Michelle Borgert Ihmels’ running career started when she realized a different athletic pursuit might not be feasible.
Ihmels, a member of The News-Herald’s inaugural High School Hall of Fame, spent her childhood riding small horses. But when it came to making equestrian a competitive endeavor, her father, John, who worked at a horse camp, introduced the realities of the sport.
“My father said, ‘I hate to break it to you, but you will never be able to afford the horses you need to get to the Olympics,’ ” Ihmels said in a phone interview last week from Ames, Iowa, where she resides.
The combination of her father’s words and some riveting television molded a Kirtland High School and Ohio cross country legend.
Ihmels quit harboring ideas of an equestrian career in 1984, which happened to be an Olympic year. The Los Angeles Games were known for many things, including American Joan Benoit Samuelson’s marathon triumph.
For Ihmels and Kirtland, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Ihmels was preparing for middle school, which offered a chance to register for a sport featuring elements of the marathon she watched on television — cross country.
Athletes weren’t permitted to compete in middle school meets as sixth-graders. Ihmels adjusted to the sport in seventh grade. She went undefeated in eighth grade.
Ihmels almost never lost in a Kirtland uniform. She won three state titles, a feat accomplished by only five other Ohio female runners. Her school record of 18 minutes, 43 seconds might never be surpassed.
“For my money, she is the most accomplished athlete Kirtland High School has ever produced,” said Jim Pilewski, Kirtland’s cross country coach for 32 years before retiring following the 2010 season. “The school has produced some great teams and great programs. But I will put her accomplishments up against anybody Kirtland has ever produced.”
Ihmels lost just two races during her high school career: the 1987 Northeast Coaches Classic and the 1988 state tournament. She finished third in the coaches classic behind the previous year’s Class AAA and AA state champs. Ihmels won the Class A title as a freshman in 1986.
Her second loss represented a stunning event.
Ihmels entered the 1988 state meet at Scioto Downs as a prohibitive favorite. Despite swampy conditions, she performed like a favorite, controlling the race for the first 4,700 meters.
But something unexplainable happened in the closing stretch as Minster freshman Jana Woehrmyer passed Ihmels. Six more runners passed Ihmels, who placed eighth to earn All-Ohio honors.
“Still to this day, I have no idea what happened,” she said. “I don’t feel like the pressure got to me. The conditions were horrible. It was muddy, windy and cold, but I had a huge lead and nobody tried running with me. I just fell apart. My body couldn’t move. Everything was in slow motion. It was very disappointing.”
Pilewski tried consoling Ihmels after the race. It wasn’t an easy task. “I kept telling her, ‘It’s OK. Everybody has a bad day. You’re still eighth in the state,’ ” Pilewski said. “But she was really upset.
“Needless to say, she was focused. Before we went to the stands to talk to our fans and her folks, she turned to me, and said, ‘Well, I have my goal for next year.’ ”
Ihmels said she couldn’t imagine handling the loss in the digital era.
“I’m glad the Internet wasn’t around,” she said. “The message boards would have been terrible. People would been saying things like: ‘She’s washed up. She was better when she was younger.’ I heard some whisperings and that motivated me my senior year. I wanted to comeback and prove it was a fluke. Everybody can have a bad day.”
She never had another bad day in a Kirtland uniform. Ihmels returned to her dominating ways as a senior, ending her career by winning the state meet in 18:43. The race proved memorable, as she was pushed by Archbold’s Rachel Sauder. Ihmels sprinted away from Sauder, a track star with a strong kick, in the final 100 meters.
Ihmels and Sauder forged a friendship following the race. They trained together in Oregon in the late 1990s.
“We’re still good friends to this day,” Ihmels said.
Sauder accomplished what few high school runners achieved: she pushed Ihmels.
Neither a diminutive stature nor a late birthday — she was born in September and was just 13 when she completed her first varsity practice — stalled Ihmels. Yet she had major trepidation when she joined the varsity team.
Kirtland opened 1986 with a strong nucleus, which included All-Ohio performer Diane Delbalso, After some fierce internal competition, Ihmels and Delbalso developed a close bond. The pair led the Hornets to a third-place finish at the state meet and they remain friends.
“Michelle stepped into a pretty good program and made it better,” Pilewski said. “She was a very hard worker, extremely coachable and as tough as nails. She took running very seriously.”
The presence of an elite athlete forced Pilewski to concoct some creative training runs. Ihmels ran 7 to 10 miles per day, with Sunday serving as a rest day. Ken Raines, an assistant who coached Kirtland’s middle school program, helped train Ihmels.
“Whatever pace we wanted her do, she could do it,” Pilewski said.
Following high school, Ihmels went to Louisville, where she had three coaches in her first three seasons. She won Metro Conference titles in the 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000 meters. She also became the school’s first women’s outdoor track All-American.
During a stretch from 1989 to 1999, she had seven coaches. Using the same discipline she displayed at Kirtland, Ihmels never questioned the reasoning for a particular workout.
“Having that many different coaches wasn’t ideal,” she said. “But that’s who I am and how I was raised. I did whatever the coach told me to do.”
Ihmels, who lives in Ames with her husband, Corey, and two children, never qualified for the Olympics. But she competed in the 10,000 meters at the 2000 Olympic Trials.
A relentless attitude and strong legs took her to places horses never could.
She visited Japan and China as part of relay teams in college. One of her relay legs took her around Tiananmen Square in Beijing.
Ihmels has lived in Louisville; Salem, Ore.; Boise, Idaho; Tempe, Ariz.; and Ames, home of Iowa State University, since graduating from Kirtland in 1990. She has visited all 50 states.
Corey is a college track and cross country coach, and he decided last Friday to leave his head coaching job at Iowa State for a similar position at Boise State. Ihmels earned her doctorate in kinesiology from Iowa State. Her area of study involves promoting active lifestyles among children.
“I’m trying to get kids to get off the Xbox and iPhone, which plays into my background,” she said. “Running is a big part of who I am and what I have done. I have gotten so many opportunities partially because of running.”
Michelle Borgert Ihmels
- Who: 2013 News-Herald High School Sports Hall of Fame inductee
- Sport: Girls cross country
- High school: Kirtland
- Where are they now?: Ihmels lives in Ames, Iowa, with her husband, Corey, son, Wil, and daughter, Ruby. She is an adjunct professor of kinesiology at Iowa State.
- High school highlights: A 1990 Kirtland graduate, Ihmels is one of just six Ohio female runners to win three state cross country titles. She won titles in 1986, ’87 and ’89. … Only lost two races during her high school career and helped Kirtland finish third in the 1986 state meet. … Earned All-Ohio honors four times in her career. Holds the school cross country record of 18 minutes, 43 seconds.
By Guy Cipriano | GCipriano@News-Herald.com | @NewsHeraldGuy