ANAMOSA - Heading into the 2001 girls track and field campaign, Anamosa’s Ashley Lerch had made trips to the state meet at Drake Stadium in Des Moines each of the previous two seasons in the wheelchair 100-and-400-meter dash events.
Both ended with Lerch coming up just shy of her dream of winning a state championship, but the Raider junior was ready to get over that hump in the spring of 2001, and she also wanted to make a statement by bringing home the title that she had worked so hard for so long to win.
Lerch lost the use of her legs when she was just three-years-old after an April 12, 1987, accident when she jumped out of a tractor she was riding in on the family farm with her father Dave. Lerch was completely crushed under the tractor, and when her father arrived at her side, she wasn’t breathing.
Dave gave Ashley CPR and was able to get her breathing again, and quickly rushed his daughter to the Anamosa hospital where she was then airlifted to the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics. Ashley was treated for, among other things, brain swelling, cracked ribs and a skull fracture.
“After three days in the hospital I could still move my legs,” Lerch said. “But then a blood clot formed in my spinal cord and I lost all feeling from my waist down.”
The devasting setback did not diminish Ashley’s outlook on life, even as a teenager.
“I get upset sometimes being in this wheelchair,” she said back in May of 2000. “But this is the way I’ve been since I can remember, and I’ve gotten used to it.”
Raider girls track coach Shane Knoche invited Ashley, then a freshman at Anamosa, to join the girls’ track team after hearing she might be interested in competing.
“I knew she was a great kid and had helped out when she was in middle school, so I thought I’d ask her and just see what she’d say,” Knoche said.
“The rest is history.”
On May 19, 2001, that history was made in Des Moines, as Lerch would finally break though and earn that coveted state championship defeating Armstrong-Ringsted senior Molly Rezac, who had defeated Lerch each of the previous two seasons in the wheelchair 400.
“I know Ashley really wanted this race,” Knoche said. “This was going to be the final time that she would get to race against Rezac and Ashley didn’t want to leave the meet knowing that she was never able to beat her.”
With the entire stadium standing and applauding, Lerch crossed the finish line first posting the third-fastest time ever in the event with a 1:20.44, topping Rezac’s 1:21.29.
“That was just a great race from start-to-finish, but it was what Ashley was able to do in the final 100-meters that really made the difference,” Knoche said. “She got off just a bit at the third turn but made a very strong finish to beat Rezac for the first time.”
Rezac topped Lerch to claim the 100-meter dash state title that spring, even with the Raider junior coming through with her best state time ever of 22.76.
“You can’t ask for more than that, putting up your best time at the state meet,” Knoche said. “Ashley’s start was almost too powerful, really. She got off center a bit and in a quick race like the 100 there isn’t a lot of time to recover.”
Lerch also had company at the state meet that spring, as for the first time in two years a Raider teammate joined her competing in Des Moines with freshman Alana Cook placing 14th in the open 400.
After paying her dues through her freshman and sophomore campaigns, and finally winning a state championship in 2001 as a junior, Lerch dominated the state wheelchair 400 and 100 events as a senior in 2002.
“Ashley broke through with her first state title in the 400-meter dash last year and ended her career taking not only the 400 for a second straight year, but added the 100 title as well,” Knoche said. “It was a great end to what has been a great track career for Ashley.”
On May 18, 2002 Lerch brought home her first state championship of the day in the 100 with a near state-record clocking of 21.54, and claimed the title by a whopping five-seconds over the runner-up finisher.
“Ashley missed a state record by just six-hundredths of a second,” Knoche said. “She really left her legacy having the second-fastest time ever in the 100 and third-fastest time ever in the 400.”
In that 400, Lerch crossed the finish line in 1:24.22 to win her second state championship of the day, and third overall of her brilliant career.
Lerch had even more company in Des Moines in 2002, as Cook made a second-straight appearance in the state 400 while freshman Audra Ketelsen qualified in the class 2A discus where she placed 16th with a throw of 106-feet, 3-inches (Ketelsen would go on to set an Anamosa High School girls’ record that may never be broken in the discus, which we’ll spotlight soon in an upcoming issue).
Lerch also competed in the wheelchair shot put event for the first time, and brought home a state runner-up medal after a 9-foot, 3 ¾-inch effort.
“This being her last year she wanted to give the shot a try,” Knoche said.