OLIN - Olin boys track coach Rich Ginn brought two athletes with him to the state track and field meet at Drake Stadium in Des Moines during the spring of 1998, and both went home with coveted state medals.
Jesse VonBehren, who would become the greatest miler in school history, would use the ’98 campaign as a warm-up for an even more incredible run in 1999, while Bobby Gatts, one of the first in a long line of successful Olin high jumpers, would close his career without what he wanted most, a state championship.
Gatts, who earned numerous berths to the state meet and sorely wanted a title after coming so close just two years earlier, flew 6-feet in miserable conditions in Des Moines and placed sixth overall.
“Everything was looking great for Bobby at the start,” Ginn said. “He was on jumping well and everything seemed to be working until it started to rain. Then he slipped and went down on the wet surface and he just wasn’t the same jumper after that.”
Gatts cleared 5-10 and 6-0 on his first attempts and seemed to be well on his way to closing his career with the class 1A state high jump championship before the weather turned.
The shower burst halted action on the track and Gatts struggled once returning, as Martensdale-St. Mary’s Jesse Arnold claimed the 1A state high jump title after clearing 6-2, a height the Olin senior could normally soar over with his eyes closed.
“I really feel for Bobby,” Ginn said. “Everyone knows he’s not only one of the best high jumpers in the state, but in the nation, too. Today just wasn’t his day. If it wasn’t for the rain, I’d bet Bobby clears 6-2 on his first try and has a state title.”
Gatts made headlines around the state early in the spring of ’98 soaring 6-10 to set the Big East Conference record during the league’s indoor meet on the Cornell College campus in Mount Vernon.
VonBehren also scored points at the state meet for the Lions that year, placing fourth in the 1A 1600-meter run with a school-record time of 4:27.69.
VonBehren would go on to break that record several more times the following spring in what would be a return trip to Drake Stadium with teammate Chris Sulzner (we’ll talk more about that next week).
In ’98 however, VonBehren burst onto the state scene dominating 1600 events wherever he went, and Des Moines was no exception.
“Jesse is a very special athlete,” said Ginn, as VonBehren also starred for the Lions on the football and baseball fields as well as the basketball court.
“He is all competitor and pure drive. The guy just never knows when to quit. He’s worked twice as hard for his success this year compared to last, and he just continues to amazed me.”
And yet, VonBehren was just getting started.