Doug Wolter: Heather Van Norman is still a bundle of energy
I still remember a conversation I had in the early 1980s with then-head Windom High School track and field coach Lyle Riebe. We were discussing the upcoming season overlooking the big Eagles oval when he remarked, “We’ve got a girl coming up who’s going to be really special. Her name … is Heather Van Norman.”
Sure enough, the following year a spritely rocket — an eighth-grader — joined the varsity squad. She was indeed special. She was extremely special. Historically special.
For four straight years, from 1985 to 1988, Heather Van Norman swept to state Class 1A championships in all the sprints — 100, 200 and 400 meters. She won with apparent ease. She set state records. To this day, Van Norman ranks as one of the all-time greatest high school track and field competitors Minnesota has ever produced.
These days, Van Norman is in her third season as women’s track and field and cross country coach at Nicholls State University. She lives in New Orleans, La., with her 11-year-old daughter, Jasmyne. She’s also attending graduate school for her master’s in higher learning and sports administration.
And she’s proudly keeping tabs on her son, Odell Beckham Jr., who is a junior receiver and return man for the LSU Tigers. At 6-0 and 195 pounds, Beckham is a speedster who is even now considering whether to announce for the NFL draft. If he does, he is projected to be taken by the middle of the second round if not higher.
Just the other day, right out of the blue, I received a phone call from Heather. It was a surprise, because I had tried to contact her about a month earlier without success. When she telephoned, she immediately apologized. She’d wanted to call earlier, she said, but she’d been so busy that she just hadn’t gotten around to it. But her daughter kept insisting that the call be made, so there it was.
Heather’s phone call made my day, I told her. I quickly surmised that the high energy that characterized her as a teen-ager had not been lost. For at least half an hour, Heather talked non-stop about her life in New Orleans, about old times, and about Odell’s football exploits. I had to interrupt her to get a word in edge-wise.
It was great.
On New Year’s Day, LSU will take on the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl. That will be a big day for Heather Van Norman and Odell Beckham Jr. The two of them are very close. Heather has been able to watch every one of Odell’s games this year, and she watches them in a way that mothers everywhere can understand.
“It’s so surreal,” Heather told me. “My mom used to to tell me that when I was running track, she had tears in her eyes. … I get nervous (watching Odell) and I’ve always said this — I am the mom that, at the football game, I’m cheering, I’m excited, and right after the kickoff I’ll go down to the ramps and I’m praying, getting out of sight. I slip out sometimes to watch the TV monitor. Standing up is what I like to do. And I don’t think I should be standing up the whole time in the cheering section.”
Heather says Odell hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll declare for the draft, but he’ll carefully consider the assessments he receives about his potential draft stock. He will place a lot of emphasis on what his LSU coaches tell him, and what his family tells him.
Beckham keeps a tight circle around him. His father is former LSU football player Odell Beckham. He is a friend of Shaquille O’Neal, who as a child he referred to as “Uncle Shaq.”
Heather expects her son to test very well in the combine. Odell is very athletically gifted, and focused on the things that matter. Heather, who holds to a strong personal faith, takes it to God.
“The spiritual side of me is, you pray about it,” she said.
The adopted daughter of Don and Millie Van Norman of Windom, Heather has maintained her relationships with family and community. She remembers the wisdom passed along to her from high school coaches Riebe and Roger Elzenga and she hasn’t stopped soaking up knowledge about her coaching craft.
“I feel like I’m still a sponge,” she says, adding, “I think what I cherish and appreciate is the friends that I had (in Windom). I cherish my family, I cherish my mentors and that whole community and environment. Windom, to me, is a great place to raise a kid.”
When she ran varsity track, Van Norman admitted that at times it seemed a very easy thing to do. But she learned things that would carry over into her outstanding collegiate career which consisted of one year at the University of Minnesota and the rest at LSU. In high school she learned about running efficiency and how to eliminate the things that could slow her down. At LSU she was surprised to be told that the 400-meter race was to be her specialty, and that she should also run cross country because she was “out of shape” from the summer.
“That’s what really ignited me,” she recalls today.
Looking back, Heather also remembers having “ants in my pants” and that she was anxious to leave her small town for the big city. She says she wanted to “spread my wings” while still maintaining a safe distance from her parents.
That’s what influenced her decision to attend the University of Minnesota, though she had second thoughts about it after signing her letter of intent. Nevertheless, she stayed at the U of M for a year and now declares herself better for it. At the U, she received a kind of discipline that she needed —a discipline that, as a black athlete raised in a community of whiteness, helped her bridge the cultural gap.
“God, I think, sometimes has a sense of humor,” she said. “What we want is obviously not always the best thing for you.”
After all these years, it appears that Heather has learned her lessons well. She is happy and fulfilled and looking toward the future. Those of us who remember her thrilling high school past are proud to have caught her briefly as she went whizzing by.