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Everything happens for a reason: Kimmel's spiritual connection with his late father has helped South Central senior take his running to a new level

UNION MILLS -- As Zak Kimmel crossed the finish line with a decisive victory in the 1,600-meter run at last Thursday's Valparaiso Regional, the South Central senior prayerfully folded his hands and looked to the sky.

It was no different than what many athletes do after winning a race, paying homage to a higher power in their lives, but it was different.

Kimmel was expressing his gratitude to his father, Richard Kimmel, a man who died in a car accident when his son was 18 months old, yet has still become a strong presence in his life since the younger Kimmel learned several years ago of the bond they shared in running.

"I always come back to him and say thank you," Kimmel said. "It stuck with me that my dad was a distance runner. He's always with me. I want to do it for him. I always pray to him, thank him for making me who I am. Sometimes in training, I need to see where I'm at, (I ask), guide me, show me something, what I should be doing, what I shouldn't be doing. I've found stuff that's worked. There were a couple instances outside of track, I asked for help and it's worked out fine. It's kind of like he's raising me. I think that's a sign of him above."

Faith is defined as a firm belief in something for which there is no proof, and June Kimmel has taught her son and daughter (Elle) that everything happens for a reason, good, bad or indifferent. It's led her through the darkest of times as a widow of over 16 years to seek out the light that still shines.

"We don't know why their dad got in that accident," she said. "It's OK to cry, be upset, to get down. It's how you pick yourself up and move forward from that. I'm not mad at God. I've always said through a horrible tragedy, He wasn't there to take the tragedy away, but He was there in faith to get us through it the best that He could. The day of the funeral, I remember hugging Father Jerry, him shaking. I'll never forget what he told me -- God didn't do this, but God will be there for you -- and He was. I still feel a presence of my husband and everyone that's gone before us, helping guide me."

Richard, a South Central graduate, ran for the Satellites. He met June, who attended Portage, when the two worked together at UPS, where he was actually her boss. The two, in their mid 20s at the time, became close friends. They had both gone through breakups when they started dating, they became engaged in 2000 and were married in 2001. Elle was born in 2003 and Zak in 2005. In the morning of February 26, 2007, a day after Elle turned four, Richard was driving north on County Road 600 when his car skidded on the icy road and collided with an eastbound semi.

"I don't know all the details," June said. "I chose not to. I've never seen the accident report. I never went and saw the car. What's it going to do? He had a journal on the front seat of the car that is locked away."

While there are some things that are better off unseen and unknown, June also believed it was important to not shelter the kids from the reality. They put a new cross at the corner of the site every five years. They regularly visit Sacred Heart Cemetery, where Richard was laid to rest, about 10 minutes from their home in Hanna. When Elle was at South Central, she spearheaded efforts that led to safety changes at the intersection.

"I don't want them to feel any different," June said. "It's part of our life. We have to go through that intersection. When the kids made their sacraments, they got pictures with their dad. It breaks our heart, but we have to turn this negative into a positive. I didn't want a traditional headstone because it wasn't a traditional tragedy. Because they were so little, I wanted it to be a place of fun and joy, not sadness and crying. I did a bench so we could go out there and sit. The kids sat on the bench, they'd jump off the bench. We can't be afraid of death in life because death's a part of life. It's just unfortunate they had to learn it at younger age."

The engravings included the kids' handprints, done on a copy machine, and a verse from a Rascal Flatts song, 'Show the world the warmth of your smile.'

"Growing up, Elle had memories, I could see growing up (Zak) felt he didn't have those memories," June said. "I always kept his legacy, the talking alive. I felt that's what needed to be done for healing and grieving. We always colored, kept daddy's pictures up. I didn't even date. I didn't want to bring people in and out of their lives. I just tried to keep a stable, consistent homelife for the kids."

June could have returned to Portage, where most of her family was, but she chose to stay in the South Central school area in the house Richard had built.

"It's the most amazing small town community," she said. "Gary Biggs was a very big influence in Zak's life growing up. Gary knew Richard very well. Tracy (Biggs) is one of my best friends. The Cassells were really big on bringing food to me once a month. The community always being there for us, telling us stories of their dad, the kids got to know a lot more about their dad in the years I didn't even know him because of how tight-knit it is. God knew what he was doing to put me in the best place to raise my kids."

South Central senior Zak Kimmel bears a striking resemblance to his late father Richard, who also ran for the Satellites.

Even so, there was only so much June could do to fill the fatherly void in her son's life.

"Zak was always quiet about it," June said. "He knows his dad was loved by everybody. He knows he can pick up the phone any day and have more dads than any normal person, but there was a lot of pressure on him, and he's done an amazing job being the man of the house. Now we've got a puppy who's a boy, so it's two and two."

It wasn't until Zak was in middle school that he discovered his distance running ability, as well as his dad's background in it, when he finished third in a Student Council Color Run at the high school.

"The kids ahead of me were on the cross country team, Kolten Becker, Stevie Klimczak," he said. "Both came up to me and said, you've seriously got talent, you really need to go out for cross country. I ran track, but I never came out for cross country. Track was pretty cool, cross country was like, ehh. They said, we'll train with you. I'd played Hanna baseball with Kolten my whole life. Our family's great friends with the Klimczaks. I gave it a shot."

Both Zak and June remember his first meet in seventh grade, when he finished first by a wide margin.

"I was just like OK, he's got a knack for running, a natural talent, I guess," June said.

But it was what happened after the race that changed the trajectory of Zak's running career.

"I'll never forget, Mr. P (Mark Potrzebowski) came up to me, tapped me on the shoulder (and said), can I ask you a question?" June said. "He was like, is that your son? What's your name? I said, that's Zak Kimmel, I'm June Kimmel. He's got tears in his eyes, I coached your husband. He couldn't even get the words out. He went up to Zak. I told him he was more than welcome to say something."

It was that afternoon when Zak's future as a distance runner was charted.

"It was, you look just like your dad physically, the way you act," he said. "People I didn't know, I'm like, who are you? Closer family friends told me stories, stuff he would do in high school. I heard they used to run meets back behind the field. New stuff was being unlocked piece by piece since. I was like, I want to know where he was, running wise, what started his love for running."

At the Porter County Conference junior high meet, Potrzebowski gave Zak his dad's records from school that he had retrieved, and told him he was 'already kicking your dad's (butt).'

"I think that was the moment he felt like he finally had a connection, a memory, like me and his sister have," June said. "I saw a difference in him, his sister saw a difference in him when he found out he had something from his dad that we don't. He connects with his dad in a different way forever. Now advancing how many years, he's got more more memories than me and Elle ever had. He has that physical gene. He's seen people crying I don't know how many times."

Almost as if it was destiny, Zak met former Chesterton state champion Brendan Smith, now a distance running trainer in the area, after the 2023 track regional. Not only did he become a paternal-type presence for Zak, he helped unlock another level in his ability.

Zak Kimmel led start to finish in winning the 1,600-meter run at the Valparaiso Regional. (Photo by Mark Ridley)

"Growing up, I would say, I'm the only boy in the house," Zak said. "You have Elle and Elle has you. I've had races when I've thought about (my dad). His plaque is by the rock (outside the school track). Before I run, I always look at it. Senior Night, (Smith) said, when everything gets rough, you're going to think about your dad, and I got the 800 record. I have friends who have a mom and dad, and I think I've been raised better than some people who do. It hasn't stopped me, my mom or anybody in the family. She could have folded under pressure or rose to the occasion. I could have done it in the regionals. Both of us are standing out in our way."

June's brother, sister-in-law and their kids joined her at the regional. As the 1,600 neared, she made her way from the start/finish line to the top of the bleachers.

"I had to go way up top by myself," she said. "I couldn't even sit down by the family. I was nervous. I always felt like he came in second, he's put in so much work, so much effort, when's it going to be his turn? My brother, he's low key, he's doesn't say much. He's like, go Zak! When the gun went off, he thought the same thing, he's going too hard, they're going to get him on the last lap. To see him dominate that race, the last lap, he started going faster. The training worked. It was the most amazing race I've ever seen. It was the best feeling."

That night, June received text messages from close friend Rachel Warner as well as meet official Teresa Chester.

"Teresa said, I had the front row seat," she said. "I was so jealous. Rachel was one of the first friends I knew when (Richard and I) started dating. She texted me, Richard's chest would be so puffed out, not just for the running, but the amazing young man he is. I see so much of Richard in him, his great, fun-loving personality and the way everyone loves him. I'm speechless these days. It's like a dream."

Zak Kimmel left his late father Richard in a special message last week after the South Central senior won the 1,600-meter run in the Valparaiso Regional.

After getting pizza with family in Valpo, June and Zak had one stop left to make before going home -- the cemetery.

"We were on the same wavelength," she said.

Call it a coincidence or something else, but the bench was covered in enough dust that Zak was able to print the words, 'Regional Champ, love (heart symbol), your son, Zak,' as he laid down his blue ribbon.

"I know there's no physical way of hugging or talking to him, but I can still talk to him spiritually," Zak said. "I had to have a great race and that's what I did. It felt like a spiritual thing, like it was supposed to happen like that. I was like, here we are, just you and me. I know the angels were in the front row, so you had the best seat in the house to watch that, and I made it come true. You helped me do that. You don't know how much it means to me. Thank you so much for making it come true."

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