Ron Renko succeeded ISU Hall of Fame coach Chris Murray in 1979 and continued to keep the Iowa State women’s cross country and track and field programs among the best nationally from 1979-85. Renko coached 20 All-Americans, 14 individual Big Eight Conference champions and led the Cyclones to two Big Eight cross country titles and one AIAW national championship during his tenure. The personable coach was known nationally for his innovative training techniques, many of which tied physical and mental development together. Renko had a knack for taking unknown freshmen runners and turning them into national competitors.
A native of Anoka, Minn., Renko arrived in Ames in 1979 after coaching at Golden Valley (Minn.) Lutheran College from 1974-79. In just his second season as women’s track and field and cross country coach (1981), the Cyclones captured the Big Eight title and national championship (AIAW) in cross country. ISU’s Dorthe Rasmussen won the individual titles at both the Big Eight and AIAW meets, becoming just the second Cyclone in school history to win an individual cross country national title. Renko’s Cyclones won another Big Eight cross country crown in 1983, as Margaret Davis and Suzanne Youngberg finished the season as All-Americans, placing 14th and 29th, respectively, at the NCAA meet to help the Cyclones finish sixth.
One of Renko’s top all-time performers was Nawal El Moutawakel. El Moutawakel was brought in by Renko and his staff in 1982 from Casablanca, Morocco. The hurdler had one of the greatest seasons ever for an ISU athlete in 1984, winning the NCAA 400-meter hurdles title and earning All-America honors in the 400-meter dash by placing fourth. She followed her outstanding NCAA performance by winning the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Renko was on hand to watch his star break the Olympic record in the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 54.61.
Heading into the 1985 cross country season, there were low expectations for the Cyclones. ISU failed to make the national meet for the first time in its 10-year history in 1984 and the Cyclones still had a relatively young team for 1985. Renko shocked the cross country world by rallying the Cyclones to one of their most successful seasons. ISU finished first or second in all nine meets during the season, led by freshman Jill Slettedahl and junior Bonnie Sons. The duo finished seventh and eighth, respectively, to help the Cyclones place second at the Big Eight Championship and the pair placed fifth and seventh to pace ISU to the NCAA District V Championship.
Prior to the 1985 NCAA Cross Country meet in Madison, Wis., Renko was extremely proud of his team and was hoping for at least a sixth-place finish for his young Cyclones. ISU exceeded all expectations, with the Cyclones finishing runner-up at the NCAA meet. Sons and Slettedahl were named All-Americans by finishing 25th and 29th, but ISU received outstanding performances from all its runners. Sue Baxter, a freshman from Brentwood, England, finished 32nd, Julie Rose, a junior from Ashford, England, placed 42nd, Sheryl Maahs, a junior from Spirit Lake, Iowa, placed 45th and Tami Colby, a freshman from Boone, Iowa, finished 48th.
Iowa State and Renko were ecstatic with their finish as the team members boarded three Iowa State University owned planes to take them back to Ames. Icy conditions in the Central Iowa area on the evening of Monday, Nov. 25, forced the planes to land in Des Moines rather than Ames. One of the planes, which carried Renko, assistant coach Pat Moynihan, Baxter, Rose, Maahs, student trainer Stephanie Streit and pilot Burton Watkins as passengers, developed problems as it was preparing to land in Des Moines. The plane crashed during the ice storm in a neighborhood two miles from downtown Des Moines, killing all members on board.
The tragic loss of lives stunned the Iowa State community. ISU president Robert Parks ordered that campus flags, including the flag of Great Britain, be flown at half-mast the following Tuesday and scholarship funds were established to honor the victims. On Dec. 4, 1985, more than 5,500 people attended a memorial service at Hilton Coliseum to honor Renko and the crash victims. Ten years later, ISU dedicated a plaque for permanent display at the Iowa State Cross Country Course to fully honor Renko and the crash victims for their dedication to Iowa State University.