CEDAR FALLS — While most siblings tend to have dynamic, multi-layered relationships, you usually don’t see all those elements play out in full during a five-minute conversation.
But if there’s an exception to this rule, Shane and Kelsey Kirchoff might be it.
Like most athletic siblings, the Denver High School graduates, both senior distance runners on the Northern Iowa track team, definitely bring out each other’s competitive sides, and both seem to have their go-to bragging points.
When Kelsey boasts she’s the one with a conference championship ring (won during the 2016 cross country season), Shane shoots back by claiming that his sister “can’t compete with me in other sports” in a discussion that’s mostly even-keeled.
It’s not until an ill-informed reporter asks if Shane, the oldest of the two by a year, influenced his sister’s decision to come to UNI that sparks start to fly.
“Whoa, whoa, I came here first,” says Kelsey, who was joined by Shane after he spent a year at Wartburg. “He was definitely after me.”
The ribbing nature of that conversation seems par for the course for the siblings. But while it may be habit at this point, in some instances it appears to come up out of necessity.
This is one of those instances.
Just minutes earlier, in an almost jarring tonal shift, Kelsey discussed a matter so sensitive, she literally had to stop at one point to cry in her brother’s arms.
The Kirchoffs were dealt an emotional blow in February, following the death of their grandfather Daryel Hamlin, and his passing is clearly still a difficult topic for them to discuss.
“I’ve always raced for him,” a teary eyed Kelsey said while being consoled by Shane. “I really wanted him to see my last races, so these are definitely for him.”
The final stretch of the Kirchoffs’ careers begins this weekend at the Missouri Valley Conference Outdoor Championships, where each enters with high expectations.
Kelsey, who will compete in both the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs, has been able to build on her sixth-place finish in the 10,000 at conference last season.
She earned All-Valley honors at the MVC cross country race this fall, then set a personal record in the 10,000 at the Drake Relays, running a 35:53.27, the second best time in UNI history.
On the men’s side, Shane is hoping a strong performance will erase the memory of a disappointing finish a season ago.
After placing fifth in the 3,000 steeple chase in 2015, a nagging bout with Iliotibal Band Syndrome, which causes tightness in the ligament that runs down the outside of the thigh from the hip to the shin, resulted in a 16th-place finish last year.
But following a strong spring, which helped him secure the No. 2 seed in this weekend’s steeple chase, Shane feels he’s in prime position to bounce back.
“Last year I was hurt for so much of the outdoor season and I was just suffering through it,” said Shane, who will also run the 5,000. “But this year I’ve made a point to stay healthy, working on stretches and taking care of myself and now I’m ready to roll. I’m just trying to help our team win a conference title.”
If the Panthers are going to compete for a Valley crown, a good portion of their success is likely to come from distance events, which Coach Dave Paulsen says has a lot to do with the tone Shane and Kelsey have set in their time at UNI.
“Their development into leadership roles as they’ve gone along has been terrific,” Paulsen said.
“Kelsey’s really put her arms around the distance recruiting class we’ve had and helped them along. And Shane’s been a good upperclassman to the distance guys and now we’re really strong in the conference and a lot of that is from Shane’s leadership.”
It’s not just athletic careers that are on the verge of ending for the Kirchoffs. Both Shane and Kelsey are now UNI graduates and are preparing for the rigors the working world.
As they enter similar industries (Shane was a physical education major, Kelsey exercise science with a focus in occupational therapy), one can easily imagine the job hunt again bringing out the siblings’ competitive nature, as they race to see who can find gainful employment first.
But as has been the case throughout their lives, the competition is likely to be good-natured.
“That’s kind of a fun experience and we get to tackle what comes next in life together,” Kelsey said. “We’ve always been there for each other and I think we’ll continue to do that, even without athletics.”
The three-day Outdoor Championships begin at 10 a.m. Friday in Wichita.