Editor’s note: This is the latest installment in a series titled Lumberjack Flashback, highlighting some of the greatest spring sports teams, athletes and moments in Bemidji High School history. Stories on each of Bemidji’s seven spring sports programs will be released in line with this year’s originally scheduled state tournament dates.
In more ways than one, nobody set the bar higher than Andrea (Smith) Patten.
The 2004 Bemidji High School graduate exited the girls track and field program as one of the most decorated athletes in school history, walking away with three individual state championships and a Minnesota state record to boot.
“I felt really lucky to go to a high school where they supported academics and athletics,” Patten said. “I worked hard, but there were also people there who made it possible. … I feel like I did some work, but I think more people did more work than I did.”
From her sophomore year on, nobody bested Patten in pole vaulting at the state meet. It all culminated her senior season when she established a new state record, but her historic career was chock-full of accomplishments.
“She was very determined and wanted to be the very best she could be with school and the sporting world,” said Chris Lehman, the Lumberjacks’ pole vault coach at the time. “She was definitely very hard-working and receptive to wanting to get better, and she had the drive to get better.”
A new line of work
First and foremost, Patten was a gymnast. An injury chased her from the sport, but she used that background to help fuel her track and field success.
“Being a gymnast when she was younger definitely helped in the pole vault,” Lehman said. “You’re getting your body upside down and inverted in the pole vault, so you’ve got to be a little bit used to having your body tumble and turn.”
And, naturally, there was a newfound love for her soon-to-be calling card, as well.
“People would say, ‘Well, why did you pole vault?’” Patten said. “My answer had always been that I had been a gymnast first. I couldn’t do gymnastics anymore, so I switched to pole vault and thought it was so much fun.”
Patten barely clinched a state berth as a sophomore in 2002. The section’s top two finishers qualified for state, and Patten cleared 10 feet to tie Elk River’s Natalie Hanson for second. By virtue of fewer misses, Patten was state bound.
“Certainly, I had no expectations when I went to state as a sophomore,” Patten said. “I was just happy to be there.”
Ranked near the bottom of the state meet field, Patten went out and cleared each height as her competition dropped off. All of a sudden, by the time she cleared 11 feet, she was the last one standing.
“It sort of happened in an anticlimactic way, that I didn’t really realize was happening,” she said. “It was a surprise of, ‘Oh, no, that couldn’t be possible.’”
But it was. The return to the top of the podium was a short wait for the program, as Patten’s first title came just six years after Marta Maxwell’s triple jump championship in 1996. But Patten was far from done.
“She was very focused and determined that first year,” Lehman said. “For her to be so focused and determined, then the second year, third year kind of makes it a lot easier.”
During her junior season, Patten shattered the school record three times. The final benchmark came at just the right moment, as her 11-6 showing at state gave her a second consecutive championship.
That wasn’t the only thing that made the day special, though.
Patten’s older brother, Brad, had been at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for a pancreas transplant. He convinced his doctors to discharge him early so he could watch his sister vault.
“For him to get out and stop at the track meet on his way home from the hospital was a pretty great experience. And certainly motivating,” Patten said. “You want to do well when you have an audience who you want to make proud.”
The last hurrah
As a two-time defending state champion, Patten had a high standard to live up to as a senior.
“After having won state as a sophomore and going back as a junior and senior,” she said, “I certainly felt -- I’m not sure that pressure is the right way to describe it, but I certainly wanted to win again.”
She did so with a flourish, and in historic fashion. She had already broken her school record during her senior season, but her best-for-last showing came at 12 feet, 7 inches, bettering her personal high by six inches and setting a new Minnesota state record.
“(Head coach Dick) Phelps came running over excitedly, and he said, ‘We’re going to go for the state record,’” Patten recalled. “That was a moment where I was just like, ‘Holy cow. OK, great. Well, I didn’t know that’d be happening today.’
“I cleared the bar, and the whole thing was kind of surreal. You hope to have days like that in competition, but you don’t really ever expect them.”
Just one year later, Patten’s state record gave way to her future college teammate in Robbinsdale Armstrong’s Alicia Rue. Patten took it in stride, but she said that also spoke to the strength of the competition.
“It was kind of a ripe time in girls pole vault in Minnesota,” Patten said. “(The state record) was pretty cool. … I just felt like, ‘OK, this was all worth it.’ I felt really lucky that I happened to clear the bar that day, in the right moment and at the right time and place.”
Patten earned a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where she finished as the Big Ten Conference runner-up three times and ranked ninth in the nation as a senior. She briefly held the program’s indoor record at 13-1.75, as well.
Patten was inducted into the Bemidji High School Athletics Hall of Fame in 2016, where her plaque leads with, “Andrea Smith is considered one (of) the greatest all-around female athletes ever at Bemidji High School.”
And as the only three-time individual state champion in school history, she’s certainly worthy of such praise.
“It was definitely really fun to watch her, from her freshman year up to her senior year, progress the way she did,” Lehman said. “It was pretty amazing, what she was able to accomplish. … She’s definitely one of the all-time special kids that I’ve had around.”
Patten recently returned to Bemidji and now works at Sanford Health as a doctor specializing in emergency medicine and trauma. Not far down the road, her old high school echoes her unrivaled accomplishments.
“I had a great high school experience,” Patten said. “I feel pretty lucky to be able to represent.”
LUMBERJACK FLASHBACK SERIES
Boys track and field: The 'glory decade' of BHS boys track
Girls track and field: The girl who vaulted into unrivaled ranks
Boys golf: TBA
Girls golf: TBA