Editor's Note: This article was first published in the May-June, 2006, issue of Minnesota Running & Track magazine.
From the Archives:
Heather vs. the Hurricane
by Charlie Mahler
When snowballs returned to the streets of New Orleans, Heather Van Norman knew her city was back shape.
Van Norman, the former Windom High School sprint sensation, has the one-of-a-kind job of coaching cross country track and field these days at New Orleans’ Tulane University. Hurricane Katrina blowing smack into her city last fall washed her life and her team into chaos. But now, eight months later, with the city getting back on its feet and with her team’s outdoor season gaining momentum, Van Norman is excited and hopeful.
And, seeing the snowball vendors back at work – these are snowballs you eat, by the way, not snowballs you put someone’s eye out with – tells her that things are getting back to normal all across her battered city.
“These aren’t your average circus snowballs,” she explained of the ice and syrup confections. “These are snowball that are shaved ice, these are the best snowballs ‘quote, unquote’ in the world. And those little stands are up and running. There’s life back up on St. Charles Avenue, there’s life on what’s called Magazine Street.”
Last fall, of course, things weren’t so sweet and refreshing. In the days after the levees breached in New Orleans, Van Norman’s track at Tulane was under four feet of water, she had evacuated to Washington D.C. with her two children and fiancé, and her team was scattered across the south – sent home to their families directly from the initial cross country meeting of the fall, just after arriving on campus for the start of the school year.
It’s been quite the wild ride for Van Norman, the young woman who, back in the late 1980s, never lost a race in her Minnesota high school career, and who still hold two records at the State Meet. But then her path from Windom to Tulane wasn’t exactly direct either.
Van Norman on the track at Tulane. Photo courtesy of Tulane University.
Heather Van Norman was as regular as the dawn in high school. If there was a 100, 200, or 400 meter race that she was entered in, she would win it. For four years, from ninth grade to her senior year, the speedster bettered all challengers, winning four matched sets of 100-200-400 triples at the Class A State Meet.
Nowadays, nearly twenty years after the last of her wins, two of her records still stand – her 12.14 100 meters from 1986 and her 24.58 200 meters from 1987. Windom, with its one-girl “team” – won the State titles in 1987. The school repeated in 1988 with Van Norman and a third-place 4 x 800 meter relay squad.
“It’s so long ago,” Van Norman concedes. “I was actually looking through pictures. I was salvaging some of our stuff from the hurricane; some of them were kind of stuck together. We just laughed – the styles!”
Van Norman’s career would soon hit the first bump in the road as she made her college choice. She chose her home-state school impulsively over the University of Tennessee and immediately regretted the decision.
“I was a daddy’s girl,” Van Norman remembers, “and I asked him if he would be disappointed if I didn’t go to Minnesota. He said, ‘Yeah, I’d be disappointed,’ and I kind of interpreted that as he’d be disappointed in me, and that had never happened before. So I decided to go [to Minnesota].”
“He’s the postmaster so he quickly ran to the Post Office and put [the official letter of intent] into the mailbox. And I called him and told him to take it out because I really didn’t want to go.”
It was too late. Van Norman had committed to the U. and head coach Gary Wilson held her to the commitment, which kept her at the Minnesota for her freshman year. She eventually transferred to Louisiana State, but had to sit out her sophomore season there after Minnesota refused to release her early.
“My dad didn’t think the sun shined in any other state,” Van Norman laughs, “but right after I transferred to LSU they moved to Florida. They haven’t been back!”
“But I tell you, it probably was the best experience,” she says of her Gopher year. “Gary Wilson and I are still good friends. I have a lot of respect for him and Kurt Elias [an assistant coach with the team then], they taught me a lot – from study habits to mentoring me through my freshman year. Any freshman in college goes through a lot of transitions. It was a great experience for me.”
But LSU turned out to be an ideal place for the gifted sprinter. There, as part of a dynastic, sprinter-based program, she flourished individually in the 400 meters and as a strong relay leg for the team’s rocking 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 meter relay squads.
While in Baton Rouge, and paralleling her multiple-title, collector’s set high school career, Van Norman was a member of three-straight NCAA indoor and outdoor champion 4 x 400 squads as well as three straight title-winning 4 x 100 teams.
“When I went down to LSU,” Van Norman said, “it was so different from Minnesota – from food to just a totally different lifestyle. From there, it just kind of blossomed. My whole college career from my freshman year on to when I graduated in ’94 was just unbelievable, it was just wonderful.”
Not that there weren’t some challenges along the way. In 1992, competing for LSU and training with high hopes for the Olympic Trials to be held down the road in New Orleans, Van Norman learned she was pregnant. She had won the Southeastern Conference indoor 400 in 53.01 in March and was training well as the season progressed.
“I told my mom, ‘I’m just not feeling right,’” she remembered. “We looked into everything and then sure enough there I was. The Trials didn’t really quite go my way, but it was a great experience. I wouldn’t trade it for the world – I had a great run in track.”
Her son Odell was born that November – the expectant mom trained daily until the day before delivery – and Van Norman was back winning another NCAA 4 x 4 title with the Tigers the following March.
“So now when an athlete says to me, ‘I’ve got this nick and pain and I have this and that’ I say, ‘Give me a break, you’re okay,’” Van Norman laughs.
Van Norman, a Dean’s List student, graduated with a degree in Cardiac Science. She later earned a masters degree in Cardiac Rehabilitation at Georgia Tech.
Adversity seems to bring out the best in her.
Fast forward to late-August, 2005: Van Norman, Odell (now thirteen), her three-year-old daughter Jasmyne, and fiancé Derek Mills, the 1996 Olympic 4 x 400 gold medalist who assists at Tulane, are in Richmond, Virginia. They’re on the way to Washington D.C. where they plan to use the evacuation to visit Derek’s family. There they hear that the levees have breached back home in New Orleans.
“At that point my heart just dropped,” Van Norman says. “The whole time you’re very optimistic -- okay it’s going to drain, our pumps will be running, within a week we’ll be back home. Another week passed and we thought we should at least put Odell in school because that’s going to give him a sense of normalcy back.”
Once she new her own children were safe, her mind turned to her team. Tulane athletes had spread across the south in advance of Katrina. Later, ten members of her squad would make a home at Louisiana Tech University, where the Tulane football team ended up, while the rest stayed at home or found places to train at other campuses in the region.
“I knew that whatever case that it was I had to keep the program going,” she vowed. “I knew I had tons of frequent flier miles and I basically tried to seek out and see a lot of my kids. Coach Mills – Derek -- and I paid for stuff out of our pockets because we knew from our love of track and field we had to keep our sport going.”
“For me, the whole time, regardless, my biggest thing was: I’m going to take care of those student athletes. I’ve got to be kind of the momma bird here. As long as my kids are taken care of, I am okay.”
While Van Norman was traveling her circuit, Tulane officials were deciding the long-term fate of Green Wave athletes. In November, the school decided to continue football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, and women’s cross country, indoor, and outdoor track. Lost until sometime in the next five years, according to the plan hammered out with the NCAA, were soccer, tennis, golf, and Tulane’s newly resurrected men’s cross country and track program.
“It’s kind of mixed emotions, right,” Van Norman said. “Because, when I had gotten to Tulane four years ago they had cut men’s track for gender equity purposes. In two years while I was there we grew, by three times, the size of the women’s program, so we brought men’s track and field back to Tulane. So I had them for one year and then, unfortunately, lost it again.”
While the decisions were hard make as well as hard to take, that things were being settled proved a comfort of sorts.
“It’s uncertainty that’s hardest,” Van Norman said. “You can have a strong faith in God, you can pray, you can do all the right things. You’re wondering, you’re hearing the rumor mill that they’re going to cut athletics, that they’re going to do this or do that and that Tulane will never come back. So it’s uncertainty …”
Van Norman and Mills didn’t get back into their own home, which had suffered miner roof damage, until November, and, at that time, without the children.
“We didn’t have anything major,” she said. “We have friends that have lost everything. We have friends that have moved away. We have friends that live in trailer homes.”
“It’s not a dull grim picture.”
Now, with the outdoor season underway, the Tulane campus and athletic facilities dry and largely refurbished, and those cold, syrupy snowballs available again on the street, Van Norman is quick to stress the positives.
“It’s not a dull grim picture. I’d want people to say that we’re survivors but man, aren’t they flourishing from it! We’re back up, we’re running, the track program is going strong. There’s a lot of great things going on.
The outdoor season has indeed opened with a bang for the Green Wave. The team had four NCAA reional meer qualifiers in six events just a few weekends into the outdoor season. NCAA national meet participants Gloria Asumnu and Jelena Jurlina appear poised to return – Asumnu will compete at regionals in the 100 and 200 meters; Jurlina will throw the discus and javelin. Also with tickets punched for regionals are shot putter Helmi Leppanen and 400 meter runner Valencia Wilson.
Getting the squad to the outdoor season was a challenge, however.
“That was probably the most interesting task -- indoor track and field,” Van Norman said. “Because we had kids that had worked out 20%, some that worked out 100%, other maybe worked out 50%. Trying to get the kids back on track and working out had been the challenge.”
The team finished 11th in the 12 team Conference USA Indoor Championships, after placing seventh last year.
“Now, you would be amazed,” Van Norman beams. “A lot of really great things are happening for us. I’m so proud of our team for stepping up to the plate. I talked to them yesterday about it. It seems like all the hard work they went through, all the worrying, all the pain, all the tears that were shed, the sense of loss and insecurity is now finally paying off..”
The renewal on the Tulane track mirrors that of the city of New Orleans itself, according to Van Norman.
“There are a lot of changes going on, but I really, honestly think they’re good changes for the city, things that need to change for the city anyway,” she said. “I feel blessed to have met so many great people. Everybody is helping each other out. That’s what this city is doing and I’m proud to say that we’ve mustered through it, that we’ve been a part of it. It’s unbelievable.”
While Van Norman, who worked her way to the Tulane job after stints at Eden Prairie High School, Rice University, and Georgia Tech, looks like someone who will keep moving up the coaching ranks as her career matures, the aftermath of Katrina seems to have only strengthened her connection to the city, to Tulane, and to her athletes.
“A lot of people have wondered, ‘Why are you still there,’” she confided. “I love coaching, number one. Seeing my kids, how they’re performing now, I’m so happy for them. I realize that they’re going to make it through anything, if they’ve made it through this.”