Less than 100 yards separated two veteran long-distance runners, senior Kailee Kaminski and junior Tierney Winter, from the finish line in the Minnesota Class 1A girls state high school cross country meet in Northfield on November 1. In her first statewide race, freshman Jessica Christoffer had just fallen nearby, exhausted and unable to continue.
The three girls attend different schools and did not know one another, but Kaminski and Winter made split-second decisions to help the fallen runner to her feet and support her arm-in-arm so that all three could finish at about the same time. A race official on the scene warned them that the consequence for the trio would be disqualification.
The three did indeed finish together, and each indeed was disqualified under the national "runner interference" rule, which forbids interscholastic runners from giving or receiving help from one another on the course. Even after paying the price, Kailey and Tierney maintained that they had done the right thing. "[A] girl fell, I wanted to help her up," Tierney said later, "If I was in her situation, I'd want somebody to help me too. . . . I couldn't just leave her there."
Kailee agreed, despite the unexpected ending in the last race of her high school career. "I wouldn't change it at all. I just wanted to go help her - that's all that mattered to me."
"Doing the Right Thing"
In October, two other girls cross country meets had featured endings similar to the ending in Minnesota. The first meet, the Eastern Dakota Cross County Championship on October 11, saw Devils Lake (N.D.) High School senior Melanie Bailey stop during the race when she saw Fargo South High School's Danielle Lenoue down and crying in pain, unable to walk even with assistance, from what turned out to be a torn tendon and left meniscus. As more than two dozen other runners passed them, Melanie hoisted the heavier, taller Danielle over her back and carried her for nearly half a mile until medical attention became available at the finish line.
"She was sobbing. I couldn't just leave her," Melanie said afterwards, "I had to do something. I feel like was just doing the right thing." "It's just a race. . . . A person is forever; a race just lasts 25 minutes."
"She Needs to Finish"
The second October meet was a cross country 5K sectional race in Shawano, Wisconsin on October 25. As Shawano High School junior Teagan Monfils approached the finish line, she saw a competitor stumble and fall from an apparent injury. As runners passed them by, Teagan helped the other runner across the finish line. Both runners were promptly disqualified.
Teagan said later that she knew about the disqualification rule, but did what she thought was right and would do the same thing again. "I needed to help her because she needs to finish. . . . I know that if I would have fallen, somebody would have been there [for me]."
Where Attention Belongs
Cross country officials explain that the runner-interference rule is designed to enable a certified trainer or other medical professional to assist a downed runner before help from other runners might make a dangerous condition worse. Other voices say, however, that the rule should punish only cheating, and not principled acts of sportsmanship.
This column is not the place to debate the rule's merits or demerits because any such debate would deflect attention from where it rightfully belongs. Kailee Kaminski, Tierney Winter, Melanie Bailey and Teagan Monfils deserve respect for sacrifice that they (and virtually all ensuing social media commentary) considered the essence of athletic competition.
"We're Going to Finish This Together"
Perhaps we can close the book on the Minnesota, North Dakota and Wisconsin cross country meets by recalling one of the most iconic episodes in Olympic track and field history, a highlight of the 1992 Barcelona summer games. The Barcelona aftermath demonstrates that runners sometimes win esteem more for disqualification than for taking home a gold medal.
About 150 meters into the 400-meters semifinal, British sprinter Derek Redmond (the former national record-holder and a serious contender for the gold) crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain with a torn right hamstring. Before a Barcelona crowd of 65,000 and a worldwide television audience of millions, his father instinctively left a top row of the stadium, fended off security personnel, and hopped a security barrier to support his son's struggle to finish in last place, well behind the other finishers. Arm in arm, Jim Redmond and his son "broke every rule in the book," said the Adelaide (Australia) Advertiser the next day.
As stretcher bearers hovered nearby, the Redmonds refused officials' demands to leave the track. Jim Redmond whispered to his son that "We're going to finish this together." Derek Redmond hobbled across the finish line in tears on one leg because "I just wanted to finish," and not "be carried out of the Olympics." Father and son received the sort of sustained thunderous standing ovation that few gold medalists ever receive.
"You Were Very Brave"
Derek Redmond was disqualified. He failed to win the gold medal he had dreamed about. But today we remember his name and image more than we remember the name of the runner who went on to win the 400-meter gold medal.
Shortly after the race, a seven-year-old girl from Cary, North Carolina sent Derek Redmond the gold medal she had won in her school for reading. The award came with a note: "Dear Mr. Redmond. My name is Lizzie Sewell and I am 7 years old. I felt real bad when you fell down in the Olympics. I have a gold medal that I would like for you to have because you were very brave to finish your race. I hope you feel better soon. Love, Lizzie."
Disqualified But Not Forgotten
"In our preoccupation with winners and losers, in our mania for counting medals, it is easy to forget what really constitutes triumph," the Toronto Star wrote the day after the Redmonds finished the 400-meters together. When the Olympics returned to London in 2012, the British Olympic Association showed that it had not forgotten. The Association chose Derek Redmond's father, Jim, as a torchbearer, a sign that two decades had not dimmed respect for his spontaneous impulse to "break every rule in the book" and help a fallen runner, who just happened to be his son. Derek Redmond was disqualified, but images of him and his father remain etched in our memories for all the reasons that reflect the true Olympic spirit.
From the highest levels of international track and field competition, the Redmonds' stirring Olympic story confirms that Americans got it right this autumn when they lavished praise on Kailee Kaminski, Tierney Winter, Melanie Bailey, and Teagan Monfils for getting it right.
Sources: Adam J.S. Holt, "Grizzlies' Winter Finishes State Cross Country Meet With Sportsmanship", Waseca County News (Nov. 5, 2014); Louie St. George, "Northland Runner's helpful Hand Results in Disqualification", Duluth News Tribune, Nov. 5, 2014; FOX Sports, "Wisconsin Cross Country Runner DQ'd For Helping Competitor Across Finish Line" (Oct. 30, 2014); Cam Smith, "North Dakota Cross Country Runner Carries Injured Foe During Race", USA TODAY High school Sports, Oct. 16, 2014; Mike Hurst, "Injured Hero in Spirit of Games", The Advertiser, Aug. 5, 1992; Phil Hersh, "Father Rushes to Help Son Limp to Finish Line", Toronto Star, Aug. 4, 1992, p. C3]