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Bonk officially retires as Fairmont track & field mentor

LEGEND RETIRES — Legendary Fairmont High School head track & field coach Bob Bonk chats with Cardinals’ co-captain Carissa Saxton on the heels of a relay race during the 2022 True Team Class AA state meet in May at the Stillwater High School campus. The Fairmont girls track & field lineup went on to capture sixth place at the competition. After coaching prep track & field for 51 years, Bonk has officially retired as the Cardinals’ head coach. (Photo by Greg Abel)

FAIRMONT — For the last half of a century, Fairmont residents could count on three constants during the month of March — daylight saving time begins, the spring equinox occurs and Cardinals’ mentor Bob Bonk kicks off varsity track & field practice.

“When it comes to the really great coaches, everybody knows in the backs of their minds that retirement will happen at some point in the distant future,” said Randy Soma, who etched his name in the record books under Bonk’s tutelage as a prep standout, in addition to working directly with the legendary coach as both Fairmont High School’s athletic director from 1998-2011 and as an assistant track & field coach during his last five spring campaigns. “Everyone just hopes it doesn’t happen right away.”

After a storybook track & field coaching career that spanned 51 years, Bob Bonk has locked the fieldhouse doors and turned off the lights beaming onto the running surface that bears his name on the Fairmont High School campus for one last time.

The rare member of four Halls of Fame — the esteemed Minnesota High School Coaches Association, the Minnesota High School Track & Field Coaches Association, the Fairmont Athletic Hall of Fame and the Minnesota High School Cross Country Coaches Association — said there wasn’t “a” decisive factor in hanging up his stop watches, whistles and clipboards, but he just knew it was time.

“Deb and I have been tied to the school calendar ever since we were married. Don’t get me wrong — it’s been a fun ride, but if we’re ever going to really enjoy life, it is now,” said Bob Bonk, who stepped down as Fairmont cross country coach last Nov. 16 after an incredible 46-year tenure. “When we’re younger, time seems limitless, but as the years pass, we realize we don’t have an infinite amount of tomorrows.

“Deb and I will make more decisions about what we want to do once Labor Day weekend is over, but I don’t plan on being a stranger around Fairmont sports by any means.

“I told (FHS activities administrator) Mat (Mahoney) not to put me to work at a track meet when I show up next spring. For the first time in a long, long time, I just want to sit along the backstretch and enjoy the action,” Bonk said with a laugh.

The former Fairmont High School guidance counselor, who retired from that career back in 2007, exits his days at the track & field helm with what can only be described as a “strong finishing kick.”

The multi-tasking Cardinal girls lineup captured sixth place during this year’s Class AA True Team state championships, Sawyer Tordsen struck gold in the Minnesota State High School League’s Class AA state boys discus competition, while Nelson Remington powered his way to the MSHSL’s Class AA wheelchair division’s 100-meter state crown.

“Our girls program featured some of the best student-athletes I’ve ever been associated with statistically, in the classroom and in everyday life,” said Bonk. “Our boys were a very good group overall, too.

“Nelson did his own training a lot of the time and Brad Johnson coached Sawyer in the throws, so let’s be honest, I didn’t coach either one really, so I don’t know how much credit I deserve,” a grinning Bonk said.

“That’s how truly humble he is about coaching,” said Soma, who’s currently the assistant executive director of the South Dakota High School Athletic Association. “He’s such a great evaluator of high school athletes and works hard at figuring out how to put people in the right places to not only help the team be successful, but to also instill confidence from an individual perspective. That’s a gift not all coaches possess and you can’t teach that or duplicate it.”

Tordsen and Remington became the Cardinals’ 12th and 13th state boys champions at the MSHSL meet, joining an elite group led by two-time state gold medalists Neil Hanson and Paul Mallory. Hanson captured the 1999 Class A state titles in both the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs, while Mallory swept both hurdle events — the 110-meter highs and the 300s — to steer Fairmont to the 2008 MSHSL state boys championship.

Bonk also coached 51 all-state medalists in the boys ranks from 1978 to 2022, along with a staggering 161 individual/ relay conference champions.

The Fairmont boys program compiled a 1,472-235-4 overall team record — an 86-percent winning clip — during Bonk’s esteemed coaching span. The Cardinals claimed 20 conference crowns and 22 Sentinel Relays titles, including this spring’s championship.

Neil Hanson played an integral role in guiding the Cardinals to the 1998 True Team state championship — one of five appearances in the elite event.

“Mr. Bonk has given a lifetime to the sport of track & field, and he leaves a lasting legacy that the school and coaching staff will look to continue,” said Hanson, a FHS graduate who captured the 1998 state cross country gold medal — along with the 1- and 2-mile track titles his senior prep season — before earning All-American honors as part of the Minnesota Gophers’ men’s medley relay team in 2002. “I was blessed to have a coach with his experience at the high school level.

“Ironically, I thought if he (Bonk) could hang on for 10 more years or so after I graduated and coach my younger brother Kevin, it would be the perfect scenario for my family.

“Twenty years later, Mr. Bonk is coaching my daughter Macy in the Class AA state meet in a relay race. That’s incredible.”

If one thinks Bonk’s career numbers on the boys’ side of the ledger are mind-numbing, the statistics are off the charts in the girls ranks, too.

From a team perspective, Bonk caps a girls coaching span from 1983-2022 with five True Team state championships (1991, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001) and 18 True Team sectional crowns — including a consecutive run from 1987-2003.

The Cardinals also qualified in 2018, but ironically earned a spot in this spring’s state meet via a wildcard spot.

The Fairmont girls program captured 27 Sentinel Relays crowns and 26 conference titles, including championship trophies in both events this spring.

Bonk’s Cardinals, who generated 1,510 wins overall, produced third-place showings at both the 2004 and 1988 MSHSL state meets.

Lisa (Ristau) Eckroth, who’s currently a corporate account director for the Grifols bio-tech pharmaceutical company in the Twin Cities, swept both hurdles championships during her senior track season to help engineer the Cardinals’ bronze-medal team performance at the MSHSL-sponsored state competition in 1988.

“I cannot truly measure the positive impact that Mr. Bonk had on my life as a counselor and a coach,” said (Ristau) Eckroth, who also produced two more of the Cardinals’ seven overall state track & field champions by striking gold in the 300 hurdles in both 1985 and 1986. “First, he’s a fantastic person at heart, and second, he’s fiercely competitive with an incredible attention to detail.

“I’ll be honest — I struggled with having confidence in myself and I had a fear of failure when I was in high school. The counselor side of him helped me overcome that.”

Not only did (Ristau) Eckroth etch her name into the Fairmont High School track & field program’s record book, she went on to become an 11-time All-American at North Dakota State University, including a second-place finish in the heptathlon at the collegiate national meet.

“He just knows how to bring out the best in everyone who crosses his path,” said (Ristau) Eckroth. “He will be sorely missed.”

“It’ll be quite a task trying to fill his shoes, but hopefully we can find someone who shares Bob’s passion for coaching the sport,” said Mat Mahoney, who also competed under Bonk’s guidance during his high school athletic days before joining the Cardinal legend’s track & field coaching staff shortly after becoming Fairmont’s activities administrator in 2012. “When people come back to town during the summer, the holidays or special events, he’s the guy they seek out and want to see.

“That’s how much he means to them, and that’s how much he has meant to our school district and the entire community.”

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