Charlie Etuko missed the state championships last year by 0.65 seconds.
As a junior in 300-meter hurdles, Etuko placed third in the Class 2A, Section 5 playoffs, missing the top two spots that automatically qualify for state. Etuko then went home and taped up a piece of paper in his room with the title “Goals.” It included qualifying for state in his senior year at Mounds View and setting personal bests in his other events.
On Feb. 23, his goals had to be adjusted. He had swollen lymph nodes and feelings of exhaustion for a month, and doctors diagnosed his ailment as leukemia. A three-sport athlete, Etuko saw his basketball season end instantly. His goal of reaching state in track and field suddenly became a lot harder.
“It took a while to register in my mind,” Etuko said last week. “Thinking about the track season with all the work I’ve done, I wouldn’t be able to meet my goal of making it to state. It was hard on me, but I learned to accept it.”
After the diagnosis, Etuko said, he was in the hospital for five days. He hasn’t been to his classes since, and his track season has been put on hold because of weight loss from undergoing chemotherapy.
His one-month checkup was positive. Etuko said his doctors didn’t find any trace of the leukemia in his spine or bone marrow. It’s likely still there, but now his chemotherapy sessions will be less frequent.
Etuko excelled as a high school athlete, starting for Mounds View’s football and basketball teams. But his main sport is track, where is a team captain. He competed in high jump and the 300-meter hurdles last season in the section playoffs. His new goal is to compete next year at St. John’s University, where he’s already spoken with the coach.
The news of Etuko’s diagnosis was like “a punch to the gut,” said Ross Fleming, Mounds View track and field coach. Fleming said he still speaks frequently with Etuko on the phone, giving him words of motivation, checking in on his health and seeing when he can stop by practice.
“He’s got that mischievous smile, which is a big part of his persona, and his sense of humor goes with that,” Fleming said. “He’s also a man of character. He has depth to his personality.”
Etuko’s goals were the same as those of his coaches. Hurdles coach Mike Goldman said the plan was definitely to have Etuko competing in multiple events.
“I’m missing not having a chance to work with him this season. That’s been the hardest part,” Goldman said. “I was really looking forward to working with him his senior year and hopefully getting him to state.”
The priority for the coaches now is that Etuko remains healthy. Etuko is still a team captain but can only come to practice when he is feeling fine and doesn’t have a chemotherapy session.
Making state may be too lofty a goal for Etuko, but he said that during his physical therapy his drive is clear.
“It’s a big goal for me to compete for this team,” Etuko said. “When I’m working out, I use it as motivation.”
Fleming said he playfully tells Etuko on his phone calls that he owes him 25 pushups since he hasn’t been to that many practices lately.
Etuko first returned after Mounds View’s spring break ended in late March. His return was a surprise, as Fleming recalled, as Etuko walked in with that mischievous smile, wearing his coach’s sweatshirt. Fleming then had Etuko do 25 more pushups on his knees along with the rest of his team.
“It was just his mere presence that made it a better day,” Fleming said. “Talk about a guy who lights up a room, he’s the guy.”
Mike Hendrickson is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.