THIEF RIVER FALLS – The two fastest female 300-meter hurdlers in Minnesota high school history stood together for a few seconds last week on a bitterly cold day. They were posing for a photo, just as they did last June when the younger hurdler broke a record set nearly three decades earlier by the older hurdler.
Photo No. 2 was snapped during a four-team meet at the football field/track that is shared by Thief River Falls High School and Northland Community and Technical College. Thief River Falls senior Meleah Biermaier and East Grand Forks girls track coach Liesa Hanson smiled and posed, then resumed the day’s business of running, jumping and coaching.
The ties between the two -- concerning hurdling as well as family -- are remarkable.
On a hot day in 1987, Hanson (then Roseau senior Liesa Brateng) set a state record of 42.62 seconds in winning the 300 hurdles in the Class 1A state meet at Osseo High School. She went on to compete in track at the University of North Dakota, where one of the male hurdlers was a guy from Crookston named Mike Biermaier. You can see where this is going.
Fast forward 28 years to last year’s Class 2A state meet at Hamline University in St. Paul. Mike’s daughter Meleah won the 300 hurdles in 42.13, and one of the first people to congratulate her as she stepped off the medal podium was Liesa Hanson.
“I never thought it would have stayed there that long,” Hanson said last week. “It was fun to hold that and I can still claim the title in Class 1A. Records are meant to be broken, that’s what they’re for. They’re something to shoot for.”
During a coaching career that has lasted more than 20 years, Hanson has annually wondered if her record would fall. She also held the University of North Dakota school record in the 400-meter hurdles, and that mark was broken earlier last spring.
“I told Meleah, ‘My UND record went this year, maybe this is the year for my high school record to go and I hope you do it.’ ”
Biermaier, who has signed a letter of intent to compete in track at the University of Minnesota, is one of the most celebrated athletes in the state, and track is only part of the story. She also plays volleyball and basketball; those Prowlers teams have each made two state-tournament appearances with her on the roster.
But track is her marquee sport. She splashed onto the scene as an eighth-grader in 2012, winning the 300 hurdles state title against athletes from the state’s largest schools in Class 2A. She was the 2A state runner-up as a freshman and sophomore before claiming another title – and the state record – last spring.
Biermaier leads the state’s 300 hurdlers this spring with a top time of 45.20 seconds. She is expected to compete in that race at Friday night’s Hamline Elite meet, the top regular-season event on the high school schedule.
Meleah will make no guarantees of winning another state crown, much less breaking her own record.
“I think it will be a little bit harder,” she said. “Not that there’s less motivation, but I don’t have that fire that I did last year, from coming in second in 10th grade. It’s going to be tough to bring that into practice and meets, but it’s always a goal to shoot for.”
The family connections between the Biermaiers and Liesa Hanson has a long history. Mike Biermaier – who is two years younger than Hanson -- remembers watching his big sister Mary run hurdles and sprints against Liesa.
“It goes way back” to when Mary was a Crookston senior and Liesa was a Roseau eighth-grader, Mike said.
“Liesa was an absolute standout. I think she was in eighth grade when she and my sister finished 1-2 in the 200 in the section and both went to state.
“My sister was a bit of an inspiration to me, too,” Mike said. “She went to state from seventh grade on and placed in the 100 hurdles. Mary (who lives in Little Falls) has followed my daughter pretty closely and she knows Liesa, too, so it’s been a big family affair.”
Hanson has a talented young hurdler in her family, too. Her daughter Tiffany, a sophomore at East Grand Forks, qualified for state in the Class 1A 300 hurdles last year. Tiffany finished third in the 300 hurdles (two spots behind Biermaier) at last week’s meet in Thief River Falls.
Meleah first leapt over a hurdle – albeit a kid-sized mini hurdle – when she was very young. She thinks she was in second grade when she hung out at the University of North Dakota track while her dad was a graduate assistant coach.
“I definitely liked it,” she said with a smile.
She tried lots of other sports over the years, including hockey and softball. She was on the junior high track team early in her seventh-grade season but was moved to the varsity to compete in section competition. A year later she was a state champ.
And now, she seeks another state title as part of an historic hurdling duo that looms large even though they hail from the great outstate north, where spring comes late, where the track season can be short and where motivation is not hard to find.
“I think one of the biggest things is our drive,” Meleah said. “Those big schools look at us and it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re nothing. You’re from northern Minnesota, what do you have to bring?’ So I think we just have to prove ourselves.”
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 634
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 10,192