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.

Ski Jumping through History

Combine the Chippewa Valley’s long, snowy winter with Scandinavian immigrants and a smattering of steep hills and you’ve got a recipe for ski jumping. It’s no surprise that locals have been hurtling themselves off of ski jumps since 1886 and that some of them have landed on both skis and slid right into the record books. The most recent national champion in this more than century-long tradition is Nick Mattoon, 17, a recent Memorial High School graduate who won the junior national ski jumping championship Feb. 28 in Minneapolis. (He made jumps of 70 and 73.5 meters.) Mattoon is now a member of USA Ski Jumping’s Development Team, which means Olympic rings could be in his future someday. Last summer, Mattoon and 14-year-old Ben Loomis, also of Eau Claire, both won national championships ski jumping (in the 100-meter and 68-meter hill size divisions, respectively) jumping on plastic in Park City, Utah. Dozens of other members of the Flying Eagles (the local junior club) and the Eau Claire Ski Club (the adult club) – as well as, in the early 20th century, some jumpers from Chippewa Falls, indicated by * – have won national championships in junior, adult, and veteran divisions over the past century-plus.

Snowy Winters + Steep Hills = National Champions:

2012: Emilee Anderson (Junior 1 Class)
2011: Ben Loomis (Junior 2 Class)
2010: Ben Loomis (J2)
2008: Adam Loomis (J1)
1987: Dave Hicks (Veterans)
1987: Pat Hamler (Junior)
1982: Reed Zuehlke (Class A)
1981: Dave Tomten (Veterans – Normal Hill)
1981: Dave Tomten (Veterans – Large Hill)
1980: Carl Trinrud (Veterans)
1972: Dave Tomten (Junior)
1968: Billy Olson (Veterans)
1966: Billy Olson (Veterans)
1965: Billy Olson (Veterans)
1959: Lloyd Severud (Veterans)
1958: Lloyd Severud (Veterans)
1958: Billy Olson (Class A)
1957: Lloyd Severud (Veterans)
1956: Lloyd Severud (Veterans)
1956: Keith Zuehlke (Class A)
1954: Ted Lahner (Class C)
1953: Lloyd Severud (Veterans)
1952: Joe Beaulieu (Class C)
1951: Jim Severson (Class C)
1951: Keith Zuehlke (Class B)
1949: Billy Olson (Class B)
1948: Billy Olson (Class C)
1934: Jimmy Hendrickson (Class B)
1920: Carl Mortonson* (Class C)
1918: Lars Haugen* (Class A)
1915: Lars Haugen* (Class A)
1914: Earl Gunderson* (Class C)
1912: Lars Haugen* (Class A)
1911: Mel Hendrickson (Boy’s)
1910: Anders Haugen* (Class A)
1908: Ralph Volkman (Class C)

Something to Wine About

There are hundreds of wine competitions around the world, but no matter how big or small coming away with a gold is a pretty big deal. And River Bend Winery knows that feeling well. The Chippewa Falls beverage makers have a total of eight golds, double golds and best-in-classes over the last four years from the Indy International Wine Compeition, which pits 2,514 wines from around the world. That ain’t bad at all. Their wines that have been honored are: Halb Trocken White, LaCrescent Semi-Sweet, Moonlight White, Magenta Semi-Sweet Rose and the 2010 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer.

A Whiz at the Wheel

Eau Claire native Herm Johnson made his mark in the world of auto racing in the 1970s and 1980s. Johnson is perhaps best known for two top 10 finishes in the Indianapolis 500: ninth in 1982 and eighth two years later, both times as a member of the Menard Racing Team. While the winner’s circle in that iconic race eluded him, Johnson did score a pair of national championships in other racing circuits: In 1976, he won a Sports Car Club of America national championship, and in 1977 he raced to a shared title in the U.S. Auto Club Super Vee championship.

Medal-Grabbing Brew

The Pride of Chippewa Falls has taken home the gold a few times at various national and international beer festivals. The Jacob Leinenkuegel Brewing Company has seen four national championships in the last 11 years, along with a number of silver and bronze medals. At the Great American Beer Festival, Leinie’s Creamy Dark took the gold in 2005 and 2006 in the American Style Dark Lager category, and in 2007 Berry Weiss got top honors in Fruit and Vegetable Beers. But they didn’t restrain themselves to the U.S. In 2002, the Red Lager took the gold at the World Beer Cup as the best Vienna Style Lager.

Grammy Nabbing

While The Grammys aren’t really a traditional, bracketed championship, it’s generally considered the top of the top when it comes to music awards. So when Bon Iver won two (out of four nominations) in 2012 for their sophomore album Bon Iver, Bon Iver Eau Claire was right there on the national stage – even getting a thank you in the speech.

Boom Goes the Boomerang

Despite the stereotypes, these whirling wonders aren’t just for Australians: Americans are among the top contenders in competitive boomerang throwing, in which participants are judged for accuracy, speed, distance, and other factors. Among the nation’s top boomerang throwers is Dan Johnson of Eau Claire, who was a member of a U.S. team – dubbed the Rad Revolution – that topped 19 other teams from around the globe to win the World Boomerang Championship in Rome in 2010.

Heck of a Hockey Squad

UW-Eau Claire has had its fair-share of sporting success in the last few decades, but the most recent in our memory is when the UWEC Men’s Hockey team took home the trophy, winning the NCAA DIII National Championship for the 2012-2013 season. The team beat Oswego State 5-3 in the championship game after a long, illustrious season. So let’s see if they can find that repeat (or three-peat) in future years.

UWEC on the Court

The Blugold men’s basketball team also won a national championship in 1972 – sort of. Led by legendary coach Ken Anderson, the Blugolds finished the seasons with a 23-1 record and were voted National Small College Basketball Champions in a United Press International coaches poll. Unfortunately, a few weeks later the team lost the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship game to Kentucky State, 71-62. (The Blugold men were runners-up in the 1990 NAIA tournament as well.)

Design Dominance

UW-Stout is officially designated as Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University; in layperson’s terms, that means Blue Devils are really good at designing and making stuff – stuff that is practical, artistic, and artistically practical. Witness the numerous national champs the university has produced in recent years in design-related fields:

• In 2012, UW-Stout junior Leah Becker took first place in a national clothing design competition for a set of pants and tops she created with the help of computer-aided design software. Her activewear line for women ages 50-65 stood out in the Concept 2 Consumer Design Competition sponsored by the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.

• UW-Stout students also have twice won the international Safety Products Student Design challenge. In 2011, five of professor Gindy Neibermyer’s apparel design and development students – Toni Sabelman, Jamie Bystrom, Sarah Furnae, Alicia Mitchell, and Jennifer Whelan – created an underground mine suit that uses glow-in-the-dark and moisture-wicking materials, foam padding, and other technologies to keep miners more comfortable and safe. Two years earlier another team of UW-Stout students – Deanna Badman, Laura Schannach, Amy Alderete, Stephanie Fitzgerald, and Sarah Lafata – won the competition with an inflatable system that boosts blood circulation for a worker who has fallen and is dangling in a safety harness.

• Blue Devils have also been two-time winners in the Institute of Packaging Professionals’ national AmeriStar packaging competition, in which students come up with innovative new ways to package existing products. In 2012, students Bill Connell, Aaron Duch, and Brad Froyum created a squeezable salsa container to more efficiently deliver the spicy condiment to diners’ tortilla chips. The prior year, another UW-Stout team – Scott Evers, Kayla Finnessy, Kyle Kozlowski, and Nathaniel Nelson – won with an innovative recyclable and reusable pizza box.

• UW-Stout student Elizabeth Lee won the national Scotch Off the Roll Tape Sculpture Contest in 2010 by creating a ginormous goldfish swimming in a clear bag – all out of sticky Scotch Tape.

• That same year, student Ben Fullerton was one of three grand-prize winners in the national LG Hausys Surfaces Student Design Challenge for an ergonomic chair he designed for an art and design class. Prototypes of the chair were produced, and it was displayed at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.