Photo By Hillary Ehlen
North Dakota State and dynasties.
The two words seem to have become synonymous with one another over the course of the last decade or more. Many go straight to football and rightfully so, seven FCS titles in eight seasons is the definition of a dynasty.
However, there is another dynasty on campus. One that began well before the Bison football team was commanding the gridiron. This dynasty is in women’s track & field. Since joining the Summit League in 2008, the Bison women have yet to lose a conference crown during the indoor and outdoor season. With their most recent conference crown this indoor season, it has pushed the streak to 23. As in, the North Dakota State women’s track & field team has won the Summit League 23 consecutive times between indoor and outdoor.
That is complete and utter dominance. There is really no other way to put it. While the program was no doubt a powerhouse in the North Central Conference, this string of success in Division I is unparalleled across collegiate track & field.
Laura (Hermanson) Januszewski was on the ground floor of this streak, competing for the Bison during their first two seasons in the Summit League in 2008 and 2009. Januszewski more than competed too, in fact, she dominated. So much so, that she had an opportunity to become an Olympian in the 800 meters. Much of her success as a professional is directly attributed to her time at North Dakota State.
Yet, track & field was not Januszewski’s first love. She says she came to North Dakota State in 2004 because she could run track and also play soccer, her favorite sport growing up in Burnsville, Minnesota. Januszewski played in 16 matches for the Bison soccer team in 2004 but found that balancing both sports was a challenge.
“One of my biggest reasons for coming to NDSU was because I could do both, play soccer and run track. Growing up, soccer was actually my first love. I would say by my senior year of high school, it was kind of a toss-up, but I felt like in soccer I still had some unfinished business. That kind of attracted me to play in college. After my freshman year of college playing soccer and starting the training for track, I realized they don’t necessarily go very well together if you really want to have success,” Januszewski said. “If you want success in one, you really have to be able to focus on it. I just felt the fire for soccer was dying a little bit and I was just having some new loves for track and so it was kind of nice because it was an easy way for me to kind of break a little bit. It would have been harder if I really liked soccer in some regard. It was like this perfect culmination of it felt like the chapter was ready to close on soccer and open up on track.”
Januszewski took a redshirt in her first track & field season for the Bison. During her high school career, she was mainly a sprinter. However, as her freshman season progressed, head coach Ryun Godfrey had another vision in mind for Januszewski.
“It’s kind of funny because I was a sprinter coming from high school. I ran the 200 and the 400 and after my first or second year of track, Ryun sat down with me and said that if I want to be able to make an impact in the NCAA, you’re going to have to move up in distance. That was a huge shock to the system for me because one lap around the track was plenty for me. He said I’d run the 800 and cross country,” she said. “So, when I came in, it was the Kinsey Coles era and Kinsey was the big name in NDSU track & field and she was like that person on the pedestal for everybody. My freshman year I thought it would be nice to just fit in and then I felt this natural progression of wanting to make the top ten board and then you want to get the school record.”
In her redshirt freshman season, Januszewski won the 400 at the Bison Open and eventually cracked the school’s top ten list in the event. As the season progressed, the distance steadily increased and decreased. By year’s end, Januszewski had competed in the 200, 400, 800, the 4×400 relay and 1,600-meter relay. By her sophomore season, Januszewski was second all-time in school history in the outdoor 800 meters.
In her junior and senior seasons, Januszewski established herself as an NDSU track & field legend. She set the indoor and outdoor school record in the 800 her junior season. Add to that an individual Summit League title in the 800 and the mile. “In 2008, we started talking about making the Olympic Trials and then it was to become an All-American in 2009 and start breaking records. For me, those first couple years, the NCAA postseason wasn’t even on my radar. I had to build my confidence a little bit and really feel like I belonged before I could think about that sort of stuff,” she said. “It was belong on the team first and then conference and then really start to think about the national scene. I remember watching the nationals when I was younger and thinking these people seem like these super-talents and so when you first come in, you don’t really think about possibly being on that stage. In 2008, I think I probably could have qualified, but I still had the Olympic Trials to shoot for so I never felt slighted necessarily in where I was during the transition period.”
The Bison women began their streak of Summit League team championships in 2008 in both the indoor and outdoor seasons. By 2009, Januszewski and the Bison were eyeing back to back titles. They accomplished that in 2009 with Januszeski claiming another conference title in the 800 and mile during the indoor season. In the 800, she qualified for nationals, finishing seventh.
As far as the outdoor season her senior year, Januszewski continued to dominate. She was a Summit League champion in the 1,500 meters and 800 as well. She qualified for nationals again in the 800, but before that, she claimed the NCAA Midwest Champion crown in the event. At the NCAA Championships, she finished second. Thanks to the phenomenal performance, she competed at the United State Championships too. Januszewski finished fifth in the 800 there. Thanks to all that success, she was named an All-American in 2009.
“In 2009, the stars all aligned for me, it all went really well,” she said.
Track did not end there for Laura Januszewski though. She competed in the Olympic Trials in 2008 and 2012. “2008, I had qualified for the trials, that was the thing I shot for in 2008 and I stumbled my way into the finals. Ryun and I still laugh because we had booked tickets to leave before the finals, thinking that it would be great if I made it through the first round,” she said. “In the semifinals, the leaders fell and I just got into the finals. I remember running the finals and it felt like I didn’t belong there, but I feel like it was the experience I needed to make myself believe that 2009 was possible to have the year that I had.”
Competing at the 2012 Olympic Trials was the goal after Januszewski finished her career at North Dakota State. While she was offered to train with some top-tier track clubs, she decided to stick with her head coach Ryun Godfrey. “I had a chance to go out and run with Oregon Track Club and I decided to stay with Ryun for three years because I felt like everything was going really well,” she said. “To me, there was no reason to switch something and fix something that wasn’t broken. It was different and I realized some of the things like not having a team and practices by myself. It was pretty much Ryun and myself for three years, working out.”
That time did not come without its challenges though. Januszewski had recently gotten married in 2009. While track was at the forefront of her mind, she still had to find ways to sustain herself. “During that period, I was trying to work and sustain myself, Jake and I had gotten married in 2009. So now I wasn’t just trying to go to school and run, but now it’s keeping my head above water,” she said. “For the most part, it was minimum wage jobs just to buy groceries because Jake was still in school. Some of those times you just had to think ‘is this truly a dream that I really want to chase?’ because it was tough.”
Januszewski ended up competing in the Olympic Trials in 2012. However, she did not have the performance she was anticipating. “2012 was going really well for the trials and I kind of mentally broke down a bit. Ryun and I didn’t talk about it for a long time because I was ashamed of the way 2012 ended. I didn’t like that I felt like I didn’t leave on a high note and I think that is something all athletes go through, you have good years and bad years,” she said. “Unfortunately, one of my worst years was 2012. I still ran well, but I wasn’t in it anymore and I think it shows how much of a commitment it is. I would never trade those experiences that I had. I saw parts of the world I never thought I would see.”
Competitive track for Januszewski ended after 2012. However, she continues to stay indebted to her coach, Ryun Godfrey. He has since moved on from NDSU, becoming the head cross country and assistant track & field coach at Kansas State.
“Ryun and I had a total and complete partnership. I know I wouldn’t have been the athlete I was if he wouldn’t have been there. He was the one that really put those dreams out there in front of me and inspired me to chase them and alongside of me to chase them. He coached me for the next three years even after I graduated so we got to be pretty close, we were together for eight years almost,” she said. “He was extremely instrumental in making my dreams become a reality. In 2007, we went to watch the USA Outdoors and he said that this is where I need to be. At first, it was kind of like “wow”, but you need that person with you to be that support system for you. I think a coach is someone who does that and Ryun was that person, he pushed me to places that he knew I could get to, I just didn’t know I was ready yet.”
Januszewski then went on to teach after going back to school after the 2012 Olympic Trials. “When I went to NDSU, I had a business and a marketing degree and then I always had this feeling that I wanted to be a teacher. So I went back to get my teaching degree while I was still competing. I taught for six years and I was the track coach and cross country coach for a while,” she said. Januszewski was coaching at nearby Lake Park-Audubon High School. “Every year, I just felt like I was making the best connections with my runners because I love what sports can do to a person. It makes you the most vulnerable you can ever be in your life. You have the extreme highs, the extreme lows and you have to figure out how to balance those. Those life lessons that you can teach somebody through sports always made a difference to me.”
That was when a familiar school came calling. Concordia College in Moorhead lies a short drive away from North Dakota State. The school asked Januszewski if she would become their head cross country coach as well as a track & field assistant. “When Concordia called asking if I was interested, I said I was good because I really enjoy teaching. I like the impact I can make in the classroom and after school. The more I thought about it, I recalled the relationships I had with Ryun. The impact he had on me because we had more time to train together, you can take people through three cycles of training rather than two. That was kind of my ultimate push over the edge to say that this is something I feel like if I don’t do it, I’ll always wonder what it would be like,” she said. “This first year, it’s just been fun to push kids, push them mentally. It has brought back a lot of memories for me with my own competition and life and my relationship I had with Ryun. Trying to get these athletes to understand that they can do more than they think they can. Track is a cool sport because usually the harder you push, the results come. It’s been different training for them and fun to kind of see them because you have to trust your coach before you can start to make leaps and bounds. In my career, I made it because I trusted Ryun and everything he said.”
She is quick to point out that coaching is far more stressful than running the actual races. “It’s cool to watch kids get excited. I watched one of my girls win the conference championship and here I was dancing for her and it is interesting to have the roles reversed where you have no control over the race,” she said. “Think about how exhausting it is to run, but it’s even more exhausting to watch it and have nothing to do with it. It’s fun to watch because as soon as you open those doors, all the emotions come back. Especially when the gun goes off for the 800, I just have this whole force that comes over me, like I’m back in it.”
While she was on the first team to win a Summit League title, Januszewski still cannot believe the success NDSU track & field has reached since she left in 2009. “You look back to Division II and they were a powerhouse and you talk about Stevie and Lars and it’s really cool to see what the throws program has done. We didn’t have that throws program, nothing even close to what Justin has built. It’s really really cool, you look at the facilities they have now. I mean, we laugh because Ryun used to squeegee off lane six in the BSA for us because it would be leaking,” she said. “We would be doing reps and he’d be making sure it was clean for us and not having basketballs go across the track. Now they have this beautiful facility to train in all the time and it makes you proud. There was always that athletic tradition, but now there is a facility to really back up the fact that it’s a Division I program. When I came in 2004 and I’m from the Twin Cities and NDSU, there wasn’t the momentum it has now in the Cities. It’s definitely become this name that people are really recognizing and proud of.”
Whether she knows it or not, Laura Januszewski is one of the key figures in making that occur. There would be no Shelly Ellig Track & Field Complex without her success from 2004 until 2009 and beyond. North Dakota State track & field is not the program it is today without her. You could say, there is no women’s dynasty without her success. She was able to plant the seeds of greatness within this program at the Division I level. The fruit bore is 23 consecutive conference titles.
That’s a dynasty in its purest form.