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Fairmont’s Bonk retires from coaching cross country

GIVING DIRECTIONS — Fairmont head boys and girls cross country coach Bob Bonk (right) and Cardinal assistant coach Stew Murfield give approaching runners directions with their flags during a regular-season meet this fall. After 46 years of coaching cross country, Bonk announced his retirement from the sport. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — To punnily say Bob Bonk has had a good run as Fairmont head boys and girls cross country coach would be quite an understatement.

Bonk has turned in an unparalleled long-distance run — nearly half of a century — at the Cardinal fall sports programs’ helms, and he’s crossing the finish line on a historical career.

“I’d say 46 years of coaching cross country is a good haul,” a smiling Bonk said in reference to giving his official retirement notice to Fairmont High School activities director Mat Mahoney on Tuesday. “Any fall sports coach will tell you that you can’t just show up on the first day of practice and expect to do well. If you want to have success, coaching isn’t a 2 1/2-month commitment, but more like a 5 1/2-month commitment due to getting your runners prepared during the summer months.

“Between coaching both cross country and track & field, it’s a 10-month commitment a year. Both sports are great and I love coaching the kids, but there comes a time to step aside.”

Bonk, whose legendary name graces Fairmont’s track, however, does plan to continue coaching the Cardinals for his unprecedented 51st year during the upcoming 2022 track & field campaign.

“During the last couple of years I made a pros-and-cons list pertaining to retiring, and I’ve given it a lot of thought. It’s not a spur-of-the-moment decision,” said Bonk. “I still love the sport of cross country, but it’s time to think about where I’m at in my life. There are still a lot of other things I’d like to do.”

Bob Bonk said he and his wife, Deb, have visited all 50 United States capitals, but they haven’t seen some of those places in 30 years or so.

“It’d be nice to do some traveling again like we did when we were younger, and the fall is the perfect time of the year to travel,” said Bonk. “I also wouldn’t mind being a grandpa some day.”

While Bonk retired from his career as a counselor at Fairmont High School in 2007, his passion for coaching superseded any thoughts of retirement as his Cardinal cross country teams went on to produce 11 state team bids during the last 14 years, including the most recent of the three state cross country team championships on his impressive resume.

Ironically, current senior standout Laura Thompson delivered a counting score on the Fairmont girls team’s state championship performance in 2016 as a seventh-grader. Thompson and current freshman Macy Hanson each earned all-state honors by capturing sixth and seventh place, respectively, during the 2021 Class AA state cross country meet at St. Olaf College in Northfield on Nov. 6.

In fact, Bonk has earned an incredible total of 45 state team cross country appearances in both Class A and AA during his 46 fall seasons.

Under the Minnesota High School Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame member’s tutelage, Fairmont captured both the 1988 Class AA girls state cross country crown and the 1989 Class A boys state cross country title to complement the Cardinal girls’ championship only five years ago.

The member of both the Minnesota High School Cross Country and Track & Field Coaches Associations’ Halls of Fame also has engineered runner-up state showings in the 1990 Class A boys cross country competition and both the 1986 and 1987 Class AA girls meet.

Overall, the Fairmont Athletic Hall of Famer guided the girls cross country program to 16 Class A state team bids and nine more in Class AA, while steering the boys cross country roster to 12 Class A state berths and eight more in Class AA.

So, what’s the secret to Bonk’s success?

“It really isn’t a secret — it’s great kids and strong assistant coaches throughout the years,” said Bonk. “Our success has never been about one person — it takes an entire team. That’s the beauty of cross country. It’s a family atmosphere.

“When I started out, I didn’t think any of this (success) would happen. Coaching has been very good to me.”

Now, when he and Deb are not traveling down the road, what will Bob Bonk do to occupy his “extra” time?

“I’ll miss seeing the runners and the day-to-day interaction, but I’ll try to watch their races when I have time,” said Bonk. “I hope to follow some of our college runners and other area runners, too.”

And what is he most proud of, looking back at his prolific cross country coaching career?

“Seeing how some of our kids became life-long runners and still staying in touch with them 20, 30 and even 40 years later,” said Bonk. “Those relationships mean a great deal to me.

“I appreciate the effort that all of our runners and coaches have given throughout the years, and that’s something you can’t always find elsewhere in life.”

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