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Kelly Swenson: It's her turn to shine

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A few years ago when Nikki Swenson was one of the elite high school cross country runners in the state, onlookers would see her sister, Kelly, wearing a warm-up shirt with the name Swenson on the back and call her Nikki. It got to the point where Kelly didn't feel she had her own identity and began wearing a shirt that read "Not Nikki" on the back.

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"It wasn't that I wasn't proud of Nikki or anything," said Kelly, now a senior at Dawson-Boyd. "I was always proud of her and her accomplishments. She deserved everything she got. But I wanted people to know who I was, too. Yeah, I was a little jealous, I guess."

When Nikki, who now runs cross country and track at the University of Minnesota, graduated from high school two years ago, fans naturally assumed Kelly would follow in her big sister's footsteps. But Kelly sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament in a game against Ortonville on Jan. 18 and missed the rest of the basketball season, as well as the track season.

"I was running down the court to stop a fast break," Swenson explained. "I jumped to knock the ball away and landed wrong. t felt like my knee rocked out of place."

Initially, it was thought Swenson had a strain and returned to play six days later against MACCRAY.

"I managed to get through that game," she went on, "but there were times when I knew something wasn't quite right."

In the next game against Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg on Jan. 29 in Kerkhoven, Swenson injured the knee again. This time, she had to be helped off the court and her season was over.

An MRI revealed she had a ruptured ACL and a partially torn PCL.

After months of rehabiitation, Swenson finally began running again last summer and was able to participate with her cross country teammates in the fall. Although she wasn't 100 percent, she only missed qualifying for state by 15 seconds, finishing 12th in the section meet in a time of 15:57.12. She previously had qualified for the state meet four times in cross country. Her career best time is 15:35.

"I really wanted to go the Big Show my last year," she admits. "But I think I needed another week or so. But at least I got to get out there and run again."

And despite missing eight games last season in basketball, Swenson became the fourth Dawson-Boyd girl to eclipse 1,000 points in her career Tuesday night when the Blackjacks beat Russell-Tyler-Ruthton 60-51 in a Camden Conference game in Dawson.

Swenson needed 10 points entering the previous game against Benson last Saturday, but finished with eight. As it turned out, that was a blessing in disguise. Had she reached the mark a game earlier, her father and brother would have missed her turn in the spotlight. Her father, Mike, is an assistant wrestling coach for Dawson-Boyd/Lac qui Parle Valley, and her brother, Ryan, is one of the team's top wrestlers. Ryan finished fourth in the state last season at 125 pounds so even he has had his turn in the spotlight.

Mike and his wife, Julie, and Ryan were all on hand when Kelly sank a close-range shot for her 1,000th point. Nikki was unable to attend. The game was stopped and Kelly was presented with the game ball. She finished with 15 points and now stands at 1,013. 

When Kelly went down with her knee injury, just getting to play again was foremost in her mind.

"Basketball is my favorite sport," she said. "I knew I would get to play again. I was determined to make it back. One of my teammates, Kristen Lee, had the same surgery when she was in eighth grade and she made it back. The funny thing is Kristen and I had our surgeries on the exact same day, but two years apart."

Kelly went to Sioux Falls every two weeks to rehabilitate her knee. She was finally given to go-ahead to resume running in July. Slowly, she began to get stronger and build confidence to the point she was able to run without thinking about the knee.

"It took a little while to get over being nervous that I would hurt it again," she said. "And it took a while to get used to the brace. I don't even know it's there now when I play basketball because I'm so used to it. My knee still gets a little sore on game days, but it's nothing I can't live with."

She feels she is around "90 percent" healthy right now in basketball, but only "75 or 80 percent" of where she was in terms of quickness. When asked where she felt she was at as far as her vertical jumping ability, Swenson laughed "I never had a vertical so that's the same as it was before."

Swenson is averaging 11.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game this season for the Blackjacks (8-9). She had a season-high 29 points against Lakeview on Dec. 9.

"With her work ethic, I knew she would be back after her injury," said Dawson-Boyd girls basketball coach Jason Conover. "She was in the gym shooting as much as she could with limited mobility. She's the ultimate team player. I don't think she cared a whole lot about getting 1,000 points. I'm sure she was much more concerned about getting the team a 'W'."

Swenson will again run track in the spring, hoping for one last chance to compete in a state meet.

But for now, it's her turn to shine. And maybe, just maybe, it will be Ryan that grows tired of people asking "Are you Kelly's brother?"

Handahl honored posthumously

The late Al Handahl of Renville County West was selected as the State Assistant Track and Field Coach of the Year at a banquet last Saturday in Park Center.

Handahl died of a heart attack on April 30 while preparing the track in Danube for practice. He was 62.

Handahl was the assistant track and field coach since 1990. He was the head track coach from 1973-87.

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