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  Thursday February 26th, 2015    

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WSHS Athletic Hall of Fame: Frani Loftness Knowles (05/07/2006)
For those who live by the saying "wait until next year," please listen to what Frani (Loftness) Knowles has to say.

"One thing I've passed on to several of my patient-athletes is never say you're going to get them next year," Knowles said. "Every time you're out there competing, don't look too far ahead because it might not be there.

"I learned it the hard way."

When Knowles was a sophomore at Winona Senior High School in 1982, she was a Big Nine Conference track champion in the 100-meter dash, the long jump and on two relays. She also captured Region 1AA crowns in the long jump and on two relay teams. The Winhawks' 800-meter relay team, which consisted of Knowles, Kristi Gunderson, Amy Duran and Laurie Bollin, won the state title that year. Knowles also took sixth in the 400 and seventh in the long jump.

A year later, Knowles repeated as Big Nine champion in the long jump, 400 relay and 800 relay, while taking second in the 200. At the region meet, the two relays repeated as champion, and Knowles also advanced to state by taking second in both the long jump and 200.

The 800 relay repeated as state champion (with Stacy Espe taking Gunderson's spot) that year. Knowles added a third in the 400 and a pair of sixth-place finishes in the 200 and long jump.

In two years, Knowles had seven Big Nine and seven Region 1AA titles in track, plus a pair of state titles on relays. And she still had her senior year to go.

But there would be no senior year in track. Knowles had just placed 12th individually and helped the WSHS girls cross-country team to the Region 1AA title in 1983 when disaster struck. Three days before the state meet, the Winhawks were running around West Lake Winona. After turning north on Huff St. (at the time there was no sidewalk there), a driver began merging right to turn onto Hwy. 61. The car in front of that one also decided to turn right and didn't see the other vehicle. The driver of one of the cars veered to the right to avoid an accident and hit Knowles, who was in the middle of a pack of WSHS runners, head on.

Knowles broke three bones in her right arm and two bones in her right leg and spent almost a week in the hospital recovering.

"She was very, very lucky," her cross country coach, Jim Flim, said. "It was the worst thing I had seen. The whole incident was so unfortunate. I think about it an awful lot. I still think about it every time I run on Huff St."

Knowles came back in the spring and tried to run track, but it wasn't going to happen.

"I had plates in my leg," she said. "I had a stress fracture where all the screws went through the bone. I had to stop."

It makes Knowles, as well as members of the WSHS coaching staff, wonder what could have been if that accident didn't happen. The girl she barely lost to in the 400 her junior year, Bloomington Lincoln's Jennifer Bell (who won state titles three consecutive years in the 100, 200 and 400), had graduated.

"It's hard not to think about it," Knowles said. "Jennifer Bell was gone. With her not being there, that was something I was looking forward to."

Added Flim: "She was a Division 1 runner in my estimation coming out of her junior year. She ran 57.1 in the 400 as a junior. She tied Tara's (Kazemba) school record."

After graduating in 1984, Knowles enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and ran cross-country her freshman year. Doctors found torn cartilage in her knee, which was probably caused by the accident, and she had surgery over the Christmas break and wasn't able to run track in either the winter or spring.

But a year later, she came back and won the conference indoor championship in the 600-meter run, 1,600 relay and distance medley relay, and was named the team's most improved runner. She went on to take ninth in the NAIA National meet in the 600, and her medley relay team took sixth, making Knowles an All-American.

As a senior, Knowles made all-conference in cross-country and repeated as conference indoor champion in the 600 and 1,600 relay. She was an All-American again that year following a sixth-place finish in a relay and an eighth in the 600 at nationals.

"After the accident, I was never really able to sprint again at the same level as high school," Knowles said. "I was forced to go to the 600 and 800 in college.

"I was determined. Just having such a taste of success, there was a drive to get back to it. I just loved to run and be part of a team. That was something I wanted to continue."

After her running days were over at Eau Claire, Knowles enrolled in the University of Minnesota-Duluth School of Medicine where she continued to run, only this time the runs were a lot longer - 26.2 miles to be exact.

She has competed in eight marathons, including the 100th Boston Marathon, the Twin Cities Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, as well as Grandma's Marathon in Duluth.

"It was different," Knowles said of marathon running. "If I hadn't gone to medical school in Duluth, I don't think I would have ever tried it. I used to whine when (WSHS track coach) Lynne Gronert made us run more than a half mile. Once I started running marathons, I was hooked."

After running the Boston Marathon, Knowles underwent her fifth knee surgery, and her running days are now over.

She's been married for 15 years and has four children. Knowles is a family practice doctor at the New Ulm (Minn.) Medical Center.

"She was so determined," Flim said. "Talent-wise, I wasn't surprised to see her come back (after the accident). Injury-wise, I was. She was able to work through various injuries." 


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