Where have the Native distance runners gone?


April 21, 2021

Pine Ridge Thorpes Cross Country team member Robin Webber Photo courtesy of Dale Pine Sr.

HERMOSA - It has been 57 years since Billy Mills won his gold medal at 10,000 meters in Tokyo, and for two decades before he ran, and for over four decades after he ran, Native runners were the dominant force in South Dakota distance running. That is no longer the case.

It is not just that individual performance has waned, or that teams stopped being competitive, it is much worse than that. The cross country programs across Indian Country have flat-lined. Participation is on life support and it is hard to blame the kids, the coaches, the schools, given how deeply competitiveness has deteriorated. The causes for the decline are not easy to identify or understand.

Forty-one years ago Jeff Turning Heart of Cheyenne-Eagle Butte won the South Dakota Class A cross country championship, in a time three seconds faster than the State AA winner. He also won the 1600 and 3200 at the state track meet. While it is difficult to compare cross country times because the difference in the course and the weather can make for dramatic differences in performance, the overall times run by athletes in the Sixties and Seventies is not being routinely bested by the athletes of today, as it is in other sports. Turning Heart's best times in the 3200 for example, where we can track performance, are on average about 15 seconds faster than the winners of the last two 3200 state meet titles.



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