Most people take pride in their alma mater. They usually root for the school, maybe attend a few games, or send a check every year. That's normal. Or maybe some take it a little further. Maybe they buy season tickets every year or join the booster club. A little more pride, but still within normalcy.
And then there is Roy Griak. A man who was a freshman at the University of Minnesota in 1949 and still remains a part of every day functions in the Gopher athletic department. A man who was a track and cross country student athlete and now has one of the nation's largest cross country meets named after him. And a man who loves to dance.
Griak was born in born in Montana but after moving at a young age, he was raised in Duluth, Minnesota. After high school he went into the Army, and after being discharged he enrolled at the University of Minnesota. After graduation, Griak taught and coached at the high school level for ten years before taking a head coaching position back at the university.
"I was on the track team here and I thought it was an opportunity and advancement from what I was doing at the high school level," Griak said. "I had very good success as a basketball and track coach in high school and I thought this would be a new challenge and it was and I've been here ever since."
Griak remained as the head coach until 1996, coaching around 1,700 athletes, before stepping off the track for the last time.
"I was really getting up in years and I knew I was slowing up a little bit," Griak said. "I didn't have the energy I had when I was a young buck. I just decided that it was a young man's game."
Griak says he does not remember his last meet as a head coach but mentions he is sure it was tough.
"Good things come and go,” he said. "You have to go on with your life regardless. I miss being out on the track, I do. But I also realize that I'm 87 years old."
After retiring from coaching, Griak stayed on as a teacher but now serves as the full time administrative
assistant for both the track team and cross country team. Griak says it gives him the opportunity to be with the team in a different capacity.
Each year when a senior class graduates, Griak admits it is hard to see them go. But he also says that he has an ongoing database of more than one thousand men that he tries to keep in contact with. Quite an impressive feat. But maybe even more impressive than that is the fact that Griak along with long time friend Gary Olson started a cross country meet several years back. A meet that is now considered one of the largest and finest meets in all the country.
The meet started out small but has slowly developed into what it is today. The meet, renamed the Roy Griak Invitational, now attracts around 4,000 athletes, including all divisions of colleges and high school. It was held again over the weekend.
Griak chokes up, reminiscing about a young man, whom two years ago was a small eight grader running in the invitational for the first time. He was running in the D high school race. He told Griak that he had been waiting his whole life for this competition.
"That just makes you feel pretty good," Griak said. "The joy comes from watching these athletes and schools come back year after year."
The course is run on the University of Minnesota's golf course, which includes undulating hills, some areas of flat land and also big hills. Griak says the course is very difficult, and it is designed for distance runners rather than sprinters. Either way, competing in this meet is something runners everywhere look forward to.
Two knee and two hip replacements prevent Griak from running anymore.
"I'm not as agile as I used to be," Griak said. "I can dance, but I just can’t run anymore. But I'm a good dancer and I love to dance."
If Griak's dancing is anything like his career in the running world, he is probably right in saying he is good. Griak plans to stay at with the Golden Gophers "until his hair falls out."
"This has kept me young in mind and body, being around all these young good looking guys and girls, and the high school kids that come up," Griak said. "It keeps you sharp. I don't want to go playing bridge with some 80-year old guys and ladies. I'd rather play with 44-year old guys and ladies."
Griak's accomplishments and presence will forever be a part of Golden Gopher athletics.
"He coached in this state in high school and was very successful and then he came here and was very successful,” said Gopher Athletic Director Joel Maturi. “He has been a mentor to hundreds and hundreds of student athletes and continues to be a mentor to people like myself. We are very blessed to have him here on our staff."
For now, Griak stays involved in planning and coordinating the Roy Griak Invitational, along with several other duties.
But he dances whenever he can.
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