January 20, 2009 in Sports

Then & Now: Running at St. George’s led to traveling the world

By The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

McKenna
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

You would probably have to be a running fanatic – and possess an incredible memory – to remember the name Heidi Caspersen.

As a senior at St. George’s she was 13th in the State A/B cross country meet and placed in both distance races in the 1985 State B track meet.

That was a pretty remarkable achievement for someone who says “I was terrible” when, as a junior, she answered Ross Thomas’ call to be part of the Dragons’ first cross country team in the fall of ’83.

“It sounded fun at the time so I thought I would try it out,” she recalled. “St. George’s has an everybody-gets-to-participate policy, so that helped.”

She found she enjoyed running no matter how far back in the pack she finished and was determined to improve.

“The team aspect and the places we were able to train, just beautiful trails, training became fun more quickly than racing,” she said. “I just thought I could be better if I worked at it. When you’re starting something new, you have a moderate bit of improvement right away. I thought if I actually worked at this I might actually get better.

“Ross was very encouraging. He made you think you were good, even if you weren’t.”

She ran by herself through the spring and summer, and much to her surprise she was rewarded with an outstanding senior year.

“I thought that was going to be the highlight of my running,” she said. “I never intended to run in college, I didn’t think I was good enough. Being realistic, from small school, the peak of success was right there.”

Obviously, she was wrong.

She ran for the Air Force Academy, representing the Air Force and the military in marathons and triathlons around the world.

It’s a surprising story for McKenna, 41, who is currently an assistant professor at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., teaching leadership and management to seniors in ROTC.

The academy’s cross country coach asked her to walk on after seeing her run in basic training. Injuries slowed her after her freshman season, but she ran the Denver Marathon in miserable conditions as a junior. McKenna gave up competitive running as a senior. Along the way, poor eyesight ended her dream of being a pilot.

At her first post in Texas she was roped in to handing out water at a triathlon aid station.

“It looked interesting so I thought I would give it a try,” she said. “It was the challenge, something new. You had to be able to do three things instead of just running.”

She also took another crack at marathons and found her way into service competitions while working in logistics.

“I tell people the basics of logistics are moving people and stuff from one place to another,” McKenna said. “It’s not a very intelligent description but the easiest.

“I was deployed a few years ago to Macedonia, which was part of the support for Kosovo. That turned out to be one of the best experiences of my career. I actually worked for NATO. People from several different countries were stationed there. The commander was a British army general. It was just a really neat experience.”

Her husband is retired and she is less than two years from retirement. What happens then she isn’t sure, but eventually she would like to return to Spokane.

“I still consider Spokane home, even though we moved a lot because my dad was in the Navy,” McKenna said. “I’m definitely homesick to get back to Washington. I can’t remember the last time I was back.”

Her father, Stan Kaspersen, retired to his hometown after 20 years in the service.

His daughter also wanted to serve her country but water wasn’t part of the picture. Her dream was to be an astronaut.

“My parents made huge sacrifices to send me to St. George’s,” McKenna said. “My dad was enlisted in the Navy (chief petty officer). I don’t know how they managed to send me to that school. But they knew it was the right place for me to be, to give me the best opportunities. That proved to be true.”

Not only because it helped her find her stride as a runner.

A search finds this Air Force press release: Capt. Heidi McKenna … named the 1998 Air Force (Female) Athlete of the Year after placing third in the Armed Forces Triathlon and representing the United States at the Counseil International Sport Militaire Triathlon in Kapelle-Op-Den-Bos, Belgium, finishing 18th. She also was a member of the winning team at the 1998 Armed Forces Marathon and finished first in the women’s division of the 1998 Air Force Marathon.

“My travels with Air Force sports astound me,” McKenna said. “I have been to Poland, Turkey, Croatia, Denmark, Belgium and more and met athletes from so many countries. I can’t believe it happened to me, all because I starting running at St. George’s all those years ago. Who could have imagined that?”


Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email