From Fargo South to Oregon, standout runner Laura Roesler has achieved ‘mythical status’
FARGO - Dave Tack remembers the first time he saw Laura Roesler run:
Instead, the former Fargo South High School cross country coach left excited about Roesler.
“Laura was gritty and talented,” Tack said. “You could see that she had that specialness.”
About a year later, a larger audience saw that pure talent. As a seventh-grader, Roesler took second place in the Class A girls race at the North Dakota state cross country meet, her third varsity event. That was just the start of a storied running career.
“She has almost become this Paul Bunyan,” Tack said. “Everyone has this amazing version of the truth. She has this almost-mythical status.”
Roesler hopes to add to the folklore this week when she competes at her final NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships. The meet starts Wednesday on her home track, Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. The University of Oregon senior is favored to win the women’s 800 meters.
A 15-time All-American, Roesler won an indoor national title in the 800 earlier this year.
“You’ve got to have the right makeup to do it at that level,” said Karen Roesler, Laura’s mom. “She’s got lofty goals and big dreams, and she has always stayed humble.”
Laura has the third-best outdoor women’s 800 time in Oregon history. She’s been part of the four fastest 1,600-meter relay teams in school history.
“The Oregon record book is a pretty salty record book,” said Ken Goe, who has covered track and field for The Oregonian newspaper off and on since the late 1980s. “It’s tough to be the best 800-meter runner at Oregon. She will be one of the best, and that is saying something.”
Just as she did at Fargo South, Roesler has flourished at one of the country’s top college track programs.
So focused is Oregon on winning nationals that it did not make Roesler or most of its other track stars available for interviews in the weeks leading up to the year’s final meet.
Laura’s high school varsity success was immediate. In her first varsity race, she took fourth place at the 2004 East Region cross country championships. She was in junior high races the previous fall.
The region race came a couple weeks before she finished second at state.
Brianne Carlsrud was a senior on that fall’s South girls cross country team. She remembers Laura being a seventh-grader with not only the talent, but the right temperament to be a running success.
“She was very mature and really held herself together, so I saw a lot of potential there,” Carlsrud said. “I really look up to her and what she has accomplished.”
Karen, Laura’s mom, was hesitant to have Laura compete on varsity in seventh grade. She wanted to give Laura a chance to be a kid and hang out with her friends and classmates.
Laura played soccer through eighth grade and basketball through her sophomore year. Karen felt it was important that Laura didn’t zero in on running right away.
Roesler added a Class A girls state title in the 400 meters to cap her seventh-grade year at the state track meet in Grand Forks.
She beat two-time defending state champ Allie Smith, who was a senior from Wahpeton. A week earlier, Roesler edged Smith to win the 400 at the East Region, setting a meet record with a time of 57.33 seconds.
“When she won, I was a little dumbfounded,” said Lynn Roesler, Laura’s dad. “We certainly weren’t expecting that.”
A legend is born
Laura’s legend took off at the end of her eighth-grade track season following an unprecedented showing at the state meet.
On a sweltering day at Bismarck’s Community Bowl, she took first place in the 100, 200, 400 and 800 meters. Laura ran those races in a span of about 2½ hours. Temperatures were in the 90s.
“It put a lot of pressure on her because now she’s got to do that the next four years,” said Kyle Roesler, Laura’s twin brother.
By the end of her prep career, she was a two-time state cross-country champ. She won six state titles in the 400, five in both the 200 and 800 and four in the 100. All told, Laura won 22 state titles.
Bismarck High boys track coach Dave Zittleman manages an unofficial all-time Top 10 Class A girls performance list on the Bismarck track website. According to that list, Roesler still ranks first in the 200 (24.01), 400 (53.25) and 800 (2:05.68) and second in the 100 (11.90).
“She is the greatest track and field athlete in North Dakota history in any generation,” Zittleman said. “No one is the state cross-country champion and the 100-meter-dash champion.”
No one except for Laura. But the pressure started to build after eighth grade.
“The next year, there was a little more pressure; the next year after that, a little more pressure,” mom Karen said. “She felt like everybody knew who she was and there was always that pressure to win.”
The pressure reached a boiling point at Laura’s final state track meet in 2010. “It was different than all the other state meets,” dad Lynn said. “She was more uptight.”
Kyle remembers athletes from other schools lining up outside South’s team tent, wanting to get an autograph or a picture with Laura. After the first day of the meet, Karen got a knock on her hotel room door. It was Laura.
“She said, I can’t sleep and I had a rough day,” Karen said.
On the second and final day of the meet, Karen said her oldest daughter, Emily Roesler, followed Laura around.
“I finally got a pass for Emily and made Emily her bodyguard,” Karen said.
Laura defended her titles in the 200, 400 and 800, and took second in the 100, ending her four-year reign in that event. Minot freshman Morgan Milbrath, who now runs at North Dakota State, edged Laura at the finish line to win the 100 with a time of 12.35 seconds. Roesler ran a 12.38.
“I think the crowd was more disappointed than (Laura) was and that is that pressure,” Kyle said. “She learned a lot in high school about sometimes you’ve just got to let things go. You can’t let things bother you.”
Roesler started to earn national attention while still in high school. After her sophomore year, she ran at the 2008 Jim Bush Championships in Los Angeles. Karen was there and worried the elite talent may be too much.
“I remember calling Lynn and going ‘Oh my gosh, we’re out of our league here,’ ” Karen said.
Laura took third in the 800 with a 2:03.08. Her performance would clinch a spot in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for track and field, which were later that summer at Hayward Field. That was the first time Karen saw Laura had the poise to compete at the top national level.
“She can just handle it,” Karen said. “She can zero in on what she needs to do. You have to be able to do that.”
Roesler was 16 years old when she ran at the 2008 Trials. She made it to the semifinals after running a 2:04.03 in the quarterfinals. She was an instant crowd favorite since she was still in high school and wore a plain pink top.
“The crowd went nuts,” Kyle said. “When she was running down the back stretch, the announcer said she was a high school sophomore. That was a pretty special moment.”
‘This is it’
Laura graduates next Sunday. Karen said Laura – named women’s Pac-12 Track and Field Scholar-Athlete of the Year in May – wants to be a sports psychologist after her running career, which will likely continue beyond college. That could include a pro career and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
“She’s the total package,” said longtime track reporter Goe. “You’ve got to give up a lot of things to do that. It is not a glorious sport.”
Parents Karen and Lynn were with Laura at the Oregon team celebration after the NCAA Division I Indoor Championships last March in Albuquerque, N.M. Laura took first place in the 800, running a 2:03.85 to earn her first individual national title for Oregon.
She also ran on the Ducks’ 1,600-relay team that edged Texas in the final event of the meet. That relay win gave Oregon the women’s team title by half a point over the Longhorns.
Laura didn’t want her parents to leave the team gathering. Karen could tell something was up, so they stepped away from the celebration to talk.
“She said ‘Mom, the time went so fast,’ ” Karen said. “The light bulb kind of went off. This is it.”