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Russ Schmeichel impacting generations of runners in retirement

Russ Schmeichel, a longtime cross-country coach for Jamestown High School, started an annual running camp nearly 40 years ago.

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The Jamestown High School cross-country team has been attending summer running camp in Buffalo, Wyoming, since the camp's inception in the early 1990s.
Contributed / Ken Gardner
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JAMESTOWN — Russ Schmeichel might have packed up and left Jamestown 14 years ago, but even current Blue Jays couldn't forget him.

His name still comes up almost every summer.

Schmeichel, a 34-year head coach for the Jamestown High School cross-country team, began the Jays' annual summer running camp in the early 1990s and it has continued every summer for the last 30 years.

Russ was inducted into the North Dakota High School Track and Field Coaches Association's Hall of Fame in 2010. Russ is also a member of the North Dakota High School Coaches Hall of Fame and the University of Jamestown Hall of Fame.

"I knew that if you wanted to win a state championship you needed to run and train in the summer,'' Schmeichel said. "Running at elevation would benefit their training and I wanted them to enjoy running. You have to work harder when running at altitude and when they returned home running was easier and they were mentally tougher. It was also a team bonding experience. When you run with other good runners you are motivated to achieve more."

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In 2002, Schmeichel asked current Blue Jay cross country and track and field coach, Ken Gardner, if he would like to tag along with the team out to the running camp. Gardner agreed and then started the next year as a volunteer assistant to the JHS cross-country team.

"I was pretty young back then and just tried to soak up as much knowledge as I could from him," Gardner said. "He had a proven track record. He had a passion for the sports he coached. I think the members of his teams saw that and that went a long way in getting them to buy in to what he was trying to accomplish with the program.

Once Schmeichel retired in 2006, he passed the running camp torch to Gardner and Mike Harris of Minnesota's Hopkins High School.

Gardner and Harris have also invited Schmeichel back as a guest coach and camper several times since his retirement.

"I try to emulate Russ' passion," Gardner said. "We tweak the camp every year but the overall goal of getting those top-end runners in shape and giving them the extra boost to their system with the extra mileage and elevation is still there."

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Schmeichel said when he first began the camp, he didn't really consider the longevity piece of it — rather he was trying to prepare his athletes for their upcoming season and build them up into strong competitors.

"I think the assistant coaches realized the importance of the camp in building a successful running program and have made the effort to keep it going as head coaches," Schmeichel said. "(The goal was) to make running fun, to make friends, to become motivated and educated on running.  When running is fun, success follows.

"The campers still do many of the same runs from the first years we had camp except they no longer do the 18-mile hike to Seven Brothers Lake," he said. "One thing that is very rewarding to me is the number of second-generation campers who are now attending camp."

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This year four of Schmeichel's own grandchildren attended camp, along with children of former Jamestown runners who now live in South Dakota and Colorado.

Schmeichel said his former athletes along with his own kids wanted their children to have the same growing and influential experience they did when training in the Big Horn Mountains.

"The number one reason kids go out for sports is to have fun so you've got to make it fun for them," Schmeichel said. "That's why we started the running camp. We could challenge them, do something different and then have fun. If you work hard and have fun during it, that's the big thing."

Jamestown is continuing its legacy of working hard.

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Russ Schmeichel, back left, has spent his entire career working to better student athletes whether in season or out of season.
Contributed / Ken Gardner

The program that produced Division 1 athletes like Katie Conlon and Meghan Ford and soon-to-be JHS Hall of Famer Don Schmeichel kicked off the official 2022 cross-country season on Aug. 20, hosting 30 teams and 700 runners at Jamestown's Parkhurst Recreation Area.

The Jamestown boys cross-country team placed eighth out of 26 competing teams. No varsity runner on the Jays' girls or boys team, clocked a time of more than 24 minutes.

"That's the secret," Schmeichel said of success earned. "If you put the work in during the summer you are going to have a good season. That's the bottom line, if you want to work hard during the off-season, you are going to have a good year. Win or lose."

Schmeichel impacting his immediate, Blue Jay families

Schmeichel's daughter, Jennifer Birkmeier attended camp back in the day and currently coaches distance runners at Andover (Minnesota) High School. Birkmeier has been one of the coaches at camp for the last two years.

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"The tradition continues," Schmeichel said. "(I like) seeing the kids have a good time.  Camp isn’t just running.  We would play lots of fun running games that built team unity (and) when you are sleeping in a tent in a beautiful place — life is good."

His grandkids seem to agree.

"Gabriel (Birkmeier) holds four school records at Andover High School — he wound up with a 4:15 mile, 1:55 in the 800 and a 50 (second) flat 400," Schmeichel said. "He got a scholarship so he's going to run down at Kansas for the Jayhawks."

Schmeichel said his granddaughter, Avery, thoroughly enjoys the sport of competitive running. He said she enjoyed the training up in the Big Horn mountains and was one of the athletes to finish the camp's 11-mile run at 9,000 feet of elevation without any problems.

"Avery was a tennis player last season but then she decided, when her tennis season got done early, to join the cross-country season that was still going on," Schmeichel said. "She hopped in and ran the last few weeks and really enjoyed it so now, instead of a tennis player, she's a cross-country runner."

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Russ Schmeichel's grandchildren, from left, Hunter Birkmeier, Gabe Birkmeier, Anya Schmeichel and Avery Schmeichel all attended the annual 2022 running camp. Many of Schmeichel's former athletes children attend the camp on a regular basis.
Contributed / Carol Schmeichel

Avery will be running cross-country for Andover High School this fall while her cousin, Anya, will be competing at Hopkins.

"Anya is going to be an eighth grader and she's going to have a lot of talent once we get her going," Schmeichel said. "She's lean and mean. She has a lot of potential and enjoys running track and cross country."

Schmeichel said the final grandkid to attend this year's camp is still a wild card when it comes to the world of running.

While the soon-to-be seventh grader Hunter is planning to run track for Andover this spring, he decided to try out football instead of putting on the spikes for trail running.

"He thinks he is mean enough to play football," Schmeichel said with a laugh. "We'll find out. If that doesn't work out, I think he will be following in his older brother (Gabriel's) footsteps. He could be a really good runner too."

When Schmeichel began running in 1960 as a seventh grader, he could have never guessed how many athletes he would have impacted through something as simple as a running camp.

"The kids have more to do with it than I did," Schmeichel said of getting second-generation runners to attend running camp. "We encourage them to be active and work hard and have fun. Having fun is the most important thing."

Katie Ringer is a sports reporter for the Jamestown Sun. Katie joined the Sun staff in the summer of 2019 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire with a degree in journalism. She can be reached by email at kringer@jamestownsun.com or by phone at 701-952-8460.
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