Dierks: Appreciating the greatness of Simeon Birnbaum and Gracelyn Leiseth
Simeon Birnbaum, a distance running ace, and Gracelyn Leiseth, a master of the throwing disciplines, are the best South Dakota has ever witnessed in their respective disciplines.
SIOUX FALLS — As the South Dakota high school track and field season rapidly approaches its finale at the 2023 state meets, so, too, do two careers that can be confidently labeled as the greatest of all time.
Simeon Birnbaum, the distance running ace of Rapid City Stevens, and Gracelyn Leiseth, the throwing discipline master of Hamlin, are each one of one.
They’re better than all who have come before them, and it’s anyone’s guess how long it might be before their status is challenged.
True to form, Birnbaum and Leiseth left spectators of the 98th Howard Wood Dakota Relays, held May 5-6 in Sioux Falls, in awe. Both competed in two individual events — the 800 and 1,600 meters for Birnbaum, the shot put and discus for Leiseth — and by meet's end, the records for all four events were rewritten.
Birnbaum and Leiseth are as different as their respective disciplines, but they’ll always be linked through one shared characteristic: how they’ve completely transcended South Dakota high school athletics.
Simeon Birnbaum came to the Dakota Relays with one thing in mind.
In both the 800 meters — this year’s boys special event with seven of the best middle and long-distance runners from across South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa stacked against Birnbaum in the field — and 1,600 meters, Birnbaum sent a message.
“I came with the mindset that no one was going to be able to touch me on these runs, so I was going pretty much do whatever I wanted to do,” Birnbaum said.
Birnbaum sprinted to the front of the pack and led wire-to-wire in both races, setting meet records of 1 minute, 50.37 seconds, in the 800 and 4:04.05 in the 1,600 along the way.
It was hardly a one-off approach, as Birnbaum seeks out moments to amplify the entertainment value of track and field.
“Most runners usually try to be super nice to each other, but if you look at other sports, there are a lot of people with beefs going on,” Birnbaum explained. “I don’t want to hate people, but I want to start fun rivalries that can get the crowd engaged and sell more tickets to see athletes who really want to beat each other.”
Quite a lot can change in a prep career, as evidenced by Birnbaum’s rise to stardom. During his freshman year, with COVID-19 wiping out the track and field season, Birnbaum focused on his training. Coupled with a transition from Rapid City Christian to Stevens, his star began to shine.
Now, he’s a two-time state cross-country champion with five more individual titles on the track.
In 2022, he burst on the national stage and became the youngest American in history to break the 4-minute-mile barrier. This season, Birnbaum’s 3,200-meter time of 8:34.10 ranks No. 1 of any high school athlete in the United States. At 1,600 meters, his season-best of 4:01.05 stands second nationally. He’s South Dakota’s record-holder in the 800 (1:50.12), 1,600 (3:59.51) and 3,200.
“It’s hard to describe. You really almost can’t comprehend it,” Birnbaum said. “I almost don’t associate myself with doing those things, they just kind of get added to my name. At the end of the day, I still feel the same as I did.”
Gracelyn Leiseth is focused on the process. The results, she says, will follow.
While her fellow competitors rush to get in warm-up throws ahead of the final flight of the discus competition, Leiseth is off to the side. There, she goes through the motions of a successful throw, taking time to rewind and focus on small details.
The product is distances that appear almost as misprints next to the others.
“It’s really about focus in practice and making sure I hit my positions,” Leiseth explained. “If I hit those positions, (results) will come in the meets.”
At the Dakota Relays, Leiseth set the meet records for the shot put at 52 feet, 0.5 inches, and discus at 171 feet, 3 inches. Her closest competition in the shot put finished 8 feet, 7.75 inches back. In the discus, the gap was 33 feet.
The dominant performance was an important milestone in Leiseth’s career, as she felt that she didn’t perform to her best ability during previous trips to the Dakota Relays.
“I struggled the past two years at this meet, so this year, I told myself I wasn’t going to worry about it,” Leiseth said. “I’m just going to breathe and do what I know I can do.”
The shot put effort was Leiseth’s new season-best and the No. 3 mark in the United States this season. She occupies the same ranking in the discus, with a season-best of 171-8. Leiseth, the South Dakota record-holder in both events, is one of two girls competitors with top-five marks in the shot put and discus and ranks higher than the other, who is fourth in both disciplines. Last season, Leiseth's personal record shot put mark of 52-6.75 was the top throw in the nation.
According to Leiseth, who owns three state titles (two shot put, one discus), the gravity of her accomplishments from a historical perspective hasn’t hit home yet, but she’s appreciative of the opportunities that those exploits have afforded.
“I’m just very thankful for my parents, coaches and teammates for the support they give me,” Leiseth said. “And I also thank God for the ability and opportunity.”
Barring injury or some of the most unexpected upsets in South Dakota prep sports history, Birnbaum and Leiseth will go out with another round of state titles back at Howard Wood Field later this month.
Then, the next climb begins.
Birnbaum is committed to run collegiately at the University of Oregon, long renowned for being one of the premier collegiate track programs in the country. Leiseth’s course is set for the opposite coast, as she’ll throw at the University of Florida.
Competing at the highest level of college athletics and leaning on the hard work that’s brought them to this point, Birnbaum and Leiseth are far from finished.
At this stage, no level of future accomplishment is off the table. At the Dakota Relays, there were frequent whispers about the prospects of the young South Dakotans representing the United States at a world competition, or perhaps even the Olympics one day.
In the meantime, let’s appreciate the final high school chapters written by a pair of South Dakota preps legends while they chase further greatness.