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Iowa State runners recall triumph, tragedy

DES MOINES, Iowa — It's been 30 years since the plane crash and Jill Slettedahl-Winter still aches at the memory.

She can see the Iowa State cross country runners, coaches and others who died on that November night in Des Moines, seven in all. She was an 18-year-old freshman, and she thinks of just how young they all were.

"There was so much potential there. What would have happened if that plane hadn't crashed?" she asks. "They would have gone on to such wonderful things, such wonderful families."

They had just come near the pinnacle of their sport, finishing a surprising second in the NCAA Women's Cross Country Championships on a snowy course in Milwaukee, and suddenly it was torn apart on an icy, foggy night, leaving their teammates in shock that a day that started with such elation could end in such sadness.

"It's still one of the best days of my whole life. We were surprised and so amazed and giddy, I guess, at how we had done. It was the culmination of the entire season, and we were in awe that we did that," Slettedahl-Winter said. "It was an instantaneous drop to the worst day of my whole life."

Today, members of that team and community members will gather at the crash site in a quiet Des Moines neighborhood to recall the three runners, two coaches, athletic trainer and pilot who died that night of Nov. 25, 1985. They'll explain the bond the teammates had built and try to explain how their lives were forever changed by that day's triumphs and tragedy.

"It taught me, just of the frailty of life and that I have today and I don't know if I'm given tomorrow," said Tami Prescott, who was a 19-year-old freshman runner.

For the team, the day began in Milwaukee, where coach Ron Renko expressed optimism the women could finish as high as sixth place amid windy, near-freezing conditions.

It was the culmination of a season that began months earlier when the runners joined for a summer training camp that included days camping on the shore of a small lake in northern Wisconsin. Prescott said she initially thought the camping was "sort of miserable," but the teammates quickly built tight bonds, cut off from their friends and family in an isolated spot, long before smartphones enabled easy communication.

"On very long runs, you get to know each other," Prescott said.

It was a talented group, with two runners from Britain and others from the Midwest. They expected to do well at the NCAA championships, and aware of the snow-covered course, Renko gave them an edge by purposefully having them run 1,000-meter repeats on snow in Ames.

It was a fast race, and the women were happy about their performance but had no idea how well they had done. They had just posed for a picture when an assistant coach told them to hustle back for the awards ceremony. Results were still being tallied, but the coaches thought they might have finished second behind the University of Wisconsin. They turned out to be right.

"We were so happy," Slettedahl-Winter said. "We were happier than the team that won that day."

The team planned to have lunch before flying back to Ames but decided to depart early because of bad weather approaching.

They divided themselves between three planes, along with runners from the men's team. The plane carrying runners Sheryl Maahs of Spirit Lake, Iowa; Sue Baxter of Brentwood, Essex, England; Julie Rose of Ashford, Kent, England; plus Renko, assistant coach Pat Moynihan and student trainer Stephanie Streit was delayed briefly as coaches picked up the trophy.

Icy conditions forced the pilots to divert to the larger Des Moines airport, about 30 miles south of Ames. The first two planes arrived safely, and the runners waited for their teammates.

"We just couldn't figure out what was taking so long," Prescott said. "We waited and waited."

Finally, an Iowa State staffer told them the plane had crashed a few miles northwest of the airport.

The plane slammed into a hill, coming to rest against an oak tree in the front yard of a large house. It cut power to the neighborhood and burst into flame, leaving little of the twin-engine plane but its tail. The plane's front cone skidded into the middle of the street.

All aboard were killed, including pilot Burt Watkins.

More than 6,000 people gathered at Iowa State's basketball arena to mourn the deaths, but over the years memories of the team waned. Tim Lane, who organizes running events in the Des Moines area, suggested gathering on the 30th anniversary and raising money for a permanent memorial. Lane said he often bikes near the crash site and thinks of the team.

Running enthusiasts like Lane have joined with Iowa State, a neighborhood group and relatives of the victims to plan a permanent memorial at the Temple B'Nai Jeshurun synagogue, just a few hundred feet up a hill, overlooking the crash site.

Ron Maahs of suburban Des Moines, the brother of Sheryl Maahs, has helped plan the memorial and will attend the event. He said he appreciates the interest but the attention has been difficult.

"It's nice people are thinking of it, but it dredges up a lot of bad memories," he said.

Slettedahl-Winter will travel from her home in Danville, Kentucky, to be at the memorial as well. She's kept in touch with the other surviving runners and always looks forward to catching up.

The crash changed all of them, she said. It was a heartbreaking loss at such a young age, but they gained something as well.

"I was still a kid, I guess. It just sort of became a part of who I am," she said. "Things are so fleeting, and you should aim for things that aren't fleeting."

This Nov. 25, 1985, photo provided by Geraldine Sons, shows Iowa State's women's cross country team, from back left: Charlene Letzring; Sheryl Maahs; Bonnie Sons; Susan Baxter; Jill Slettedahlk; and in front: Tami Colby, left, and Julie Rose at the NCAA Womenís Cross Country Championships in Milwaukee. Maahs, Baxter and Rose were killed later that the day when the plane they were returning home in with two coaches, an athletic trainer and the pilot crashed in a Des Moines neighborhood. AP PHOTO