Newsmaker: Father's Memory Helps Runner Reach Higher

Last month, the Augustana women's cross country team won the NCAA Division II national title in Spokane, Wash. Among the Viking runners crossing the finish line was senior Kelly Kougl, a native of Cheyenne, Wyo., who had just lost her father to cancer a week earlier.

This is her story.

Father's Memory Helps Augustana Runner Reach Higher
By Matt Zimmer, Argus Leader, 12/06/11

Winning the NCAA Division II women's cross country national title was a highly emotional event for the members of the Augustana team. But the upset win meant something else entirely to Kelly Kougl.

The only senior on the squad, Kougl spent her four years at Augie putting together a respectable but mostly unspectacular running career. She's never been one of the stars of the team.

Kougl ran the entire 2011 season with a heavy heart, as her father, Donald, battled bone cancer, and on Nov. 12, one week before the national meet, Donald succumbed to his illness.

One week later, Kougl, a native of Cheyenne, Wyo., ran the best race of her life, contributing a finish that helped propel the Vikings to just the second national title in any sport in school history. Though her 29th-place finish may not sound particularly noteworthy, it was far above what Kougl's coaches or teammates could have expected of her, and it obviously came under trying circumstances.

“It was the last race of my life, and that whole week I just kept thinking of my dad saying, 'I'm proud of you' over and over,” she said. “As I was running, I just kept thinking of those words and telling myself, 'Make him proud.’ ”

– Kelly Kougl

Without it, the Vikings wouldn’t have taken home the trophy.

“There's no doubt if you take Kelly out of the race, we don't win,” said Vikings coach Tracy Hellman. “We didn't know if she was going to run, and we never pushed her to. We let her know that we supported her no matter what. But she ran and she ran the race of her life.”

Donald Kougl was diagnosed with cancer in July of 2010, and it became a strain on Kelly right away. She didn't know how long her dad had, and she didn't know what her future in cross country held for her. She considered dropping the sport. But few things brought as much pride to Donald than Kelly's running, so she persevered.

“Whenever I'd go home, I'd be talking to someone and they'd go, 'Oh, you're the runner,’ ” Kelly said. “That kind of made me realize that he talked about me all the time. The whole time he was sick I called him almost every day, and he let me know he wanted me to keep running, keep doing well in school, keep living my life.”

That made for some extra motivation for Kougl throughout the year, but especially as her father's condition weakened. He was too tired to attend any of her races this year, but Kelly called nearly every day. She talked to him mere hours before he died.

“The last thing he told me was, 'Congratulations, I'm so proud of you,’ ” Kelly recalls. “I didn't know if he was confused and thought we had already run the race, but hearing how happy and proud he sounded made me realize how much he wanted me to be successful, and how much my running meant to him.”

Hellman told Kougl to take the time to do whatever she needed and went about handling the rest of the team as they prepared to travel to Spokane, Wash., for the national meet. Hellman hoped to have Kougl, but was prepared to be without her.

On a Sunday morning, the day after her dad died, Kelly went on a long early-morning run , and that was when she knew what she had to do.

“I felt like I needed to do it for him and for the team,” she said.

Kelly attended her father's funeral on Thursday, Nov. 17, then met the team on a connecting flight in Denver that same day.

Not wanting to be a distraction, Kelly tried to slip into her normal routine with her teammates over the next couple days. They responded accordingly, though they did make green ribbons for the Vikings all to wear, as green was Donald Kougl's favorite color.

Then came the race. Kougl had finished 105th at nationals the previous year. Hellman encouraged her to shoot for the top 50. She finished 29th, running the 6K course in 22:08.4, easily the best race of her life.

“Look at her history,” Hellman says. “She had a terrible sophomore year – even she would tell you that. She didn't break the top 100 last year at nationals. The girls she beat to finish in the top 30 – you're beating some legit, top-caliber runners. It's truly amazing what she did.”

Kougl was the fifth finisher for the Vikings, and having that many runners place high gave them a win nobody saw coming.

“It was the last race of my life, and that whole week I just kept thinking of my dad saying, 'I'm proud of you' over and over,” she said. “As I was running, I just kept thinking of those words and telling myself, 'Make him proud.’ ”

With Hellman urging them on, the Augie runners finished as strong as they came out of the starting gate, with Kougl boosted by both the memory of her dad and the team title that was within reach.

When she crossed the line her mom, Maureen, was waiting, and they shared a long embrace in which all the emotions Kelly had held in all week poured out.

When asked what she'll remember most about the race 20 years from now, the tears welling in Kougl's eyes finally spill down her cheeks.

“Being able to share it with my teammates was special,” she said. “But knowing how proud it would have made my dad – that's what I'll think of. I don't think I could have raced like I did if all of that hadn't happened. He was with me the whole way.”

Kelly Sprecher
Communications & Media Relations