Finish Line Family
The intimacy of a race forges bonds between friends, builds families and even sparks romantic relationships. A simple race brought two former Bison track and fielder athletes together more than 20 years ago.
On February 9, 1990, Lisa Ristau and Mike Eckroth competed in the Bison Open and proceeded by having their first date at former Fargo hot spot, Valentino’s. The date, which was arranged in part by matchmaker Kathy Lynch of the women’s track team, would mark the starting line of their future together.
In the marathon of life, Mike Eckroth was a short distance sprinter while Lisa was a track tradeswoman, competing in the heptathlon’s seven events: hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter dash, long jump, javelin and 800-meter dash. Even though Mike was better equipped for explosive feats of speed, he went the distance with Lisa, eventually marrying her shortly after graduating college.
Team of Two
On the eve of their first date anniversary, the couple took some time to look back at the winding track they ran together. Calling in from their home in Edina, Minnesota, the two examined the formative years they spent at North Dakota State. As they trained and conditioned to peak athletically, they also drew on each others’ strengths and grew their relationship as a team.
“I can tell you that my last two years of college, Lisa really pushed me academically,” said Mike Eckroth. “My grades shot up after I met her.”
“I know for both of us, Coach Jerry Gores and Coach Don Larson were huge influences in our lives,” said Lisa. “Just the hard work, that’s probably the biggest thing that most kids learn from sports in general. What hard work can do, whether it be school, sports, my job, and doing it the right way. I don’t know what one thing would make me say that about my time there, but that was definitely a takeaway that makes a difference in the way I live my life today. They were there to coach and raise, not just good athletes, but good people.”
Raising the Bar
The expansive and intangible lessons the Eckroths learned at NDSU from Coach Gores and Larson and their high school sports experiences have served in part as a model when creating their own family. Their two children, Isaac and Annika, are involved in a wide variety of athletics with their parents there to cheer them on every step of the way.
“I was a gymnast and when I got to high school, my dad tells me that he had to force me to go out for track. I don’t remember that,” said Lisa. “Our track coach was the counselor in school and I think I went out because it was the fun thing to do. It’s a fun spring sport, very social, and the track coach tried to turn me into a hurdler right away because I was a gymnast, which seemed to work.”
Like many multiple-sport athletes in high school, Mike explained that his passion for track and field began by using the sport as a means of staying in shape for the baseball season.
“I guess I just kept getting faster and faster and I went from there,” stated Mike.
Following their prolific track record with the Bison, the Eckroths relocated to Minneapolis for Mike’s education at Augsburg College studying to be a physician’s assistant. After briefly working for the Alumni Center at NDSU, Lisa found success in sales, working her way up the ranks at Purdue Pharma, eventually reaching her current role as a national account executive. Mike began his career as a physician’s assistant at a private orthopedic spine surgery practice, and is now nearing twenty years in the profession.
“Looking at my profession as a physician’s assistant, I can tie it back to sports in some ways,” said Mike. “I’m part of a team with the surgeon on a daily basis. There’s that whole team mentality.”
Urging their son Isaac to go out for track, both Mike and Lisa have seen the impact learning from a coach and becoming a part of a team can have on young student athletes.
“I think it’s the number one reason people put their kids in sports today, still,” Lisa explained. “There are just so many great lessons learned. We talk about it all the time, most things don’t come easy, and there’s work to be done.”
While there is still work to be done for the Eckroth’s, they find motivation in past successes and continue to pull on the strings of the relationship web spun at NDSU, whether it’s calling up coach or reminiscing about training and socializing with their former peers across the athletic department. They may have already crossed the finish-line of their track and field careers, but Mike and Lisa never stopped running.