Before the first Marion High School volleyball practice Aug. 15, Kaelyn Thierolf was restless. While her teammates slowly put on their shoes and talked before coach Jim Versch arrived at the USD 408 Sports and Aquatic Center, she busied herself repeatedly setting a ball up and down. The first order of business at practice was to run laps around the track above the hardwood floor. Thierolf raced around the carpeted track, arriving back to the floor minutes before her teammates would join her.
“She always wins,” Versch said of Thierolf’s determination to finish sprints first. “It’s a bad day if she doesn’t win.”
Thierolf wanted to burn off excess energy before practice because she is more determined and excited for this sports season; she has put in extra hours training to attempt an athletic feat that MHS has not seen in five years. Thierolf is going to compete in cross-country and volleyball during the fall season, setting herself up to become a four-sport athlete. She participated in track and basketball last year.
While participating in cross-country and volleyball is not an uncommon practice in MHS athletic history, Versch said he would usually advise athletes against it because of the physical and mental rigors of playing two varsity sports at once.
Often in the fall, the volleyball team will practice Friday mornings so the girls can have more time to attend football games. Versch said Thierolf’s toughest weeks would be coming back from a cross-country race Thursday night, practicing volleyball Friday morning, and then playing in a volleyball tournament Saturday morning.
“I’m going to be tired,” Thierolf said. “But I think it will be fun.”
Versch said he supported Thierolf’s decision to do both. He described her as a “superwoman” because of her uncommon stamina. During the summer, Thierolf participated in volleyball camp all morning. Later, in the heat of an especially hot July, Versch saw Thierolf running around town.
“She’s obviously in shape,” father and MHS activities director Grant Thierolf said. “She’s run a lot. She just has to understand there’s limits – learn her body, recover well, and get rest.”
Even for a gifted athlete, participating in both cross-country and volleyball at the same time is a strenuous ordeal. The physical requirements for each sport are strikingly different. Cross-country requires extreme stamina while volleyball asks athletes to be consistently explosive for jumping hits.
“She may not be quite as explosive for volleyball,” Grant Thierolf said. “She can do all of the things she needs to.”
Camille Christensen was the last girl to participate in both sports at once. Christensen did both in 2006, her sophomore year of high school.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, having to juggle two sports at once,” Christensen said. “I had to be prepared for both.”
Christensen is now a junior at Kansas State University, studying Kinesiology.
One of the hurdles for her was the unique mental preparation required for both sports.
The scheduling conflict between sports proved insurmountable. Christensen tried to flip flop between practices. She lost time to gain chemistry with her volleyball teammates and her playing time waned. She decided to give up volleyball her junior year.
“I would say, I wish I would have done volleyball practice every day and ran on my own,” Christensen said. “I felt like I was never at practice for any given sport.”
Thus far, Kaelyn Thierolf has avoided this conundrum by running in the morning with cross-country Head Coach Rebecca Hofer and then going to volleyball practice every afternoon.
Thierolf said her track teammates asked her to run cross-country but she said she decided to do both sports, about three weeks ago, because cross-country gives her the individual challenge she craves and volleyball provides a team interaction with her friends.
Thierolf has a chance to be equally accomplished in both sports. In volleyball, she is part of a corps of talented sophomores with Katey Ehrlich, Megan Richmond, and Ericka Hess. She did not play significant time last year but showed flashes of a well-rounded game, possessing the ability to pass, set, and hit. She and Ehrlich were the two best players on the Marion Middle School team that won their league as eighth-graders.
Even though she went to state in both the 3200 and 1600-meter runs as a freshman, Thierolf said she is better at longer distances.
“She’ll go to state in cross-country,” Versch said.
Although this is Thierolf’s first season running cross-country, having not done the sport at MMS, Hofer sees the same talent.
“She’s very determined,” Hofer said. “She’s very fast. I hope we don’t overdo it.”
Versch and Hofer are both determined to communicate to not overwork Thierolf during the season. They know Thierolf has a huge reserve of mental toughness and they want to be sure that she does not push herself past the point of exhaustion.
Christensen and former MHS athlete Iris Shanklin, who participated in both sports in the early 1990s, said the cooperation of Versch with cross-country coaches is what made their experience possible.
“The coaches at the time were amazing,” Shanklin said. “It helped me be successful.”
Shanklin and Angie Bina were involved with a volleyball and cross-country story that has been entered into Marion athletic lore. Former athletic director and MHS principal Tod Gordon remembered Shanklin and Bina flying from the state cross-country meet to then compete with the volleyball team that won a state championship later that day in 1991.
Having coached the state championship team in 1991, Versch’s recollection is even more specific. After finding a way to communicate to the girls that the volleyball team had advanced, in an age without cell phones, Versch said Shanklin and Bina flew with Mayor Jerry Harris in a single engine plane to the state volleyball site. They arrived in the middle of the first game before helping the team win a 2A state title.
Shanklin remembers the instance differently. She said they had planned to fly in a plane but ended up being transported in a van between state sites.
“It was an amazing experience,” Shanklin said.
Shanklin said participating in cross-country and volleyball at the same time made her a stronger person and helped her in her first career as a personal trainer.
“Doing both makes you a stronger person,” Shanklin said. “Definitely as an adult today, it helps me focus.”
Shanklin is currently a financial advisor in Federal Way, Wash.
“Instead of maintaining people’s bodies, I maintain people’s finances,” Shanklin said.
Thinking back to 1991, Versch became hopeful for this season. He thought having a player compete in both sports might be a good sign.
Thierolf has already had a conversation with Don Hodson about using his plane to possibly fly from state cross-country in Lawrence to volleyball in Salina. Just as they were in 1991, the events are scheduled for the same day.