A year ago, Madison La Follette’s Finn Gessner prepared all season to challenge the WIAA Division 1 state record in the 3,200-meter run.

Then Mother Nature intervened.

When race time came at the state track and field meet in La Crosse, Gessner’s bid for a state record hit an obstacle. Near the end of the second lap of the 3,200, a lightning warning and impending storm caused meet officials to stop the race and leave Gessner filled with anger and frustration.

After a lengthy delay, the runners returned and a then-composed Gessner earned first place, finishing in 9 minutes, 1.81 seconds — about 4 seconds off the Division 1 state record of 8:57.73 set by New London’s Chris Rombough in 2005.

Gessner, now a senior, is back, seeking to defend his 3,200 title and take another crack at that tantalizing record.

“I’m coming back with a big goal after that shot I took last year,” said Gessner, scheduled to run the 3,200 Friday and the 1,600 Saturday. “I’m coming back to La Crosse in the 3,200 and I know I’m ready for it. I am pointing toward me running a fast 3,200. I’ve got my head on right. I’m ready to play; I’m ready to do something fast.”

That he ran 800 meters, waited out the 1-hour, 50-minute delay and won the 3,200 last year with a time that wasn’t too far off the existing mark boosted his confidence.

So did his school-record time of 8:47.57 in the 3,200 during a seventh-place finish at the Arcadia (California) Invitational in April.

Entering the state meet, you might as well throw out the seed times; Gessner is seeded 14th after qualifying for state with a winning sectional time of 9:36.37.

“The only thing that could stop myself is me, I guess, but there is always great competition at the state meet,” said Gessner, a University of Wisconsin commit. “We’ll find out when the race goes out, who wants to race and race fast.”

Gessner worked on improving his sprinting this season, running 400s and 800s. That had been one of his shortcomings, said Gessner, the two-time WIAA Division 1 boys cross country champion.

“That is a testament to him,” said Brady Nichols, the boys distance coach on La Follette coach John Neumann’s track and field staff and the school’s boys cross country coach. “Each athlete has their strengths. His strength is he has remarkable endurance. … A lot of high school kids don’t want to deal with (improving weaknesses). They want to do what they are best at. They don’t want to get out of their comfort zone. He was willing to do that, which is a testament to his maturity as an athlete.”

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Gessner gives Nichols much credit for his maturation as a runner and an individual, saying he didn’t know where he’d be without his coach.

“He’s a really nice guy, but nice isn’t what you need all the time,” Gessner said. “Sometimes, a slap of truth will get you going.”

The 18-year-old Gessner said Nichols changed his mindset about running, academics and how to handle himself in interviews and as a person. As a junior, Nichols’ remarks really sank in. Gessner said, “I realized what he was preaching.”

On the track, Gessner — always so eager to race — learned the benefits of practicing intelligently and race strategy. Nichols said he had to rein in Gessner.

“He was a kid who just wanted to hammer — to just put down the hammer from the start,” Nichols said. “As he got older, he learned he didn’t have to do that to win. I wanted to save him. You can’t take a high school kid and just grind him. He wouldn’t fare very well. That’s a trust thing between an athlete and a coach.”

Gessner also could be demonstrative in victory at the finish line, which didn’t always sit well with rivals. Gessner said Nichols helped him “understand other people’s points of view.”

Nichols described Gessner as a happy-go-lucky kid and said, for example, Gessner’s “swinging for the fences” home-run gesture at the end of one race was harmless. But Nichols has made sure he talked to Gessner over the years about sportsmanship and balancing the celebration of a win against respecting his opponents.

“As he gets older, he gets better at it,” said Nichols, who also knows Gessner well because Nichols’ son, Kye, is a friend of Gessner’s. “He’s just a fun kid. I think it’s important he has fun, especially because it is a grueling sport. He has a lot of energy and is just so excited to do what he is doing.”

Once in a hurry to get to the next phase of his life, Gessner now is making sure to enjoy his final days as a prep athlete.

“I’d say it’s pretty bittersweet,” Gessner said about his prep career coming to a close. “My junior year, I couldn’t wait to get through high school and couldn’t wait for college.

“Everyone has told me this year to enjoy high school, enjoy your team and enjoy your senior year, then you can start running with the big dogs. They told me to just enjoy high school while you are there. Really try to appreciate it.”


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Contact Jon Masson at jmasson@madison.com.


Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.