One of the great things about growing up in Pelican Prairie was seeing Michelle Willowstreet on the track. She eventually moved to Minneapolis, and spoke of us unkindly, but when we were in high school together, everyone in town adored her. Later, when she was universally acknowledged as a world-class runner, she told Running Nation magazine that she had never been interested in staying in Pelican Prairie, even in high school, and that the boyfriends she had there all seemed “destined for Fargo.” That was true, in my case at least. I felt a little betrayed, because Pelican Prairie is only two hours from Minneapolis, and Michelle and I used to drive to Dinkytown together, where we would talk about how much we liked the cafes and weirdos—but that we would never want to live there. When we broke up, I was too embarrassed even to go to her grad party. Michelle was not only the greatest miler in the state, but beautiful and the valedictorian of our class. I could’ve swallowed my pride, perhaps, if God had distributed His gifts a little more equally, but I’ve always found intelligence, beauty, and talent come as a bundle, and when someone is above you, she is above you in every way, and not just one.
Michelle and I dated only our senior year. She had a few boyfriends in high school, but she also was different with me than the others. By senior year, she was scared for the future, she said. She couldn’t tell me why, she said she couldn’t get it into words, but then she would hold my hand, and I understood completely. She was voted best female athlete by the Minnesota Coaches poll our senior year, praising her “high character.” She said she didn’t like strangers’ praise because it made her feel like a fake person, and she held me closest when she said this, and I would whisper how I loved her.
When she ran for the U in college, she remained an inspiration in town. Her sophomore year she set NCAA records in the 800 and 1600. More than this was her magnum opus, a 600 meter race at the NCAA indoor championship when at the beginning of the last lap, she tripped and fell about fifty meters behind the pack. She picked herself up and with her long gazelle-like stride we Pelican Prairians knew so well, she closed the gap and broke across the finish line first, winning the heat and leading the U to a victory overall. Footage from that race spread over the internet and was seen by tens of millions of people, the most popular video soundtracked by a worship song called “Jesus Picks Us Up When We Fall.” It was no surprise to see Michelle perform such heroics to us back home. She had tripped and fallen in the Section championship our junior year, but ended up winning that race easily.
She became very popular after her “redemption race,” and she often spoke, pro bono, to church groups and corporate retreats. The national Fellowship of Christian Athletes interviewed her, and she told them that she ran that race, like all her races, for the “greater glory of God,” and as witness to the gifts God had given her. We in Pelican Prairie already knew of her great character.
She missed qualifying for the Beijing Olympics by a slim margin. We had watch parties in town when the time trials were on. I had graduated from NDSU early, and I was working at my father’s accounting firm at the time. I told everyone I had work to do that Saturday the trials were on. I smiled smally and bitterly at my desk, when I learned she had come in sixth, missing even the reserve spot. Nonetheless, the city put up a banner when she returned over Thanksgiving, celebrating our hero’s “Olympic effort!”
She graduated college in 2009 and began her professional career. That year, she married an NHL prospect originally from the Iron Range. They were named by College Sports Monthly as the most attractive new couple, and there were many pictures of them from their wedding at the Minneapolis basilica.
Before the London Olympics, the town began cheering her on again. Few but the most fervent running fans can endure the sport apart from the Olympics, and even her biggest fans lost track of her during the interim years. When she again entered my mental picture, I was pleased to find I was no longer resentful of Michelle. I had married Jenna Verocek the year before, and we had begun making a happy home together.
During the time trials, Michelle was in the lead at the 600 meter mark, but tripped and fell with 200 meters remaining. The announcers excitedly noted that Michelle Warweg nee Willowstreet had first become famous around the world for her “resurrection race” five years before. The crowd in Eugene, Oregon and everyone at Shaky’s Bar in downtown Pelican Prairie stood, in our hearts knowing that she would win her race again. But this time she could not make up the difference, and she finished well behind the rest of the pack.
Michelle gave a speech at Pelican Prairie’s Catholic Church over Christmas. The priest allowed her to use the microphone in the sanctuary, and she walked back and forth in front of the altar. Her comportment was suave and cool as ever, and womanly confidence betrayed no remorse or regret when she spoke about her failure to make this year’s Olympics. I was in the audience, and I thought I perceived in her a sadness of the same ineluctable kind she had known in high school. Yet I recognized none when I met with her after the speech. We greeted each other with a hug, and I introduced her to Jenna, whom she greeted with kindness and affection. My wife looked almost misshapen next to Michelle, her forehead slouching, her legs squat, her lactating breasts almost slovenly. I don’t know if it’s true of any other animal species, but I’ve always been amazed by the fact that the greatest and most beautiful of ours make our middling types appear almost subhuman.
In high school, I felt I connected with Michelle in a way I didn’t with any other person. But I’ve come to believe that this was an effect of Michelle’s beauty and talent, not any especial quality of her character, and that it is simply easier and more pleasing for a man to share himself with a goddess rather than a beast. I had a hard time talking to Jenna that evening, and even had a hard time looking at my daughter in her nursery; she seemed ugly and malformed to me for days afterwards, even as I prayed over her crib.
Most of us in town didn’t think Michelle had a shot at Rio. Aside from the typical off-year doldrums, Michelle had lost some favor in Pelican Prairie owing to the interview with Running Nation. Around the same time, her husband was suspended from d-league for one year for PED use. Michelle was known for her vehement anti-doping stance, and she divorced him, a move that was lauded by the entire sporting press. She quickly had her marriage annulled by the Catholic Church and married another professional runner.
But in fact her training had improved over the past four years, and she qualified for the Rio Olympics. She placed seventh overall, and later met President Obama at the White House. She appeared on the front pages of the Minneapolis and St. Paul newspapers, and even on the boxes of some lesser-known, high-fiber cereals. The town found her seventh-place finish to be worthy of changing the sign coming into town, which now said PELICAN PRAIRIE: HOME OF OLYMPIAN MICHELLE SAUNDERS.
Pictures of her were impossible to avoid as she gained renown outside of running circles. Her physique had always been strong, yet when I knew her it was bedewed by youth, made lovely by her tender years. Her youth was now dissipated, and her gorgeous legs rested below abs, arms, and pectorals no different from a strong man’s. Her face was still beautiful, but severe in its composition, and what her artist had previously done in pastels and dabs he now etched over with almost cruel lines. A man could admire her now, but be attracted to her only as an object, and without any amorous fervor or the kind of compulsion which makes a man happy to sing, dote, and weep, if for his love’s sake.
I don’t know exactly how it happened, but somewhere in her fame she was drawn into a political conversation. Michelle admitted to a reporter that she had needed to abort two children while she was training for London and Rio. She was asked further about this, and she said that if she had not had access to contraceptives and abortion, there was no way she could have sustained her career. Some non-sporting zines sought her out, and Michelle said if young girls didn’t have access to abortion, there was no way they would be able to replicate her achievements; the sport was simply unsustainable otherwise. An inset caption in Women’s Digest said, “Without allowing women to control their own bodies, the entire field of female athletics is shot.”
The story came out just a week before she was scheduled to address a girl’s group at the cathedral of St. Paul, though there was no protest to having her speak. The title of her speech, like most of her speeches at that point, was “Running for the Greater Glory of God.” All her presentations, at church groups and corporate events, were well paid, and she began each speech with the footage of her “redemption race” with worship music playing over it.
Not long after that, she announced her retirement from running. She started a side project, a statewide running camp called “Run Like a Girl,” and she got funds for it from Governor Dayton, who lauded women’s sports at the capitol. She told Minnesota Runner that she was anxious to settle down with her husband and to have kids.
I wondered why no one in Pelican Prairie was angry with her. I wondered if I was alone in feeling betrayed. I looked at Michelle now and saw a very ugly thing. The two children were especially moving to me, because Jenna had miscarried our third daughter, and we had only recently come out of a long period of despondency and convalescence. I tried to talk about my feelings to some guys around town. But Michelle was so intrinsically tied to our notion of what decency was that we could not imagine anything she did could be all that bad. Michelle’s parents still lived at their lake house just outside of town, and her father had trained her from a young age to have a heart of a champion—she had only one other sister and no brothers. What would you say to a whole state of fathers and their little girls, that their hearts were not supposed to be the hearts of champions, that their fates were not for glory? If not for glory, then for what?