Pine Ridge Thorpes Cross Country team member Robin Webber Photo courtesy of Dale Pine Sr.
Where have the Native distance runners gone?

HERMOSA — It has been 57 years since Billy Mills won his gold medal at 10,000 meters in Tokyo, and for two decades before he ran, and for over four decades after he ran, Native runners were the dominant force in South Dakota distance running. That is no longer the case.

It is not just that individual performance has waned, or that teams stopped being competitive, it is much worse than that. The cross country programs across Indian Country have flat-lined. Participation is on life support and it is hard to blame the kids, the coaches, the schools, given how deeply competitiveness has deteriorated. The causes for the decline are not easy to identify or understand.

Forty-one years ago Jeff Turning Heart of Cheyenne-Eagle Butte won the South Dakota Class A cross country championship, in a time three seconds faster than the State AA winner. He also won the 1600 and 3200 at the state track meet. While it is difficult to compare cross country times because the difference in the course and the weather can make for dramatic differences in performance, the overall times run by athletes in the Sixties and Seventies is not being routinely bested by the athletes of today, as it is in other sports. Turning Heart’s best times in the 3200 for example, where we can track performance, are on average about 15 seconds faster than the winners of the last two 3200 state meet titles.

To be fair, this decline is not restricted to Indian Country. Loren Kambestad was a three-time state cross country champion for Class B Bristol back in 1966-68. His son Marshall Kambestad was a state champion for Rapid City Stevens in 2004 and 2005. But Marshall admits he was never quite able to equal his dad’s best performances. South Dakota distance running is declining across the board. South Dakota Public Broadcasting has not updated their cross country records archive since 2009. It appears as if people no longer care.

Olympics: Billy Mills Wins 10,000m Gold – Tokyo 1964 Olympics

There was a time when Native runners dominated in South Dakota, and this can be seen looking back over the record books. Although Joe Rush of Custer was able to reserve the trend with a 3200 meter win two years ago, Native faces running up front are a rare sight at any state track meet, or at the state cross country meet.

South Dakota cross country competition began in 1946. In 1951-53 Flandreau Indian won the state title, as there was only one class. George Blackman of Cheyenne was the first state Native champion in 1951. Over the next 60 years Native runners would produce 45 state champions and 54 team champions. Native runners would also make key contributions to many non-Native state championship teams.

Dale Pine has won a half dozen state cross country titles as coach of the Pine Ridge Thorpes, twice winning the state title three times in a row. He is a gruff, straight forward talker, and what you see is what you get. His boy Alex Pine was state champ in 2005. His best runner, Patrick Grass, won the state title in 2000, 2002, and 2003.

“We can’t do it the way we used to do it,” Pine said. “The coaches are hampered on our training. We’re hampered on getting kids to do stuff; there’s always other things they want to do.”

Pine now presides over a program that like all other reservation programs is a shell of what it once was. On top of that, COVID has shut down his school’s participation in all sports, and socially isolated his kids. It was like tossing kerosene on a burgeoning fire.

“All these other activities they do, all these phones, and computers,” Pine said, “we didn’t have all that stuff back then. We weren’t talkin’ on the phone all the time, messaging people, playing games. We were talkin’ about havin’ fun, hangin’ out together. Anymore you see kids on the bus, and they’ll be texting kids five, six seats back, instead of talkin’ to ‘em.”

Dale Pine, Jr., also ran for Pine Ridge. He mentions David Tuttle, a current runner for Pine Ridge (“He’s been a dedicated runner for my pops”), but Tuttle has now lost a year to COVID and the team has lost the chance to learn from his dedication and focus.

“When I was in high school,” Pine, Jr. said, “There were a lot of running camps in the summer, Pine Ridge students would be eager to go to places like Black Hills State, New Mexico, and on road runs. It’s hard now to even get one.”

Dale Pine, Sr., didn’t win all those championships just standing and watching gifted Thorpes run. There is a system to all long-term success. Luck is no more likely to repeatedly strike the same spot than lightning is.

“Years ago, I would go to each guy’s house that I knew had an interest in it,” Pine said. “I’d talk to his family. Now you’re not allowed to do that. Our school doesn’t allow us to take a vehicle. Our school doesn’t want us dropping kids off and makin’ ‘em run. They want ‘em to have water. They don’t want ‘em to ride too far. They think we’re being hard on ‘em. Everything has changed. We’re making the kids soft.”


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