

Kernit Grimshaw

The Todd County Falcons boys finished first and the girls finished second at the Region 4A Cross Country Meet, Oct. 16, to advance to the state meet. Standing from left, Coach Sonny Prue; his daughter, Amory Prue; Donald Aquallo; Oskate Win One Star; Eireann Grimshaw; Tonya Whirlwind Soldier; Haylee Quick Bear; and Coach Prue's other daughter, Karli Prue. Kneeling from left, Travis Sun Bear; Lee Sharpfish; Morris Kills In Sight; Tobias Weddell; Coach Whirlwind Soldier's son, Daniel Whirlwind Soldier; and Kelsie Herman.

The Todd County boys are the defending state champs and the boys or girls are poised to give their school its third state cross country title in Tonya Whirlwind Soldier’s five-year tenure as head coach. Whirlwind Soldier, a half-marathoner, ran cross-country for Todd County in the 1980s, finishing in the top 10 in the 2-mile.

The Falcons head to state with some serious credentials. The Falcons were a formidable, disciplined force at the 13 regular-season meets in which they competed. Early in the season, they were ranked fifth in the state. The boys and girls teams won Lakota Nation Invitational cross country titles on October 3-4 in Rapid City. At the regional meet on October 16 in Huron, the boys team finished first with five runners in the top 10, the girls team placed second with four runners in the top 15.

At the season’s start, Weddell topped sports blogger Rich Winter’s list of Todd County runners to watch (The coach said Daniel Whirlwind Soldier, her son, is the Falcons’ second runner. John Hacker is third runner, Travis Sun Bear is fourth runner, and Lee Sharpfish is fifth runner).

According to MileSplit.US, a prep and college cross country database, Herman is going to state ranked No. 1 in the 4000-meter with a time of 15:01.00.

On October 30, Winter blogged about watching Herman run at a meet in 2013, when she was a sixth-grader.

“At a 2A meet in Pierre, Kelsie got run down from behind in the mile by a girl from Aberdeen Central,” Winter wrote. “When they tangled two hours later in the 800 meters, Kelsie wasn't having it and put the screws to that little girl. She's feisty ... I like that.” Herman has shown that same determination this year.

Coach Whirlwind Soldier is proud of each runner’s discipline and self-confidence. As each of her athletes sped across the finish line at the regional meet, the coach – whose son finished third – felt “satisfaction of showing them through the season that they were capable of doing what they accomplished. As for my son, it’s the same. He worked hard all season and hard work pays off, as our placing shows.”

Hard work, indeed. The Falcons’ practice regime consists of physical and mental preparation: Workouts to build up abs and core; mile warm-up runs; stretching exercises like hip flexors and yoga; and 45 minutes of Ultimate Frisbee.

Kernit Grimshaw

Tobias Weddell, Yankton Sioux/Lakota, of Todd County High School, pulled away from No. 1 ranked Cole Sargent of Miller High School to win the Region 4A Cross Country Meet 5K by 4 seconds – just three weeks after finishing 90 seconds behind Sargent to finish 15th at the Chamberlain/Big Dakota Invite.

“Our practices aren’t intense,” Whirlwind Soldier said. “We do baby steps to get to where we should be. I always try to keep them motivated.”

“I can’t do it” is not accepted. And if your grade point average drops below 3.0, you don’t run.Discipline in the classroom and on the course are tied to discipline and success in life. “I strongly push academics,” said Whirlwind Soldier, who is also the school’s junior class adviser. “My main goal is, if you can do well academically and get good grades, anything is possible.”

And she instills in her runners an important Sioux value: humility. If you do well, be proud of the accomplishment, she said. But don’t get a big head: There’s always someone, somewhere, who is faster than you. Weddell was feeling pretty good about himself when he broke the 17-minute barrier in the 5,000-meter. She reminded him that, hey, that’s great, but Cole Sargent’s best time is 16:41. Weddell undoubtedly had that in mind when he edged ahead of Sargent at the regional meet to win the 5K by 4 seconds.

Here’s something else humility gives you. The team communicates out on the course; one Falcon will yield the lead to a teammate if he or she knows they can’t hold it -- “I don’t have it. You go.” Cross country is an individual and team sport, and each Falcon is concerned about how the team does collectively. “Teamwork makes the team work. They understand that,” she said.

Whirlwind Soldier doesn’t give up on her runners on the field or in the classroom. “I have them more than most,” she said. “I have them in school, I have them at practice. So, when I see them doing their best, I have to feel proud because they’re making that accomplishment for themselves.”

Herman said of her coach, “She always pushes us. If we feel like giving up, she makes sure we keep going.”

As a result, the Falcons have done some remarkable things. Whirlwind Soldier’s son, Daniel, overcame a heart murmur to become a top runner for the Falcons. At the 2013 state meet, which the Falcons won, Daniel wore the shoes his brother Mark wore when the Falcons won the state meet in 2009.

Another runner learned breathing techniques that helped him successfully overcome asthma as a stumbling block to competitive running.

Todd County wins praise from other coaches, among them Miller High School’s Tom McGough, a 40-year coach and former South Dakota coach of the year.

McGough said he regularly expects to face Todd County and Cheyenne-Eagle Butte for conference titles and positions on the All-State teams. “I have a great deal of admiration for them, individually and collectively,” he said. “We have a great deal of respect [for them]. And we hold our heads higher when we get the edge.”

McGough said younger coaches like Whirlwind Soldier bring new approaches to the sport. “We are seeing some good coaches coming out who are willing to share what works for their program. As coaches and as educators, we all want to do what’s best for everybody.”