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Storhaug steps away

Storhaug takes one final plunge into the Discovery Middle School pool with some of his swimmers after the Cardinals took second at the 5A meet on February 22. Many alumni gathered at the Cardinals swimming banquet last Tuesday to honor Storhaug for his 30 years of coaching with a plaque that commemorated all his accomplishments with the programs. (Contributed)1 / 2
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The swimmers and divers who competed for Alexandria’s Mark Storhaug over the last 30 years know there was a saying he liked to pound home with the athletes he coached.

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“His approach was, ‘I’ll give you a prescription and if you take it you can accomplish anything you want, but it has to be you,’ ” Luke Vestrum, a member of the 1999 state-title winning team, said. “Because of that, we learned what it took to be a champion.”

Translation – Storhaug gave his swimmers the workouts they could succeed with, but it was on them to determine how hard to pursue those. Now someone else will be writing that prescription for the Alexandria boys’ and girls’ swimming and diving teams.

The longtime Cardinals coach called it a career after leading the Alexandria boys to a 13th-place finish at the Class A state meet on March 1. It marks the end of a run of success that leaves some big shoes to fill for whomever is hired next to lead the Alexandria programs.

“I’m just getting old,” the 56-year-old science teacher at Discovery Middle School said. “Tired of the late nights, tired of being tired. It’s difficult. You kind of feel like you’re obligated to the kids you’ve got, but when will that ever end? There’s good kids coming up that are underclassmen right now that I’ll miss watching and influencing.”

The numbers that Storhaug piled up during his tenure in Alexandria speak to his ability to get through to kids. His combined record with the two programs is 434-195 with 45 postseason titles, 38 all-state athletes and 131 all-conference athletes.

Storhaug said consistency had a lot to do with that. He took over in 1984 after Mark Nelsen helped get the swim programs going in the 1970s. Nelsen, and Storhaug’s former college teammate at Bemidji State University, Kelly Lewis, remained by his side for many years as assistants and helping out with programs at the lower levels.

That continuity meant swimmers knew what to expect coming into the program. From there, it was on them to accept the coaching and work toward their potential.

“You can’t force someone to work hard,” Vestrum said. “You have to earn their respect so they’ll do it for you. That’s what coach did. We wanted to swim fast for him. It wasn’t just for us. Some coaches will scream and holler and put on a big show and try to force you into working hard. That wasn’t coach.”

Vestrum saw what could happen when determination and talent came together with the plans Storhaug laid out. He was a member of the first swimming state championship team in Alexandria history as the Cardinal boys won back-to-back Class AA state titles in 1999 and 2000.

Vestrum joined Erik Esbjornsson, Mark Atwood and Kyle Weimer in 1999 to set a state record in the 200-freestyle relay with a time of 1:24.68. That record stood until 2012 when a foursome from Eden Prairie edged them in 1:23.90.

The 1999 team title came after the Cardinals finished second in 1998 and marked the first time that an outstate team had won a Class AA boys’ championship. Storhaug was named the Minnesota State Coaches Association boys swimming Coach of the Year in 1999 and 2000. He was also named the 2000 Coach of the Year for boys swimming in Minnesota by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“I think he was proud of his swimmers, and we were proud to have him as a coach,” Esbjornsson said. “Even when I was in college [at the University of Minnesota], I was proud to be from Alexandria and to have swam for him.”

Storhaug had built up winning programs on both the boys and girls side before those state-title winning seasons. Success often breeds success in sports, and Esbjornsson and Vestrum said that winning tradition motivated them from the time they were young.

“There was always a sense of pride being a swimmer for Mark because of the success he always garnered,” Vestrum said. “It was easy to trust that because the results were always there. He always drove us to achieve more. We had a very successful program, and it was easy to assume we were going to get better and better.”

Storhaug said those state-title winning teams featured a group of guys who wanted to do what it took to win a championship. He wrote the prescription, but is quick to credit the athletes he coached for their success, calling it a privilege to lead the program for so long.

“I have been lucky to have coached many great teams and played a small part in the accomplishments of many fine athletes,” he said. “I think I stayed out of the way just enough to let the natural talents of the kids shine through.”

It is usually what goes on behind the scenes in order to build a program that wears coaches out. Storhaug ran the summer swimming program in Alexandria for 25 years, which took up time in the offseason.

Storhaug often starts his days around 4:30 a.m. During the season, he generally returned home around 7 p.m. on practice days and later than that on meet days.

“The new school days are going to create a difference next year too for high school,” he said. “Practice will be getting out later, and I’ll be even more tired.”

Storhaug decided it’s time to let somebody else lead the programs. That will free up more time to focus on another passion of his, golf. How he will spend his free time in the winter he hasn’t decided yet, but he is comfortable knowing that now is the right time to step away.

“Hopefully, a change in supervision and enthusiasm will spur on the Cards to reach ever higher and attain more of the goals that they are capable of achieving,” Storhaug said.

Storhaug’s career accomplishments


* 1999 and 2000 Minnesota Coaches Association boys’ swimming Coach of the Year

* Six-time Section 8 Coach of the Year

* 2000 National Federation of State High School Associations Coach of the Year for Minnesota in boys’ swimming and diving

* 2004 – Inducted into the Thief River Falls Prowlers Hall of Fame

* 2010 – Inducted into the Bemidji State University Athletic Hall of Fame


* 209-115 overall record

* 55-meet win streak from 1993-1998

* 12 CLC titles

*10 section titles

* 52 All-CLC athletes

* 7 all-state athletes

* 1 two-time individual state champion


* 225-80 overall record

* 50-meet win streak from 1995-2000

* 13 CLC titles

* 10 section titles

* 79 All-CLC athletes

* 31 all-state athletes

* 9 high school All Americans

* 9 individual or relay state champions

Eric Morken

Eric Morken is the sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press and Osakis Review newspapers in Douglas County, MN. Follow him on Twitter at echo_sports.

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