LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — The returning members of the Wyoming cross country program suffered through a tough year.
The 2020 fall season was postponed due to the COVID-19 health crisis. Training for a truncated winter schedule proved to be difficult with all of the contact tracing, mask wearing, quarantining and social distancing.
The Cowboys and Cowgirls returned to a sense of running normalcy on Sept. 3 by hosting the Wyoming Invite in Cheyenne.
“It felt natural,” UW head coach Scott Dahlberg said. “But it was also something we didn’t want to take for granted because we know how fast that can be taken away.”
Dahlberg was referring to the life-changing pandemic, but this generation of runners is well aware of the unspeakable pain the program endured 20 years ago, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.
On Sept. 16, 2001, eight members of UW’s cross country team were killed in a two-car collision 17 miles south of Laramie on U.S. 287 near Tie Siding.
At around 1:30 a.m., a one-ton pickup driven by another UW student crossed the dividing line on the deadly highway and slammed into the 1990 Jeep Wagoneer the eight teammates were traveling back from Fort Collins in.
Justin Lambert-Belanger, 20, of Timmins, Ontario; Cody Brown, 21, of Hudson, Colorado; Kyle Johnson, 20, of Riverton; Joshua Jones, 22, of Salem, Oregon; Morgan McLeland, 21, of Gillette; Kevin Salverson, 19, of Cheyenne; Nicholas Schabron, 20, of Laramie; and Shane Shatto, 19, of Douglas died together after a night of team bonding.
The drunk driver who caused the tragic accident, Clinton Haskins of Maybell, Colorado, served just under 10 years of a 14-year sentence in the Wyoming State Penitentiary after he pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated homicide by vehicle. He was paroled in 2011.
“It was a tragedy second to none,” said UW athletics director Tom Burman, who held the same position at Portland State in 2001. “The families affected, my heart goes out to them today. Nobody is prepared to lose a child. So for those parents, I just can’t imagine.”
The image of the Hermes foot and wings symbol with an “8” inscribed at the ankle of his socks — a tribute to the Wyoming Eight — can be spotted throughout UW’s athletic facilities.
The cross country team trains on the Memorial 8 Track. They pass by the “Come Run With Me” memorial located outside the War Memorial Fieldhouse every day on the way to practice.
There is also a memorial at Riverton High School honoring the eight victims and a large statue of Shatto’s silhouette atop a step hill behind Douglas High.
“May we look up to Shane for strength and perseverance,” the plaque reads.
Dahlberg was a 17-year-old high school runner aspiring to compete in college in 2001. He went on to earn all-American honors three times at Western State before breaking into coaching as an assistant at his alma mater and Colorado State.
“I remember the news. It’s just a very terrible thing. I can’t imagine being involved in a situation like that in any capacity. It’s something that we do remember and don’t want to ever forget,” Dahlberg said. “I think a lot of the current generation have either heard about it or know of the situation, but maybe don’t fully have a grasp of the gravity of the situation. It’s something we definitely this time of year try to bring back up.
“We try to make sure everyone knows that life is precious, and running is an awesome corner of our life, but there are a lot of other things that accompany it.”
In 2018, Dahlberg’s first year as head coach, the UW men’s cross country team reached the NCAA championships for the first time since 1986. The team finished 12th nationally.
Most of the current Cowboys trying to build on that breakthrough season were infants or not even born when the Wyoming Eight were killed.
“A lot of people still remember it in Laramie and it’s a big deal,” said Seth Bruxuoort, 20, a redshirt sophomore from Fort Collins who finished second in the Wyoming Invite to begin the 2021 season. “We’re just trying to bring the community support in. That’s always been a part of Wyoming cross country, and we can see that from that tragedy. It’s encouraging that the community is still rallying for us.”
Growing up in Laramie, redshirt sophomore Philip Henry knew all about the legacy of the Wyoming Eight. He helped the Laramie High cross country team, coached by Greg Schabron, the brother of Nicholas Schabron, win four consecutive state titles.
“We were just stretching out there right next to the sign yesterday. So I just looked over, glanced at the faces,” Henry said of the memorial outside the fieldhouse. “Although we don’t talk about it every day per se, everyone on the team is aware of what happened. We all honor their memory and make good choices. Not that they made any bad choices, but someone else made a bad choice.”
Since the tragedy, Wyoming has lowered the legal blood-alcohol content (from .10 and .08) and the Governor’s Council on Impaired Driving has been fighting to influence other measures to prevent future impaired-driving deaths for the last 10 years.
“We try to educate our student-athletes when they come through about who they are and what happened so they know the story,” Burman said of keeping the memory of the Wyoming Eight alive in the athletic department. “That’s 420 kids at a time, 100-and-some new kids every year. We try to educate them through our leadership program about what happened on that day and how that impacted so many people.”