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Former East Texas State athlete runs strong 50 years later

By Sara de la Rosa
On February 25, 2011

After earning a place in the University of Nebraska at Kearny Hall of Fame and breaking more records than he can remember, championship runner and former East Texas State University student Hylke Van der Wal spent the second week of February getting reacquainted with his old school.

Van der Wal, now 73, attended East Texas State in 1959 and 1960 for his sophomore and junior years, after transferring from Oklahoma Baptist University.

"The campus seemed a lot closer back then, because I think people are commuting a lot more now," Van der Wal said. "Back then there seemed to be more cohesiveness. I was on a full track scholarship, getting $50 a month spending money, my scholarship paid for room and board and books. I bet the tuition was less than $200 per year, for two semesters."

Originally from northern Netherlands, Van der Wal and his family immigrated to Canada when he was 11-years-old. He said he adapted quickly to the new country and continued to immerse himself in the sport of running.

"In the Netherlands I was a high jumper," Van der Wal said. "I ran all the time, and swam, and biked. My dad had been a runner. He made national teams and had been an army champion. When we came to Canada, this farmer had land that was about eight miles from the house we lived in, and Dad would ride on a bike and I would run beside him, so I practiced long, slow distance running this way."

He said he later realized this type of running practice was one of the best ways to hone his abilities, which would help him win races and earn nearly 50 different scholarships to colleges in the United States.

"I have to say, the thing that really attracted me to East Texas State was that I could work and I could run," Van der Wal said. "School was actually incidental. It was not my first priority, but I realized by this time that I wanted to teach because I'd get more holidays that way, and I could run more. My parents did not slow me down from that, they were silently very proud of me."

Van der Wal said there were little or no African-American students on campus at East Texas State during the time he was there, and ultimately it was segregation issues that led him to transfer to another school before graduating.

"At the end of my junior year, I left because they wouldn't allow me to run against blacks," he said. "And so I went to the University of Nebraska at Kearny and graduated from there. I believed everyone was created in God's image."

Van der Wal said that he was the first white runner to compete in an all black track meet in the U.S., at Texas Southern University in Houston.

"When I look back, a guy would've had to have had real guts to do that, because I could have gotten myself killed," he said. "I did it two years in a row, '63 and ‘64, and back then, you didn't do that in Texas."

Van der Wal said he can't recall all the things he has accomplished over the years as far as running, but some achievements are especially memorable to him.

"One of the most amazing things ever, I don't know how I did it, I hitchhiked all the way to the Cow Palace and set the world record for the one mile steeplechase," Van der Wal said. "I became the Midwestern AU athlete of the year, in other words of the whole area top athletes, professional and amateur. I was just a Canadian kid, so it was unreal. I beat Gale Sayers, who was Rookie of the Year in the NFL."

He still runs and competes regularly, and won five first place medals at the National Canadian Track and Field Championships just last year.

"It's been over 55 years that I've won championships, in the U.S. and Canada," Van der Wal said. "The sport has been so good to me. I have received jobs because of the sport. I got my commissions because of the sport. Nobody tells me that they started on their own running and they did it for 55 years if they didn't love it, and to continue as a runner, you have to have people around you that love it too."


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