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051618ho-hospice-dad

Waukon High School's Megan O'Neill with her father, Joe O'Neill.

COURTESY PHOTO

OSAGE – There was something hidden in the darkness that most wouldn’t notice on the night of the Class 2A district track meet in Osage on May 8.

The track meet was lasting longer than expected, and the rain steadily increased its cadence as the night grew colder.

Underneath the stadium lights, athletes were fighting for spots at state in the running events. Some rejoiced in victory, while others found solace collapsing on the wet, grassy infield in defeat.

The few who knew about the dark black Chevy van parked behind the fence line were in the press box.

Osage athletic director Michael Henson was running his first district track meet, and was fulfilling a unique request. Waukon High School’s athletic director called earlier in the week asking for special accommodations for one parent.

Distance runner Megan O’Neill’s father, Joe, is in hospice care but was hoping to see her run in the 1,500 meters from inside a van.

Henson considered the parking lot 30 feet away from the track. With construction going on it would be mostly empty. He thought about having the van pull up to the fence around the track,, but bushes on either side blocked the view of two curves.

The best idea came from Osage Superintendent Barb Schwamman the day of the meet. The straightaway that extended to the entrance wasn’t being used for any races, so why not pull the van up on the track?

Just before the 400 hurdles, the gates opened and the van pulled up. The track’s curves and straightaways were in full view for the father sitting in the passenger seat.

“He had mentioned earlier that morning that he wasn’t feeling good and he wouldn’t make it,” Megan said over the phone Monday. “When I came around on the first lap, I noticed. It was really nice to know he could see me. ... I was really surprised that they let him drive all the way on the track.”

Joe is the former boys’ head track coach at Waukon High School. He saw every one of Megan’s track meets until this year, where this was only his second meet. Charles City allowed him to watch from behind the fence at the Northeast Iowa conference meet.

For the past two years he’s been battling two forms of lung cancer. After seven unsuccessful rounds of chemotherapy, Joe’s family enrolled him in hospice at the end of April.

“He’s always pushed me to go out for cross country and go out for track,” Megan said. “Running takes my mind off things.”

O’Neill ran her race, gliding at her pace into the night. For her family, it was more than just a race for state. It was about sharing the moments they had left together.

When she crossed the finish at 6 minutes, 6.57 seconds, she didn’t stop.

O’Neill jogged up to the black van, and the passenger window rolled down.

She held her father’s hand, exchanging words, then caught up with her teammates on the infield as the van backed off the track.

“I knew he was cheering me on the whole time and I honestly at that point didn’t care what my time was,” Megan said. “I could’ve gotten any time and it wouldn’t matter because all that mattered was that he made it to the race.”

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