SOLON– For Erin Kerkhoff, it’s been a summer on the road. That road goes back to her school track career at Solon. From there, it led to the University of Northern Iowa. Early this summer, it took flight, literally, to Eugene, Oregon for this summer’s Paralympic Trials. Her next stop? Japan and the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics, being held August 24 through September 5.
The 2019 Solon graduate leaves in late August for the worldwide games, where she will compete in the 400- and 100-meter track events. Kerkhoff finished second in each at the Paralympic Trials in late June, clocking 58.24 in the 400, and 12.89 in the 100. The 2021 Tokyo Paralympics, is an international multi-sport event for athletes with disabilities, and is governed by the International Paralympic Committee. It will feature over 4000 competitors in 540 events across 22 sports.
Yet it took several days after the trials, before everybody knew who was going. Due primarily to the COVID-19 impact worldwide, there were gaps and question marks, as to who would meet the qualifying marks. India’s delegation dropped out entirely a couple weeks ago. Kerkhoff and her family were on the ZOOM call as the U.S. roster was confirmed. “Oh, I was so excited. I got butterflies,” Kerkhoff laughs. “It was pretty cool.”
Early childhood disease left Erin with 20/400 eyesight. In Tokyo, she will run in the T13 classification. Her limited vision severely restricts her view straight ahead. Still, she has adequate peripheral vision. “When I am running on the track, I know where the lanes are. As I approach the finish line, though, I don’t see it until I’m two or three feet away,” she explains.
She faces a new challenge in the weeks ahead. Still, she has overcome obstacles for years in her world. On the track, though, her success still grows. In middle school—and for the record, I was her 7th and 8th grade coach—it was learning which lane to stay in, how to nail a baton exchange, even when to stop. And she has thanked me several times. In the transition through high school, the competition, techniques and pressure mounted.
“Coach (Brent) Sands and Coach (Dan) Dall were a huge help,” she said. Kerkhoff, who settled in as a sprinter, says the 400 is her “go to” event.
She holds high school records in the 400 and—with a strong core of teammates—the 4x400 relay, including a 4x400 Class 3A State championship in 2019. That followed three years of making the finals, but finishing just short of the title. Balancing that sprinter image, she also was a four-year varsity cross-country runner, qualifying twice for the state meet. She paired with a guide runner over the five-kilometer courses.
In her last year at Solon, it was time to look ahead. “The focus toward the end of my senior year was, ‘I think I’d like to do track in college. I love it this much.’” Through two years at UNI, she has run mostly 400s, but works in shorter distances as needed.
She had heard of the Paralympics by then. Coach Joaquin Kruz, from Team USA, had a word with her at the 2019 State Meet. Her interest grew in college.
“I talked with (UNI) Coach (Dave) Paulson at the end of this season. He talked about the amazing opportunity it provides. He helped me through the questions. I’m really thankful now that he did. I had no idea anything like this would happen,” admits Kerkhoff. Now her daily workouts are done with an eye on her departure date, and the excitement and work which lies ahead. With Erin home for the summer, Paulson provides the workouts, and Sands works with her each day.
So, what is her goal as the 16th Paralympics approaches?
“I want to place. I want to get a medal in the 400 — that is my goal — top three,” she states firmly. Right now, it’s all about conditioning, endurance and weightlifting. “That’s very important. They just want me to hit it hard before I leave, and then tail off a little. I will still adjust and train in Tokyo.”
Until then, she works on improvement. “I’m trying to get a better 200 split in the 400. I like to go out, but play it safe, and kick it at the end. I need to just get out right away. I’m working with Coach Sands on pacing, and different workouts to hit a good 200 that would set me up for the last couple turns,” she said. And in the 100? “It’s the start — explosive — getting out of the blocks.”
“It’s not a surprise to see her put on a Team USA uniform,” said Sands.
“It’s been a couple years in the making. I was sold even back then, that she’d be sitting pretty high, based on her classification, I watched her on TV at the trials, and knew I was going to be nervous watching her perform. But you kind of go back to her state track experience, though with a little more on the line, obviously. It is another step up, a chance to represent your country. I had a sense she was in position to do well.”
Erin takes the next step … in a little more than a month, half a world away.