OSAGE – There was something hidden in the darkness that most wouldn’t notice on the night of the 2A district track meet in Osage on Thursday, 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 very few who knew about the dark black Chevy van parked behind the fence line were in the press box, but only for logistical reasons.
Osage athletic director Michael Henson was running his first district track meet, and was fulfilling a unique request. The Waukon High School athletic director called him earlier in the week, asking if there was any way to make special arrangements for a parent.
Currently in hospice care, distance runner Megan O’Neill’s father, Joe, was hoping to find a way to see her run the 1,500 meters from inside a van.
Henson had analyzed this all week. He first considered the parking lot 30 feet away from the track. Since construction was going on, it would be mostly empty. Then, he thought about bringing the van closer, up to the fence line of the track. But there were bushes on either side, which blocked two curves.
The best idea came from Osage superintendent, Barb Schwamman, the day of the meet. The straightaway that extended to the fence-line of 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, hoping to see his daughter run the 1,500 meters from behind a closed window.
"He had mentioned earlier that morning that he wasn't feeling good and he wouldn't make it," Megan said over the phone on Monday, May 14. "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, which meant he was at every single one of Megan's track meets until this year, where this was only his second meet. Charles City had 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 wouldn’t stop.
O’Neill jogged up to the black van, and the passenger window would roll down.
She held her father’s hand through the window, exchanging words, then she’d catch up with her teammates on the infield and the van would back out of 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."