A quiet but very important set of circumstances unfolded Wednesday afternoon in the triple jump area at Moorhead High School. The event was the Class 2A Section 8 track and field meet and the person foremost in one team’s thoughts was 230 miles away in a Minneapolis hospital bed.
Josh Molden is a captain on the Alexandria High School boys track team and one of the top long and triple jumpers in Minnesota. He went to state last year in the triple jump and it was assumed he had a good shot at advancing to state in both jumps this spring. But life sometimes has a way of getting in the way.
Josh’s plans were derailed last September -- during the second week of his senior year – when he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. He has spent more time in hospitals than in school since then.
“Ninety to 95 percent of kids diagnosed with this type of leukemia are very treatable,” Josh’s mother, Pam, told me from his bedside. “This didn’t quite go the way it was expected to go.”
When initial treatments didn’t result in the hoped-for results, Josh underwent a bone marrow transplant on March 31. The full results of the transplant are not yet known, so it’s a waiting game for Josh, his family and friends.
Alexandria boys track coach Mike Empting wasn’t willing to wait. He wanted to do something special for Josh (pictured from last season) at what would have been one of the peak days of his final season of high school track. Before the section meet, Mike sent an email to all the other coaches in the section: from Becker, Bemidji, Brainerd, Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Little Falls, Monticello, Moorhead, Rocori, Sartell-Saint Stephen, Sauk Rapids-Rice, St. Cloud Apollo, St. Cloud Tech, Thief River Falls and Willmar. He sent the same email to meet officials, asking everyone for a favor.
The email read in part: “Josh loves track and field and this season was going to be a special one as it is for all senior athletes, but it was taken from him. Josh was a great track and field competitor and is now competing in a different fight. I am asking that I enter Josh in the triple jump. … I am asking that his name get called when his turn comes up and the 60-second clock is started and then his attempt is marked as ‘foul’ after the 60 seconds is up after each of his three ‘trials.’ … Please let me know if this is unreasonable, out of line or if anyone has any strong objections. Thank you for considering this request.”
The replies were overwhelming and unanimous. Yes. Absolutely. We need to do this for Josh, even if he is at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital instead of the track meet.
“I feel pretty fortunate to be able to coach with the coaches I do in our conference and section,” Empting said. “The responses were ‘Of course, this is the right thing to do. If we can’t do this for someone like Josh, then why are we coaching?’ ”
Josh’s name was first on the list as the triple jump competition began. The official called his name and the 60-second timer started. The official declared a foul and the rest of the jumpers took their turns. Through three rounds of jumps, the pattern continued.
“Pretty much our entire team, everyone who was not competing at the time, was standing there by the triple jump,” Empting said. “It was a special moment. It wasn’t a really big deal for anybody who didn’t know what was going on. But it was very significant for everybody who did know.
“It was emotional. It was pretty quiet. I don’t think our kids even knew how to respond, other than they knew they wanted to be there, they wanted to be a part of it.”
Josh has had an up-and-down week. He had a feeding tube placed through his nose and into his stomach on Tuesday. His mother wrote on Josh’s CaringBridge page: “It was terrible … him gagging, me getting weepy. It is so uncomfortable, he won't even talk because of how weird it feels. We've been told after 24 hours it does get better, I really hope so.”
But there also was an upside later Tuesday when some preliminary test results came back. Again, from Pam on the CaringBridge page: “NO EVIDENCE OF LEUKEMIA!!!! Oh my, that feels good to type! There was concern that his unexplained fevers could signal relapse so this is a huge sigh of relief. The donor results are not in yet … hopefully tomorrow.”
The Moldens have been embraced by the Alexandria community since Josh’s diagnosis. And via a FaceTime chat on Sunday, Empting told them what he had planned for the section track meet.
“We are amazed,” said Pam, who is a two-time breast cancer survivor. “It wasn’t even something that we had ever thought about.”
Everyone wished Josh had been in Moorhead as a competitor. To see him proudly wearing his Alexandria Cardinals uniform, sprinting down the runway and leaping through the air, extending himself as he landed in the pit.
“Josh is a great kid and he has always been that way,” Empting said. “Track and field has been important to Josh and he’s a competitive kid. He loves jumping. Even immediately after he was diagnosed the doctors thought he might be able to do track. We were sort of holding out hope and he was training for it. But when it became more apparent that he was going to have the bone marrow transplant, we knew this wasn’t going to happen for him.
“It was like, ‘Josh has given so much to our program.’ We tried to find a way to recognize him, give something back to him and his family, let them know he’s still an important member of our team. His presence, his inspiration and his leadership have been so important.”
As Josh’s name was announced Wednesday, Empting used his cell phone to take a photo (shown here) of Josh’s teammates watching the triple jump. He texted the photo to Josh with a simple message: “You’re up.”
“He didn’t reply,” Mike said. “I’m guessing he’s tired, probably sleeping. But I got a text back from his mom. She said it was really neat. Honestly, Josh and his family are great people. Throughout this whole thing it’s been amazing to me how much they’ve given back as they’ve gone through this.”
Josh and his parents, Pam and Chad, and sister Koryna now have some target dates in mind. The first is June 9-10 and the MSHSL state track championships at Hamline University in St. Paul; Josh would like to be there to watch the action. The other is June 11, when he hopes to walk across the stage at graduation back home in Alexandria.Postscript:
After Wednesday’s track meet in Moorhead ended, there was some big news at the hospital. Josh’s father had returned home from Minneapolis, and on CaringBridge Chad wrote about hearing of the latest test results in a phone call from Pam while on the road…The marrow they extracted is 100% donor!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is huge news, this is exactly what we needed to hear and as soon as I heard it the tears ran again, this time tears of joy!!!! As Pam and I were letting the tears flow I realized how bent up you are as you are waiting to hear news, any news, good or bad you just need to know. It was as if my body was a garden hose that was being kinked and as soon as I heard 100% donor the kink was released. One doesn't realize how you are handling different stresses as you go through something like this. We are still waiting on some other results from the biopsy but this one is awesome news!”
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