CASPER, Wyo. — Construction on the track at Harry Geldien Stadium imposed the Kelly Walsh cross-country team to the Tom Staffileno Activities Complex for warm-up laps and stretches.
The move required the Trojans to go away from the familiarity of a track. Heavy machinery and dirt-pitted construction areas proved too problematic to get around to continue their routine.
There was nothing the team could do but move on.
As the 16th anniversary of the Wyoming 8 approached, a few Trojans reflected on the history and lineage that bound them together through affliction.
Among those taking the two-lap jaunt around the complex’s entirety was senior Claire Johnson and her younger sister, freshman Audrey Johnson. The two sported wide smiles while lapping the practice football field and soccer field.
“It’s the best team and it’s a family,” Claire said. “And I don’t think a lot of people get that experience to be with such a tightly knit group.”
Assistant head coach Jim Sanchez watched from his perch at the southeast corner of the facility. He sat on a row of cement bricks and cracked jokes.
Sanchez had watched Claire run for years by that point, but he had only just begun to know Audrey. The relationship he has with their family, however, dates back to before those two were born.
As the two girls prepared for that day’s work out, Sanchez was reminded of the tragedy that rocked him and the state of Wyoming.
THE WYOMING 8
Sanchez was in his 20th season as head cross-country coach at the University of Wyoming in 2001 when he took his team to run among the Snowy Range Mountains. When the team returned to their post-workout bagels and Gatorade there was a kinetic energy about them.
“Just walking around them I could sense they were feeling pretty good about themselves,” Sanchez remembered. “You could just sense it. You could sense the whole thing.”
Unlike previous years, when the runners would often go their separate ways after practice, the teammates decided to hang out instead.
Members of the men’s team crammed into a car and headed to Cheyenne, where runner Kevin Salverson’s high school cross-country coach owned a Foot of the Rockies shoe store. Wyoming provided every runner with shoes but the runners wanted their own, different pairs.
They weren’t satisfied with the options in Cheyenne so they left for the Fort Collins store. From there they went out for dinner and dancing before returning to Laramie.
The next day, Sanchez’s phone rang at 7 a.m. It was the grandmother of Cowboys runner Joshua Jones. She heard her grandson’s teammate, Nick Schabron and possibly another, had been killed in a car accident.
Veronica Sanchez, Jim’s wife who worked as Coordinator of Marketing Services at the University’s Residence and Life Services, started making calls. Jim called Nick’s father, Greg Schabron, who confirmed the news that his son and a few others had died.
Jim froze at the top of the stairwell in his home. Then came word from his wife that there were four confirmed dead.
An hour went by when another call came into the Sanchez house. Two more were gone.
Veronica tried to call UW runner Cody Brown. Unable to reach him at home, she called the Laramie K-Mart where she knew he occasionally worked on Sundays. The manager said Cody had not yet shown up for his shift.
Team captain Chris Jons took the phone away from her when he arrived at the Sanchez’s home. He brought bad news: two more were gone.
By late morning, the assembled mourners learned that eight Cowboy runners had died in a collision with a drunk driver. All but one were from Wyoming.
The members of the women’s cross-country team sobbed on the Sanchez’s front lawn. The parents of Kevin Salverson, one of the deceased, arrived home from church that morning to find a state patrol car waiting for them.
Sanchez devised a makeshift squad for the remainder of the season but, like the rest of the team, he was shaken. The emotional toll nearly got the better of him.
“Try going through two funerals a day for four days in a row,” he remembered. “You get up in the morning and you’re like, ‘Are we going to make it?'”
GROWING UP RUNNING
Sixteen years after that eventful morning and the seemingly endless funerals, Sanchez coaches two descendants of the University of Wyoming’s biggest tragedy.
The Johnson sisters run with their teammates through laughter and sweaty brows with the same camaraderie that the promising 2001 cross-country team showed.
Audrey, the younger sister, had always heard that she and Claire were the next chapter in a family running legacy. Their dad and grandfather were both runners. Family members told them about their uncle Kyle, who ran in college and died in the crash. The rhythm of shoes beating against the path ran in their blood.
Their uncle graduated from Riverton with honors and was determined to make the Wyoming cross-country team. After earning a spot, he finished 40th at the 2000 Mountain West Championship cross-country meet as a freshman.
“We’ve always heard stories about how he was a walk-on and he wanted to pay for college and that’s how he wanted to,” Claire said. “He was trying hard and it just always pushed us to try harder, I think.”
She first saw the same appeal for distance running that her family did as a 6-year-old when she was attending a memorial race for her uncle.
“I ran my first memorial for them and that’s when I was hooked,” she said. “I started doing 5k’s from there.”
Audrey participated in the same memorial races without the same effect. An affinity for running nearly missed her until participating in cross-country as a sixth-grader put flint to the hereditary spark.
The sisters began their only season as teammates as part of a much bigger family. A family that includes their uncle’s former head coach.
After one of Claire’s races, Jim Sanchez sought out her grandparents and said: “She’s carrying the torch for the family.”
BACK ON THE PATH
While he has since recovered, Jim Sanchez’s heartache and misfortune did not end on that day in September.
Two years after the tragic car accident, he was removed as Wyoming’s head cross-country coach.
He began work at the Trihydro Coporation and hadn’t been home often, which became problematic as his wife’s health deteriorated. Veronica, known to those who loved her as “Roni,” fought her advanced lung cancer for 16 years until finally succumbing to the disease in early May 2011.
A decade removed from a life-shaking event, Sanchez lost his wife after a long, difficult battle.
Weeks later, in mid-July, he received a call from one of his former Wyoming runners. Bryan Coventry simply said that he was the cross-country coach at Kelly Walsh and asked his old coach if he had any interest in helping.
Sanchez was initially non-committal but later agreed to help.
So Sanchez, who was already a junior high teacher, helped that fall. Kelly Walsh principal Brad Diller made sure that there was always a position for Sanchez, who became one of the high school’s P.E. teachers.
He later admitted to how important the move was. Not only in need of a routine and an athletic outlet, Sanchez did not realize how much he missed running.
“It’s the best thing that could have happened,” he said. “I needed to get back into something like that.”
‘THE DRUMS KEEP BEATING’
Memorial runs have come less frequently over the years. The annual Shane Shatto Memorial Wrestling Tournament remains one of Wyoming’s big three wrestling meets.
Sanchez can talk openly about the day that everything changed and the lost season that resulted from it. Tears appear when he remembered the shattered look on the faces of the members of the women’s team.
The sisters still run in the memorial 5ks, though Claire’s busy schedule has made it more difficult as she prepares for college and longer, more difficult races.
None of them can forget, but they are all carrying on.
But the reminders will always be there.
Sanchez wears the iconic Hermes foot and wings symbol with an ‘8’ inscribed at the ankle on his socks. Claire practices in a black shirt with the same logo in red and yellow. Audrey wears a hat with the symbol on the front when she runs.
“The drums keep beating,” Sanchez said. “We don’t forget, we just go from there.”
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com