Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series.
As a Chadron Junior High student, Rob Wahlstrom said he never had an inkling that just a few years later he would win most of his races, often set records and receive what was almost a full-ride scholarship to run track at South Dakota State University.
“As a seventh and eighth grader I could hardly walk and chew gum,” he remembers. “I wasn’t even planning to go out for track when I was in the seventh grade, but Curt Thompson, who was our neighbor and coached both sports in junior high, told me, ‘You’ll never be a good basketball player if you don’t go out for track.’ I wanted to play basketball, so I went out for track.”
Wahlstrom was not an instant success at his new sport. He said he seldom placed in junior high races. But his basketball improved and he earned a letter in track as high school freshman.
“We all got to play some in junior high basketball, but I wasn’t a starter,” he remembers. “But I was a starter on the freshman team. Something happened about that time in my life and I became a better athlete.”
That “something” probably included a growth spurt. Always on the skinny side and weighing just 145 pounds as a high school senior and only 155 four and one-half years later after graduating from college, Wahlstrom, grew to 6-foot-2 and had long arms and legs that boosted his athletic career.
He became a starter on the Cardinals’ basketball team as a sophomore and was a mainstay his final two years. The Cards won the district championship and went to the state tournament with a 17-5 record his senior year, but it was track where Wahlstrom excelled.
All this took place more than 50 years ago. The Chadron High Class of 1969 which had Wahlstrom among its 108 members, celebrated its golden anniversary last summer.
Many highlights occurred while he was running track in both high school and college, and he continued to be involved in the sport, first as a coach and then as an official at numerous meets until two years ago when he was knocked for a loop following an appendectomy.
No doubt about it, he’s the community’s Mr. Track.
Wahlstrom owns the Cardinals’ record in both the 200 meters (21.7 seconds) and the 400 meters (49.2). He won the Class B 440-yard dash at the state track meet in both 1968 and ’69. He also placed fifth in the 220 and anchored the third place Class B 880-yard relay team at state his senior year.
His records are the oldest on the Chadron High track and field lists and are the only ones requiring an * to signify that his times have been converted from yards to meters. All the other Cardinals’ track marks have been set since 1980, when the switch was made to meters.
Wahlstrom’s best 220-yard time was 21.8 seconds and track protocol says one-tenth of a second is deducted to convert that mark to meters since the race was three feet and 11 inches longer, or about one stride, when it was in yards. His best 440 time was 49.5 and three-tenths of a second was subtracted to convert it to meters since there’s seven feet and eight inches difference in these distances.
He also set the Cardinals’ 880-yard record pf 2:02.3 as a junior. That time translated to 2:01.6 when the U.S. track world switched to meters and was broken by Clay Beck, who ran the 880 in 2:00.4 in 1977. Beck’s time dipped to 1:59.7 when the move to meters occurred in 1980 and was broken in 2006 by Olen King, who ran the 800 in 1:59.6 at the Class B District Meet. The next year, King improved his record to 1:58.31 while placing fourth at the state meet. That time remains the Cardinals’ record.
King and Beck remain first and second and Wahlstrom is third on Chadron High’s current 800-meter list.
As Wahlstrom’s two state meet championships indicate, the 440 became his best race. He initially qualified for the state meet, which was always in Kearney when he was competing, as a member of the Cardinals’ two-mile relay team along with Joe Shumway, Steve Langford and Tom Iodence. Their time of 8:41.9 placed them seventh at state, one notch away from earning a ribbon, and was the school record.
Wahlstrom’s name is not among the individual placewinners in any of the track meet stories or results printed in the Chadron Record when he was either a freshman or sophomore, but he won all but one 400-meter race as a junior or a senior and also owned the school records in both the 200 and 800 when he graduated.
One of his big wins as a junior in 1968 was at the Western Conference Meet when his time of 50.5 seconds was the third best in the state and broke the Chadron High School record that had belonged to John Judd since his senior year in 1958. That’s when Judd set the Class B state record of 50.8 seconds in the 440 during the preliminaries of the state meet. The next day, Judd finished second in the Class B finals in 51.5 seconds.
Wahlstrom also won the 880 in 2:03.1 at the Western Conference Meet his junior year to set both the school and conference records. His margin of victory surely wasn’t much. Tom Kurtz of Gering was awarded second place with the identical time, all of which were hand-held during all of Wahlstrom’s career.
That season, he also won both the 440 and 880 at the Rangeland Conference Meet in 50.1 and 2:02.3. His 440 time set that conference’s record and also improved on his school record, but the best was yet to come.
The next week, during the Class B-6 District Meet in Sidney, Wahlstrom was timed in 49.5 seconds, his high school best. The mark also was the second fastest in the Nebraska entering the state meet.
In addition, Wahlstrom qualified for the state meet in 880 by placing third in 2:08.4 at the district showdown. The Cardinals’ only other state meet qualifier that year was sophomore Bing Decker, who ran the two-mile in 10:47.5 to win the race by nine seconds.
Neither Wahlstrom in the 880 nor Decker in the two-mile placed at the state meet, but Wahlstrom won his heat of the 440 preliminaries in Friday in 50.9 seconds and then won the finals on Saturday in 52.3 seconds, not one of his best times, but good enough for the blue ribbon.
As a senior in 1969, Wahlstrom abandoned the 880 and ran the 220 as his second event. He proved to be almost unbeatable in the 440 again and also had outstanding success in the shorter race.
The only time Wahlstrom didn’t win the 400 his final two years of high school was at the Kimball Invitational, which opened the 1969 schedule. The meet included several Colorado schools and was only a couple of weeks after the Cardinals had returned from the State Basketball Tournament. He probably wasn’t in top track shape yet. The story about the meet in the Chadron Record says Wahlstrom was second in both the 220 and 440 with times of 23.4 and 52.1.
Wahlstrom was the only member of his class to start for the Cardinals’ basketball teams, although 6-5 Bill Reetz provided lots of help, particularly as a rebounder, and Bill McNutt and Mark Peyton also supplied depth. The 1967-68 team coached by Larry Turner won the Rangeland Conference championship, defeating O’Neill in the playoff game 53-46 and finished with a 14-9 record.
The next season after Jerry Eklund became the coach, the Cardinals beat Mitchell 70-57 in the Class B-6 District championship game, improving their record to 17-5 and qualified for state. Besides Wahlstrom, the starters were juniors Lee Baumann, Bill Dawkins, Bill Dierksen and Steve Hansen.
Both teams had extremely balanced scoring. Wahlstrom averaged just under 10 points as a junior and just over 10 points as a senior. The other starters’ averages were similar. A teammate remembers that Wahlstrom could play both inside and outside and was adept at slithering through traffic to the basket.
Wahlstrom’s senior track season was a busy one as Rex Jones, in his second year as head coach, found lots of meets to enter.
Following the opener in Kimball, the Cardinals had a dual with Alliance, where Wahlstrom won the 220 in 23.4 seconds and the 400 in 52.1. Next came the Scottsbluff Relays, where John Fox, Ron Grant, Steve Hansen and Wahlstrom set the meet record of 1:35.5 while winning the 880-yard relay.
The next time out at the Alliance Invitational Meet, the same foursome ran the relay in 1:33.8, the best time in the state at that point in the season. Wahlstrom also was second in the 220 in 23.2 seconds, but didn’t run the 440.
The Cardinals then hosted their C Club Invitational Meet, where he won the 220 in 22.9 and the 440 in 50.9. At the Western Conference Meet, Wahlstrom won the 400 in 50.5 seconds and led the 880 relay team to victory in 1:36.0, but was second in the 200 to Sidney standout Larry Lingwell by a tenth of a second, or maybe a half stride.
From then on his times, particularly in the 220, continually were faster. The Cards hosted a triangular with Chadron Assumption and Gordon and he won the 440 in 50.5 again and the 220 in 22.4 to break the Cardinals’ oldest record. It was 22.6 and was set by Bill Lemen in 1954. Wahlstrom’s time also was the second fastest in the state, the newspaper reported.
The same day, with Wahlstrom running the anchor leg, the Cardinals set a school record in the mile relay of 3:35.6 seconds. His partners were Dierksen, Hansen and Bruce Holcomb.
The next week at the Rangeland Conference Meet in Ainsworth, “Wally” as he was popularly known, set conference records in both the 220 (22.3) and 440 (49.6).
The District Meet was at Bayard that season. Wahlstrom kept his 440 streak alive by running it in 49.8 seconds and got the call in the 220 over Bridgeport speedster Harry Bartling when both were timed in 21.8 seconds.
That proved to be Wahlstrom’s all-time 220 best and also was the fastest of the year in the state. It translated into the 21.7-second CHS record that still stands in the 200 meters.
Later in the day, the Cards also set the district and school records of 1:31.6 in the 880-yard relay. The first three legs were run by Dierksen, (who had replaced Hansen in the lineup), Fox and Grant. The same foursome placed third at the state meet in 1:32.5.
It’s believed that 1:31.6 remained the school record for all-time because the 880 relay was abandoned and replaced by the 400-meter relay when the U.S switched from yards to meters in 1980.
Wahlstrom had no problem winning the 440 at the state meet in 49.9 seconds his senior year but he also developed a blister on his foot during the race and it bothered him in the 220 finals, slowing him down enough that he placed fifth. Bartling won the race in 22.4, Joe Blahak of Columbus Scotus and later a University of Nebraska football player, was second in 22.8. Carl Abele of Seward had the same time while placing third. Sidney’s Boehm and Wahlstrom were both timed in 22.9, with Boehm picked for fourth.
His 21.8-second 220 that season, which converts to a 21.7 in the 200 meters, is northwest Nebraska’s all-time fastest. There are three notable challengers:
Doug Marcy of Hay Springs won the all-class gold medal in the 220-yard dash in 22 seconds flat at the 1967 state meet and both Osvaldo Santos of Rushville in 1990 and Phil Dickerson of Chadron in 2003 also ran the 200 in 22 seconds flat. But no one from the northern Panhandle except Wahlstrom has run that race under 22.0 when it was in either yards or meters.
Wahlstrom’s 49.2-second converted time in the 400 also is the all-time best from northwest Nebraska by a healthy margin. Paul Hotz of Rushville in 1999 (49.93) and Garrett Shaal of Gordon (49.97 in 2008 and 49.59 in 2009) are the only others to ever dip below 50 seconds in the 400/440. Chadron’s Brooks Hoffman had a 50.1 mark in 1998 and Ethan Skinner of Hemingford ran it in 50.13 in 2014.
With all of his high school success, it’s no wonder he was recruited vigorously by South Dakota State University, where he was a stellar member of the Jackrabbits’ teams. Next week’s Part 2 will tell about that and Wahlstrom’s long involvement in track since his college career ended.
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