CC Strong: How a Stoughton High School Cross-Country Team Tragedy Became a Story of Resilience

When a team of young runners’ promising season is interrupted by tragedy, what happens next?

On this postcard-perfect early September evening, with the sun lingering in the clear blue sky, a black Jeep Cherokee makes its way north on Skyline Drive outside of Stoughton, a city about 20 miles southeast of Madison. The teenage girl behind the wheel is headed to her friend’s house for a ritual followed by cross-country teams throughout the nation: the Friday night pasta feed. Teammates will gather, slurp piles of noodles to carb up for tomorrow’s race and swap inside jokes developed over hundreds of miles running these rural roads together. They’re the girls you see around town doing one of three things: getting ready to run, recovering after a run, or running. Day after day after day.

On this Friday night, Susan Zaemisch has to miss the pasta party. As the coach of the Stoughton High School girls team and mother of three runners, she usually makes a point to attend. But tonight, another duty prevails: the cross-country team fundraiser at the high school’s football game. So Zaemisch is en route home after practice to change clothes, clean up and then head to the stadium to work concessions.

Nothing is abnormal about tonight, until suddenly everything’s abnormal.

A black Honda Civic carries five girls heading from practice to the pasta feed. They get a bit turned around, so they pull into a driveway to get their bearings. As they’re backing out of that driveway, their teammate, the girl in the Jeep, comes over a small hill just south of the driveway. By the time she slams on the Jeep’s brakes – she’s alone in the car – it’s too late.

The Jeep’s front right side hits the back right side of the Honda. The cars careen in different directions after impact.

Kids get in, and die from, car wrecks for lots of irresponsible reasons. They’re texting and driving. They’re drinking and driving. They’re not wearing seatbelts. In this case, none of these is true.

Yet the situation is clearly dire. Everyone is not OK. Zaemisch hears of it first from one of her daughters who wasn’t in either car. The daughter calls with an urgent message: Get here immediately. The teammates leave the dinner and rush down the road.

A night meant for bonding and celebrating becomes one of crisis. The kids watch teammates leave by ambulance. Another is taken by helicopter to American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison.

Zaemisch calls the athletic director, Mel Dow. We won’t be at the football game tonight, she tells him. We won’t be running the meet tomorrow in Verona, she continues.

“There’s no way I’m going to ask them to run a race tomorrow,” she says.

Last season ended in disappointment. This season must be different.

At the Sectional meet in 2016, the Vikings girls came achingly close to making the State meet, the holy grail for high school cross-country runners. When you finish in third place – only the top two teams go to State – and it’s by a measly three points, a lot of second-guessing happens. How could we not have done just a little bit more, left just a little bit more out there? Never mind that the team that edged you out for the final state spot, Madison Memorial, is giant, with 63 percent higher enrollment. It still hurts.

The disappointment spawned a promise.

“We made it our goal Oct. 30 last year,” Zaemisch says, noting the date of the 2016 State meet. “It just became an unspoken message. We need to get back to State as a team.”

The girls pounded out hundreds of miles together over the summer, running as a team five days a week. The hills, the heat, the humidity, the rain were mere inconveniences to run through. They were hungry.

Mid-August arrives and the girls come back for the first weeks of practice – the summer sessions were captain’s practices, no coaches allowed – healthy, well-trained and eager. The top runners return from last year’s team, and all of the seven or eight girls expected to run varsity do two-a-day workouts.

“I say jump; they say, ‘How high?’” is how Zaemisch describes her eager-to-please team.

Their first meet, in late August at Watertown, is a triumph. The girls in the purple Stoughton singlets run away with it, dusting 13 other teams.

“We knew at that first meet that we had a very solid team,” Zaemisch says. “All the stars were aligned.”

The week after the accident, five of the six girls injured in the crash were out of the hospital. The sixth – freshman Emma Sorensen, who was a passenger in the smashed Honda – was still in a Madison hospital. Though the team skipped the meet the day after the crash, signs were positive that Emma would recuperate, so they decided to run their next race.

At that Saturday morning race at Lake Farm County Park in Madison, the girls junior varsity runners are looping through the woods when Zaemisch gets a text from Emma’s parents, and it is heartbreaking: Emma passed away on Thursday. Doctors were able to use some of her organs to save others’ lives.

“I’m going to be honest,” says Zaemisch. “At that very moment, a flood of tears came out, and I felt a huge amount of sadness, but also I was struck by how beautiful the message was from her family sharing that information with me.”

Zaemisch, not having go-ahead from the family, keeps the news quiet. The varsity race goes on as scheduled, with the runners unaware of the news. The Vikings win again, this time vanquishing big-school powers such as Madison West.

She calls a Sunday night meeting at the multi-purpose room at the high school. The 40 or so boys and girls on the cross-country teams are there sprawled on the couches or sitting on the carpeted floor. Some parents are, too, as are plenty of counselors and psychologists.

Zaemisch delivers the news to all assembled. She breaks down at the parts about Emma’s organ donation, about her life-giving gifts to strangers. “I think it’s OK for my team to know that although I’m a very strong woman, this affected me very personally,” she says.

She gathers the team, coaching them through the grief process. Talking to others about your feelings will help. None of us is alone. Amid the hugs and sobbing in front of her, she delivers news about more practical matters: practice times, funeral arrangements. She delivers a needed dose of honesty, too: It’s going to get worse before it gets better.

The 90-minute meeting includes a reminder from Zaemisch that practice will go on tomorrow, as scheduled. Runners can decide on their own about attending but are urged to stick together. “We want you here. We feel that you need to be here,” Zaemisch says. “The way we’re going to get through this is to pull together as a team.”

Teammates remember Emma – known to all as “Moe” – as a girl whose wide smile showed her braces and belied both a free spirit and a big heart. She started her academic journey at Pumpkin Patch preschool and loved sports. Hockey was probably her favorite, and she played for the Junior Icebergs, Stoughton’s peewee team. She started running cross country in eighth grade, the better to get in tiptop shape for hockey season. She came from a big family, with four kids, and spent a good chunk of life jamming to various genres of music or walking the family’s dogs, Eve and Nala. She would have turned 15 on Dec. 8.

Emma’s death wasn’t the team’s only loss. For the week Emma was in the hospital, senior Emily Reese’s father had been missing while on a muskie fishing trip up north. Authorities discovered his boat on Big Sand Lake near Eagle River, with lights on and motor running, a week prior. This same weekend, a dive crew found him in the water, drowned.

As Zaemisch predicted, the girls do pull together; the entire team shows up for the next practice on Monday. Their season of destiny also becomes one of funerals, which they attend as a team. Before the next scheduled race, they hold a pasta feed, but at the high school. Before the following meet, they decide to go back to a teammate’s house, as usual. Knowing some kids would be nervous about another car trip, the coaches decide the team should caravan. Zaemisch drives the car at the front. Boys coach Pat Schneider drives the caboose car.

Before every race, the girls in the purple singlets gather in a circle, holding hands. At some point in her pep talk, Zaemisch tells them to squeeze the hand of the girl next to them, hard. This race is going to hurt, she tells them. Better to get a taste of it now.

The Sectional meet in DeForest comes just six weeks after the team learned of its dual losses. Zaemisch wants not just to make State but to win the Sectional, though she keeps that wish secret from the team. As they gather before the race, they don’t need to be reminded of what’s happened this season, or of how last season ended a year ago, or of the teammate they lost. Each girl, and Zaemisch, wears a temporary tattoo of an artistic black “E” on one hand. On the opposite wrist, each wears a silver bracelet inscribed “CC Strong.” It’s become their motto, and a parent paid for each girl to get a fitted bracelet from a local jewelry shop. On their T-shirts, the last thing they take off before the race, is a quote: “We started as a team, and became a family.” They squeeze hands, listen to a brief talk by Zaemisch about running for each other and their school and their community, and head to the starting line.

Zaemisch has one concern: This course is flat and fast, not the best fit for her team. “My team is a tough team,” she says. “We love hills. We train on hills. We have a lot of power.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Sophomore Grace Jenny finishes fourth, followed closely by junior Anna Wozniak in fifth and junior Margaret Ross in seventh. Rival Madison West pulls past Stoughton’s fourth and fifth runners down the stretch, eking out a 3-point win. But the Vikings’ second-place finish is enough to book their first trip to State since 2014 – on the same course where, a year earlier, they sat heartbroken by a narrow miss.

Last year’s agony fed this year’s ecstasy. They could have been forgiven for letting running fade into the mist at a time of struggle. “Running’s what we do,” says Zaemisch. “It’s our therapy.”

The Friday morning before State, Zaemisch does what she always does, giving each girl a laminated map of the course they’ll run the next day that includes a quote from each runner about what this race means. “I never knew how strong the bond could be with a group of girls, and you guys have shown me that bond,” writes one of two freshman who’ll toe the line at State. “I know tomorrow is just going to be an amazing day,” writes a crash survivor on the varsity team.

Zaemisch gives them a classic coach’s marching orders: “Prove them wrong.” Making State doesn’t cut it, she stresses. They need to compete, and outperform their ranking, which is 15th in the state. And on they go to State, sitting through the two-hour bus ride to The Ridges Golf Course in Wisconsin Rapids for the noon race. When they get back on that bus and head home, sweaty and spent and euphoric, their “Family” T-shirts over their purple singlets, they do so not as champions but as survivors. They beat their seed, finishing 13th, and look forward to next season.

With any luck, it will be altogether different from this one, when their young lives changed forever, a group of girls forced to cope with grief they couldn’t imagine by doing what they do best: putting one foot in front of the other. Day after day after day.

‘CC Strong’ appears in the February 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Daniel Simmons grew up in St. Paul, Minn., the “good twin” city. He started his writing career covering the midsection for the Mayo Clinic. Since then he’s written about human smuggling by sea in San Diego, the coyote invasion of Chicago and the political circus in Madison. He also got to write about his childhood idol, Larry Bird, for Runners World. He’s the managing editor.