Carrie Tollefson, who will be inducted into the National High School Hall of Fame July 2 in Chicago, Illinois, won five Minnesota State High School League state cross country championships at Dawson-Boyd High School from 1990 to 1994, including the first as an eighth-grader. She also won eight individual track and field titles in the 1600 and 3200 meters, and she set a state record in the 3,200 meters in 1994 with a time of 10:30.28. Tollefson’s 13 individual titles in cross country and track are the most ever in the state. Tollefson’s dominance continued at Villanova University, where she won five individual NCAA titles – the indoor and outdoor 3K, the outdoor 5K and two cross country titles – and helped her team to the 1999 NCAA team championship. She was a 10-time All-American and the 1998 NCAA Indoor Track Athlete of the Year. Tollefson made the 2004 U.S. Olympic team and participated in the 1,500 meters in Athens, Greece. Since her competitive days concluded, Tollefson has conducted distance running camps and served as a motivational speaker and clinic presenter, and she hosts a weekly online show on running and fitness entitled “C Tolle Run.”
Question: You won a combined 13 state track and cross country titles, including your first as an eighth-grader. How did you maintain the drive to compete at that level year after year?
Tollefson: I don’t know if it was instilled in me through my parents, or if it was something that I saw with my sisters, but I always wanted to be better the next year. It didn’t always happen. I didn’t always run faster every year but I wanted to at least equal my performance. As an eighth-grader, when I won cross country, it kind of made sense to want to win state track. Once I won state track, the next year I wanted to keep going and not necessarily go backward. I learned how to chase different goals along the way and challenge myself all while enjoying it, too. I also liked it when the newspapers didn’t rank me number one after I would win. I liked to prove people wrong; that’s how I lived my life, and still do, I think.
Question: What aspects of cross country helped you with track?
Tollefson: Cross country was an amazing sport, and I was lucky enough to really enjoy being in the grass and trees and on golf courses. I can still remember the smell of the golf cart that led us around the course. It’s still one of my favorite smells. People ask, “Why do you miss the smell of exhaust?” You were winning if you were that close to the golf cart. I think that really built strength, going up and down hills, and having to be agile – that helped me in track for sure. Learning pace, as well as having to dig deep when you’re starting to get tired but chasing the clock, also helped me in track. Both had many different ways in which they complemented each other and helped me. However, my first love was cross country. I really loved being out on the greens where I could run past golfers and they’d cheer for me although they were supposed to be quiet. It made you excited in the moment to hear all of the cheers while being in a quiet golf course or park.
Question: In addition to cross country and track, did you compete in other sports? What are your thoughts on the importance of multi-sport participation?
Tollefson: I’m a huge believer in multi-sport participation. I’m having a hard time thinking about my kids having to choose. I’m going to buck the system as much as I can because I think that was truly why I was such a good athlete who was so driven. Every single time I started a new sport, it was new and exciting. I wasn’t sick of it. I played everything from golf, tennis, softball, basketball and volleyball; I mean we played everything in this small little town of Dawson where I grew up because you had to.
Question: Although you participated in athletics for Dawson- Boyd High School, your teams’ events took place at another school. What challenges did your participation in a cooperative (coop) program present?
Tollefson: I loved being in a co-op, getting to know kids from nearby small schools. I played on teams where my co-op teammates would be my competitors in winter. It was fun having both a training partner and rival. It’s a great way to help kids come out of their shell, especially in small towns. I had friends outside of Dawson, which was good and would be beneficial to schools needing bodies to meet team requirements. Kids are so resilient, and they learn how to deal with those challenges and meet new people. It’s also how I met my husband. He was from the school that I ran for as a co-op, Lac qui Parle Valley. Although larger schools could be more challenging, I wanted to prove that stigma wrong as a smallschool kid. I had an opportunity and belief that I could compete with everyone in Minnesota. You don’t have to have the best-ofthe- best resources to be a great track athlete.
Question: What role did your parents play in your participation in sports?
Tollefson: My dad was a former college athlete who had all girls. When he had all of us outside, playing catch, throwing pop flies as high as he could when we were first learning to catch a ball, he never took it easy on us. He taught us to never be afraid of anything, including a talent. I think us three girls learned a little something different from our dad and mom. One thing that I really enjoyed was the time that I got to spend with my dad on our runs together, learning about him as an athlete. Being a lawyer, he’d use these analogies about how to race and train. It was my favorite time with him. Equally important, my mom knew how to train our brains and would constantly tell us how good we could be and to dream big. I was lucky to have them both in my corner providing so much support.
Question: What are your best memories from your participation in high school cross country and track?
Tollefson: I think the big one for me in high school is when I won my fifth cross country title. It wasn’t so much about winning that race, it was more about conquering my fear year after year of getting beat. It shouldn’t be life or death, and it really wasn’t, but it was important to see how tough you could be year in and year out, as well as handling more pressure. As an 18-year-old, you think you’re getting older and can handle more things but you’re still pretty young. In track, one of my favorite memories was being confident enough to step down in distance my senior year and run the 800 as my last race ever in Minnesota. I hadn’t lost a race since eighth grade in Minnesota and I ended up getting second place in the 800 at state in Minnesota. I did it because I wanted the chance to run against an amazing athlete who had won every year as well, in addition to seeing how good I could be in a different event. It was one of those things where it showed character and that I was willing to try. You don’t always succeed but I did very well that day.
Question: How have you been involved in track and cross country since your Olympic participation in 2004?
Tollefson: If you make the Olympic team, a lot of doors open. Depending on which door you choose, your path can go many different ways. I was able to use my education, and even before the Olympics I tried to remember that the sport can be gone with just one injury, so I always had my hand in other things. After my career as a professional runner in the Olympics, I got heavily involved with television and speaking. I have camps and now a podcast. I’m basically constantly talking about running and being physically fit and healthy. It has really been a great way to segue into life after being an athlete.