[Editor’s Note: This week the Daily Inter Lake will profile standout graduates among the class of 2018 who exemplify the role of “student mentors.”]
By MARY CLOUD TAYLOR
Daily Inter Lake
The 2018 graduating class of Columbia Falls High School will take with it a student whose influence, according to his coach and other school faculty, helped pave the way for the track team’s distance runners.
Gabe Knudsen, 18, started running long distance on the Columbia Falls track and cross-country teams when he was in the seventh grade, after some encouragement from his parents, Rowdy and Kris Knudsen.
Knudsen said he was hooked after that first season, but he didn’t step onto the track as the star runner he is today.
According to Columbia Falls High School assistant coach Colleen Finberg, Knudsen worked for every inch he got. By his sophomore year, she said, he was good but not the best, and there were some runners on the team who outshined him.
He came to understand that he would have to work hard to get better, Finberg said.
However, Finberg said Knudsen has shown a work ethic uncommon in people his age. Now a senior, he has helped his team take third place in the state championships, medaled fourth in the state individually and achieved the status of one of the top 10 long-distance runners in Montana.
“You get out of it what you put into it,” Knudsen said of the sport.
Knudsen’s influence on the team goes beyond his running ability, according to Finberg, who said he has been invaluable in motivating and mentoring the rest of the team, especially underclassmen.
“Gabe really just took all the freshmen under his wing. I definitely appreciated his leadership,” Finberg said. “He doesn’t expect anything to come easily, and that work ethic translated into those four freshmen.”
Knudsen looked out for one freshman in particular, cheering him on at meets, giving him rides to and from practice and checking in on him daily outside of practice.
When the student’s running shoes began to show signs of wear, Finberg said it was Knudsen who approached the track coaches to ask if there was something they could do, offering to pitch in to help purchase new ones if needed.
When the coaches gathered together to purchase the shoes themselves, Knudsen already knew what size shoe the young runner would need.
“He definitely doesn’t think about himself much,” Finberg said. “He’s so laid back that he doesn’t act like he’s the best runner on the team.”
According to Knudsen, he’s never thought of himself as much of a mentor, either.
“I just always saw it as being a friend. Everyone deserves a friend,” he said.
Now finishing up her fifth season as a coach for Columbia Falls, Finberg took over for the long distance section of the track team this year. The transition into their last year with a new coach might be hard for most seniors but Knudsen was an exception, said Finberg.
He quietly accepted her authority as coach and continued to act as a leader for the team, helping her get to know her runners better and encouraging them to continue working as hard as he has in years past.
“He stepped up without having to be asked, not because he felt like he had to, but because he just wanted to be helpful,” Finberg said. “He definitely understands what it means to be a leader without even trying.”
On race day, Finberg said Knudsen checks in on younger runners, asking whether they’ve eaten, what they’ve eaten and how they’re feeling.
During practices, she said she never has to worry about any of the athletes slacking off or falling behind because of Knudsen’s motivation and encouragement driving the team on.
“I don’t ever have to worry about them because Gabe pushes them and watches out for them,” Finberg said.
She said she has never seen Knudsen get frustrated or angry over a run or race, and though she knows how hard he’s worked to get where he is, she said he’s made it to the end with his humility intact and without losing his sense of fun while running.
Knudsen said he plans to attend Montana Tech in Butte this fall and major in either mechanical engineering or petroleum engineering.
Though he and his coach were disappointed that the school lacks a running program, Knudsen said he plans to keep running in his free time.
After 12 years at Columbia Falls schools, Knudsen said he isn’t sure how to feel about graduating.
“It’s weird because all my classes are coming to an end,” he said. “It’s scary. I’m all signed up for college and got my dorm room and my roommate.”
Finberg said she and the team will miss Knudsen once he’s gone, but she’s hopeful that his influence will inspire others.
“He’s a great example of what that work ethic can get you,” Finberg said. “I really hope that we get somebody like him to step up and be a leader on our team.”
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.