We Are the Champions

some of the Chippewa Valley's best in the nation since 1856

Thom Fountain, Tom Giffey, design by Kaitlyn Bryan, photos by Andrea Paulseth

They carve snow and they write computer code. They crack whips and they catch Frisbees. They make cheese and they toss kubb batons. They are all from the Chippewa Valley, and they’ve all been crowned the best in the nation – and sometimes even the world – at what they do. From the headline-grabbing to the obscure, from the athletic to the sedentary, here are the champs who keep the Chippewa Valley’s trophy cases well-stocked.

Curlers in the House

An Eau Claire Curling Club member prepares to throw. Photo by Zach Oliphant
An Eau Claire Curling Club member prepares to throw. Photo by Zach Oliphant

Just like the pattern that marks each end of the ice, the Upper Midwest has a bull’s-eye painted over it when it comes to the ancient winter sport of curling. And Eau Claire is near the center of that target (or “house,” as curlers call it). Curling in Eau Claire dates to the 1870s, and the Eau Claire Curling Club boasts a history of top-notch players (including 1998 U.S. Olympian Mike Peplinski) as well as a top-notch facility for competitors to slide their rocks and sweep their brooms. Unsurprisingly, the Eau Claire club has also produced its share of national champs. Most recently, club member Geoff Goodland “skipped” (i.e., captained) a non-club team to victory at the 2011 U.S. Senior Men’s Championship in Massachusetts. (The team went on to win a silver medal at the world competition and was named USA Curling Team of the Year.) In 2007, a Goodland-skipped Eau Claire team earned a senior men’s national title, and in 2002 Goodland was a member of a Madison-based team that won a men’s national championship. In addition, a team from the Eau Claire club won a mixed titled in 1993. Finally, two UW-Eau Claire students from Medford – Megan O’Connell and Jackie Mueller – formed half of the No. 1 team at the 2006 Junior Women’s Curling National Championships in Duluth. They may be on ice, but these local competitors don’t slip up often.

Champion Cheese

Wisconsinites aren’t called Cheeseheads for nothing: Consider the biennial U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, held earlier this year at – where else? – Lambeau Field in Green Bay. The overall champion cheese, Marieke Mature Gouda, came from Holland’s Family Cheese in the west-central Wisconsin community of Thorp. The aged Gouda, created by cheesemaker Marieke Penterman, rose to the top among more than 1,700 entries from 30 states. The cheese also earned honors as best in its class, while three other creations from Holland’s Family Cheese were named best in their classes as well (Edam/Gouda, Flavored Gouda, and Smoked Gouda). In addition, the nation’s best Parmesan cheese came from the Eau Galle Cheese Factory in Durand. These achievements weren’t a fluke: Chippewa Valley cheesemakers routinely come home with championship ribbons, providing there is delicious, lactose-laced truth behind our Dairy State image.

Frisbee Aficionado

To be clear, Eau Claire native and Ultimate Frisbee competitor Pat Niles hasn’t won a national championship in his chosen sport. No, we’ve put him on this list because he achieved something even more awesome: In 2010, he joined an Iowa-based team (The Chad Larson Experience) that won the World Ultimate Club Championships in Prague, Czech Republic. While Niles was a late addition to the team – some members couldn’t make the transatlantic trip – he played a big part in their success, contributing 12 goals and 13 assists in nine tournament games, thus earning himself a place in disc-tossin’ history.

UW-Eau Claire’s Hot Talkers

The Forensics trophy case at UW-Eau Claire. Submitted Photo
The Forensics trophy case at UW-Eau Claire.

UW-Eau Claire’s fabled Forensics Team has brought enough shiny hardware home from competitions over the years to fill a Menards store. The silver-tongued squad, founded in 1944, has a 21-year winning streak at the Wisconsin State Forensics Tournament and routinely places among the top teams at the national competitions held by the American Forensics Association and the National Forensics Association. While the team itself has never come home with the gold, over the years 14 Blugolds have won first place in their categories at those tourneys: In addition, UW-Eau Claire forensics team members are chosen nearly ever year to represent Wisconsin in the Interstate Oratory Contest, which crowns the finest persuasive speaker in the nation.

Over the years, Several Blugolds have won:

National Forensics Association
2004: Kelly Bender (Persuasion)
2003: Ben Schneider (Persuasion)
1998: Ann Hackel (Informative Speaking)
1996: Shawn Harris (Persuasion)
1992: Cindy Weisenbeck (Lincoln-Douglas Debate)
1987: Michael Stolts (Rhetorical Criticism)
1986: Bucky Fay (Impromptu)
1977: Ruth Brenner (Persuasion)

Interstate Oratory Contest
2011: Patrick Martin
2010: Nick Miller
2001: Aaron Unseth
1978: Ruth Brenner
1976: John P. Rindo
1961: Richard Duesterbeck
1956: Jacelyn Gilbertson
1955: Ralph Zimmermann
1953: Joan Reidy

American Forensics Association
2003: Scott Boras (Poetry Interpretation)
1995: Adam Hafdahl (Program Oral Interpretation)
1992: Rita Rahoi (Extemporaneous Speaking)
1987: Michael Stolts (Persuasion)
1985: Bucky Fay (Impromptu)
1982: Dana Davidson (Poetry Interpretation)

Swimming with Winners

Back in the 1980s, UW-Eau Claire women’s swimming was a powerhouse. The Blugolds took three national championships in the decade, winning it all in 1983, 1987, and 1988. The ’87 and ’88 teams were led by four-time All-American Amy Meisner,  who was inducted into the Blugold Hall Of Fame. Meisner dominated the pool along with her colleagues, maintaining a dynasty all four years she was at the university before graduating in 1991.

Record Busting Whip-Cracking

When it comes to his interesting field of expertise, Fall Creek’s Adam Winrich has the competition whipped – literally. Even among the other champions on this list, Winrich stands out: This wizard of whip-cracking has nine Guinness world records under his belt, including most bullwhip cracks in one minute (257), most two-handed whip cracks in one minute (513), the longest whip ever cracked (216 feet long!), and the most drink cans broken with a whip in three minutes (23). Oh, and he also sometimes lights his whips on fire for added spectacularity. This world record-holder has made national TV appearances (on Conan and the Discovery Channel) and travels the nation and world displaying his talent at Renaissance fairs and Wild West shows.

Top Notch Paddleball

Other cities may be content to win a World Series or a couple of Super Bowls. Not Eau Claire: We prefer to excel at more unique sports. Take, for instance, paddleball. This sport – a cousin of handball and racquetball in which players ricochet a hard rubber ball off of the four walls of an indoor court – is most popular in the Upper Midwest. Over the years Eau Claire produced numerous national champions, perhaps most notably the late Harv Tomter. While he’s most remember in the Chippewa Valley as the longtime manager of the Eau Claire Cavaliers baseball team, Tomter won five golden masters division doubles titles in the 1990s and 2000s as well as a golden masters singles title in 1991. Other national champions from Eau Claire include Harold “Diz” Kronenberg, Mike Carlson, Mike McMahon, and Charlie Graaskamp.

New Auburn's prize-winning Rube Goldberg team, 2009.
New Auburn High School's prize-winning Rube Goldberg team, 2009.

Rube’s Gold

Engineers typically try to create machines that work as simply and elegantly as possible. Rube Goldberg contests – named after the cartoonist who drew absurdly complicated devices to achieve everyday tasks – turn these instincts on their head, and teams from the Chippewa Valley have proven adept at creating these crazy contraptions. The creative kids from New Auburn High School won national titles in 2011, 2006, and 2005, while the team from Thorp High School was crowned national champs in 2010 and 2009. Meanwhile, the team from UW-Stout won back-to-back national college championships at the annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest at Purdue University in 2011 and 2010. The 2011 entry – which portrayed a ghost-filled Louisiana estate – used 135 steps to water a plant. In 2010, the UW-Stout team’s King Tut-themed device took 120 steps to dispense hand sanitizer. Considering all this ingenuity, we’ll take it as a compliment when outsiders call us down-to-earth Wisconsin folks “rubes.”

Wearing the Kubb Crown

Eau Claire is not just host to the U.S. National Kubb Championship and the self-proclaimed Kubb Capital of North America. It’s also the home of some of the increasingly popular Nordic lawn sport’s most skilled competitors. Since Eau Claire’s annual tournament (which, incidentally, is July 13-14 this year) became the national championship in 2009, two local teams have been crowned kings of the kubb pitch for their baton-tossing prowess: the Kubbsicles in 2012 and the Ringers in 2010. If – as the tournament’s slogan proclaims – Kubb really does unite people and bring about peace on Earth, perhaps Eau Claire can take credit for that, too.

Wonders in the Water

The YMCA isn’t just a place for average Joes to lift weights and swim laps. It’s where bonafide champions compete. In the Chippewa Valley, that includes teenager Leah Pronschinske who as a member of the Eau Claire YMCA Marlins swim team won consecutive national titles in the 100-meter breaststroke in 2010 and 2011. Pronschinske’s 2010 winning time of 1:01.43 remains a YMCA National Championship record.

Darn Shootin’

Whip-cracking isn’t the only Old West-style activity that competitive Chippewa Vallians have hung their hats on: Ben Stoeger of Eau Claire has one of the fastest guns in the West – or anywhere else, for that matter. Stoeger is a two-time (2012 and 2011) winner at the U.S. Practical Shooting Association National Handgun Championships in the production gun category (i.e., using a handgun you can buy at a gun store that doesn’t have special modifications). Stoeger, who has been shooting competitively since 2005, has written several books on shooting techniques, teaches classes nationwide, and produces regular podcasts and videos about competitive shooting.

Carving Out Frosty Victories

For most of us, snow art begins and ends with a carrot-nosed snowman. Not for Eau Claire’s Starvin’ Carvists – Jason Anhorn and Steve Bateman – a pair of world-class snow carvers who’ve can create everything from giant Greek goddesses to Darth Vader helmets out of hard-packed snow. Perhaps best known locally for the fabulous sculptures they make for Winter After Hours in Boyd Park, Anhorn and Bateman teamed up in February with Dave Andrews of Wauwatosa for the U.S. National Snow Carving Competition in Lake Geneva. Their creation, called “Dancing Flame,” won the national title, proving that these cold-weather artistes are masters of fire and ice.

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