By Dorthy Bliskey
Brenna Calder, who graduated from Beaver Dam High School this year, is headed to Indiana University based on her record-setting running ability in track and cross country. She is an inspiration – not just because of her elite athletic skills, but because of setbacks that made her a stronger person in her journey to get accepted at a Big Ten college. Her story is one of not giving up and of working to her full potential.
Brenna’s journey toward attaining a college scholarship based on her running talent began in fourth grade. For decades, students completing fourth and fifth grade in the Beaver Dam schools have competed in a one-mile race on the high school track. Brenna won that race by a landslide at the end of fourth grade.
Hans Gochenaur, who would later become Brenna’s middle school and high school cross country and track coach, says he first heard about Brenna after she won the fourth grade mile. “She was an impressive runner then already,” Hans said, noting a gym teacher told him about it.
The next year, Hans decided to see for himself. As a way to scout out future high school running talent, Hans, who was coaching high school cross country and track in Beaver Dam, went to see Brenna race in the one-mile at the end of fifth grade.
Her running talent was obvious to Hans. “Based on the time she had run in the fourth grade mile a year earlier, I knew she was very talented,” Hans said. “But after watching her ability as a sprinter combined with her distance running ability, her build, and her overall athletic ability, I knew I had a young lady who could become a truly elite runner.”
At the conclusion of that fifth grade run, Hans decided to talk to Brenna’s parents about their daughter’s talent. “They welcomed me into their home. At first, I’m sure they felt I was being overly dramatic when I said Brenna had the potential to become the best distance runner in Beaver Dam High School history and go on to run at a major college. I told them she had a unique athletic combination that made her stand out, even as early as 5th grade.”
“Hans is very excited and animated about running,” said Brenna’s mother Kathy Calder. “His passion for the sport was contagious and he gave the bug to Brenna. His interest in Brenna, his coaching personality and style appealed to us all.”
Brenna recalls that moment as well. “When he came over to our house, he explained his vision of my future as a runner. My parents and I had always thought I was going to be a swimmer in high school. But, I decided I wanted to try running so I competed in middle school cross country and track while I swam for the YMCA swim team and USA swim team.”
Hans was instrumental in bringing the sport of cross country to the middle school level as a feeder program for the high school varsity team. As a result, Brenna was able to participate in cross country (as well as track) starting in seventh grade. She excelled at both.
“Brenna immediately proved to be one of the better middle school distance runners in the state,” Hans says as he looks back on her early years of running. “But I believed her higher level potential rested in the ‘middle distance’ events in track – like the 800-meter and 1600-meter runs. She showed that potential in middle school track.”
While Brenna was off the charts with her running times, other sports kept luring her in as well. She swam with the YMCA swim team from age 8-15, played soccer from age 5-14 and participated in competitive figure skating from age 6-11. Prior to high school she also was into tennis, basketball, dance and gymnastics. By age 15, cross country and track had her hooked. Setting new school records became par for the course.
Academically, Brenna shined. She attained a 3.8 grade point average in high school while taking honors class courses and was a National Honor Society member.
Athletically, she’s a powerhouse. High school cross country and track records at Beaver Dam High School have been shaken up, thanks to Brenna’s running skills. But it wasn’t always a piece of cake, according to her coach.
High and lows of her running career
“Brenna’s high point her freshman year was making the state cross country meet,” Hans said. “But she came into her freshman season in track overconfident. After a quick start in track, she started to struggle with a fear of failure in races, and she didn’t like to be overly aggressive racing for fear of not being able to finish the race well. Those two things kept her from realizing her full potential.”
By her sophomore year, Brenna’s attitude began to change and her running went into high gear. In the middle of that school year, before track started, she began to take ownership of her running career. “It wasn’t about what her coach wanted anymore,” Hans said. “It was about what she wanted. She put in extra time beyond running. She lifted weights and did core work doing cross training at the local YMCA.”
In her sophomore year of track, she broke the school record in the 1600-meter run and the 4×800-meter relay. In her leg of that relay she ran a personal best by over 5 seconds. That accomplishment changed her best in the 800-meter run time from ‘good’ by high school standards to good enough to be recruited by major universities.
“At the conclusion of her Sophmore track season, she elected to run in a mile race in Milwaukee that featured some high level talent,” Hans said, noting it was a turning point for Brenna’s route to a college scholarship. “She took more than 10 seconds off of her mile’s best time. At this point she realized she had the ability to run at the college level, if not the major college level. So I asked her permission to begin networking with college coaches and begin the extensive recruiting process.”
Then a devastating track injury next season pulled her to a screeching halt. In the very first track meet of her Junior year she ran both of her races as fast as anyone in the state, but on a run the next day she discovered a stress fracture in her leg. It was the lowest point of Brenna’s athletic career. But with the assistance of her coach and a lot of hard training on her part, she got back to being a threat to competitors before track season ended.
“When I learned of my stress fracture I was devastated. That was the lowest low I have had in my sports career,” Brenna said. “But I was determined not to give up and — no matter what – to be able to run at the state meet that year.”
And run she did. She went on to qualify for the state track meet in the 4×800-meter relay her junior year.
During her senior year, another setback occurred when Brenna suffered heat exhaustion and low blood sugar levels during her first cross country meets. In spite of it, she went on to qualify for state and moved to First Team All State, breaking the school record in cross country.
Following that she competed with runners from 13 states in the Footlocker Regional Cross Country Championship in Racine. She placed 23 out of 300 runners and was the second fastest girl running the 5K from Wisconsin.
Her senior season in track found her shattering school records in the 3200, 1600, and 800-meter events. She was ranked in the top five in all three events, earned a medal at the indoor state meet, broke multiple conference records, and finally positioned herself among the truly elite in Wisconsin and the Midwest.
Big 10 schools came knocking. “The University of Wisconsin, University of Nebraska and Indiana University made me offers,” Brenna said. “The coach from Nebraska braved a snowstorm and came to my home on one of the coldest days of the winter to personally recruit me. His offer was very hard to turn down.”
Ultimately, it was Indiana University she signed with – based on a scholarship they offered due to her elite running skills. She will participate in cross country and track as a freshman there this fall and will major in business. She also is considering going on to law school.
Her parents, while proud of Brenna, are already feeling that empty nest syndrome. “We have marveled at her many accomplishments and how she gives 110 percent in everything she does. The void will be very noticeable. Her pet parrot, Cuddles, will miss her too,” her mother said. “There certainly will be much less laundry to do.”
UPDATE: After completing this story, we learned that Brenna suffered a setback while attempting to complete her senior year of track. Unfortunately she developed a stress fracture and was unable to finish the track season, missing the opportunity to compete at the state level. She still, however, boasts the fastest time in the state for the 800-meter run and is among the top five fastest times in the state for the 1600-meter run. “I was heartbroken I couldn’t run at the state meet, but I know I have bigger things ahead of me,” Brenna said.
Somehow we just know her tenacity and fighting spirit will get her back up and running better than ever. Good luck Brenna!