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Practice makes perfect: Sandbak’s hard work drastically improved his DSU track career

Photo courtesy by Stormie Sickler Dickinson State senior track and field runner Dustin Sandback, right, runs ahead of the pack in the distance medley relay at the Eagles and Jackets Invite on Feb. 7 in Gillette, Wyo.

Dustin Sandbak was late joining the sport of running.

In fact, it wasn’t an option for the Dickinson State senior before the summer of his junior year in high school.

Since finding his way onto the team at Skyview High School in Billings, Mont., Sandbak has discovered a deep passion and great success in the sport.

Sandbak had played soccer since he was five years old. One summer, he missed the cut for Magic City, a club team in which all the area high schools participated. Sandbak’s friend convinced him to try track and field. He agreed, but initially knew little to nothing about the sport.

“I asked coach what I need to do, and he said just go out there and race,” Sandbak said about his first-ever meet. “I was like, OK, I don’t know anything about track. So I go on the track, start running and go to pass a guy in the 800 and I see a little bit of the lane inside track. I think there’s track there so I can pass him on the inside.

“And my coach yells at me, ‘What are you doing?’ Well, I’m passing the guy and he’s like you can’t do that you’re going to get DQ’ed, and I felt like an idiot but I didn’t know anything about track and it was completely new to me.”

Despite the rocky start in his first meet, Sandbak ended up winning the race and sparked his desire to improve. Despite having just two years of track experience, Sandbak’s determination to race at the higher level — and break a time of 2 minutes flat — eventually got him to DSU and he continued to show improvement, but still had a long ways to go.

To get where Sandbak needed to go, he also needed the proper mentor.

After a rough freshman season, DSU hired current head track and field coach Mike Nekuda as its head cross country coach and everything changed for Sandbak.

Nekuda was tipped off about Sandbak’s dedication and work ethic, and immediately approached him about his potential.

“In the second day of practice, I pulled him away and said, ‘Dustin, I know you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I’ve heard some good things. If you do everything I ask of you here on out for the next three years, I can’t tell you exactly where we’re going to go with this or how good you’re going to be, but you will improve dramatically,’” Nekuda said. “And he said, ‘Alright coach,’ and since that day … he’s done everything I’ve asked him too. He’s the most coachable kid. It’s unbelievable.”

After years of dedication, hard work and a relentless attitude, Sandbak began to see the results and finally made it over the hump his junior year. After running about 2 minutes, 2 seconds in the 800 meters in high school, he has shaved more than 10 seconds off his time and has collected three NAIA all-American honors, four academic all-Americas and has been a part of two school records, with one outdoor season remaining.

His biggest accomplishment was last season when his 3,200 meter relay team finished in third place at the NAIA nationals and broke the DSU record with a time of 7:32.13.

“Doing something with a team means a lot more to me than an individual award,” he said. “So that relay, when we went up there and set the school record, that meant a lot to me. It pushed me to the limits I didn’t know I had.”

Sandbak’s competitive drive is something that isn’t only acknowledged and praised by his coach. His teammates recognize it as well.

Sophomore distance runner Dante Carter has grown close to Sandbak and looks to him as a prime example when it comes to how to properly train and compete.

The two initially had a rocky start to their relationship — Carter saying the two had opposite personalities — but have since found out they mesh well together. They’re the distance team’s leaders and are training partners.

Carter’s admiration for Sandbak throughout the years is evident, but the biggest aspect he has admired and will miss is his hard working nature and Cinderella story.

“He’s never given up, at no point even at the points of his lowest he still kept his drive going,” Carter said. “Even though he may not be the fastest in the world, the fact that he has the drive that no one else has is irreplaceable.

“People will hopefully always know the story of how Dustin came in, ran terribly his freshman year but didn’t give up on the slightest, and Nekuda came in and turned him around and made him the runner he is today.”

With his collegiate running career drawing to a close, Sandbak has a vast amount of accomplishments and memories to look back on.

Despite the records, personal bests and all-Americas, Sandbak is truly grateful for having people like Nekuda to believe in him, realize his potential and give him the confidence to obtain what didn’t seem attainable.

“Coming in, I was at a low spot. I ran slower than I did in high school. I was running 2:15 and I almost kind of gave up hope,” Sandbak said. “That’s what I learned, is to keep to your dreams and to work hard for them, and if you work hard, things can happen that you don’t expect from yourself.”

Meaghan MacDonald

Meaghan is the sports page designer and copy editor for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.  After graduating from James Madison University (Va.) in May 2013, she moved from New Jersey to North Dakota to start pursuing her career in sports journalism and was a sports reporter for the Dickinson Press and covered Dickinson State athletics. Meaghan has been working for the Forum since June 2015.