A Life Remembered: Roger Capan

CHAMPAIGN — Erik Henriksen was 10 years old when the 1968 Winter Olympic Games were televised from Grenoble, France. He watched speedskating with fascination and inspiration as someone from his hometown was competing.

“Roger Capan was my Superman,” Henriksen said. “I idolized him. I wanted to go to the Olympics so bad. He is a hero of our area, a man above men. I wanted to be like Roger.”

Capan, 67, passed away Saturday in Alabama. He was the first Champaign-Urbana speedskater to qualify for the Olympics.

Henriksen eventually made his dream come true, too, qualifying for three Olympics, including the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

“I was walking around the track area, inside the stadium, when I heard someone holler,” said Harry Henriksen, Erik’s father. “I looked and there was Roger and his dad, Matt, outside the fence.

“I tried to get to the fence but had trouble getting past security. The Capans said they needed tickets. I went back to my seat, where my wife was, got two extra tickets and handed them through the wire gate.”

When Jeannine Henriksen passed away earlier this year, Capan was one of the mourners at the Jan. 13 visitation.

Speedskating wasn’t Capan’s only athletic claim to fame. The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder was an all-conference tackle as a football player at Champaign High. He was also the state runner-up in the discus as a senior (1963) and held the school record for more than a decade (170-61/2). Capan helped the Maroons win three Big 12 Conference track titles.

As a speedskater, he was a national champion in 1957 as an 11-year-old in the Midget Boys’ Division. At the time, he was a sixth-grader at Columbia Middle School. Capan went on to become the first male athlete — and the only one through 1994 — to win Silver Skates in all five age divisions (midget, juvenile, junior, intermediate and senior).

He set national records, indoors and outdoors.

A Champaign speedskater who went on to become an Olympic champion, Bonnie Blair Cruikshank, got to know Capan through her older siblings, who were skaters.

“Their whole family was great friends with my family,” Cruikshank said. “My memory of Roger was as a fun-loving, big teddy bear. He always had a smile on his face and never seemed in a bad mood.”

In the era Capan and Blair’s sisters, Mary and Susie, were skaters, they often traveled to meets in Minneapolis by train.

“Roger complained how bored he was (on the train) and said, ‘Mary, teach me how to knit,’ ” Cruikshank said. “She taught him, and it was funny to see this huge guy knitting on a train going to Minnesota.”

Capan recently sent a note to  Mary, who is undergoing a bone-marrow transplant in Denver.

“There’s a CaringBridge site set up for her, and Roger wrote, ‘Knit one, pearl two,’ ” Cruikshank said, referring to knitting language.

An only child, Roger Capan is survived by his mother, Vera, who lives in Champaign.

Erik Henriksen, who will represent the USOC and present a flag to the family at Thursday’s service in Pensacola, Fla., describes Capan as “gregarious and a jokester.”

When this reporter interviewed Capan in 1984, he showed his jovial nature.

Capan, who narrowly missed an Olympic berth in 1964, was the top U.S. qualifier for the ’68 Games in the 1,500 meters. When asked how he did at Grenoble, he said, “I was 34th.”

The follow-up question was, “Out of how many?” Capan responded: “The whole world.”

Like Henriksen, Capan had role-model skaters to emulate.

In a 1984 News-Gazette interview, Capan said, “When I first started, Don Prather and Donnie Reno were the top (local) skaters, and I said I’d give anything to skate like they could.”

Lee Cabutti was an assistant football coach when Capan played ball for the Maroons. Cabutti’s most vivid memory didn’t occur during a game.

“It was the night before we were to play Urbana, Tom (Stewart, coach) was showing the film of last year’s game at McKinley Field. The kids were sitting on benches, and there was a knock on the fieldhouse door,” Cabutti said. “I went to the door and it was Roger’s mother. She said, ‘Please give Roger this bag of cookies.’ ”

Even the ever-serious Stewart couldn’t resist a smile.

“It took a lot for Tom to break out in a laugh, but he did,” added Cabutti, who waited to deliver the cookies. “I didn’t give them to him until the film was over.”

As for Capan, Cabutti recalled, “He embodied everything you look for in an athlete. He was cooperative and well-liked by everyone, the type of guy you’d want on any team.”

Capan spent time in the Air Force and was also a women’s track and field coach at the University of Illinois and at the University of Nebraska. He later made a name for himself as a long-drive competitor in golf.

As the ’90s came to a close, he crossed paths with Cruikshank.

The Blair and Cruikshank families co-sponsored a golf tournament in Texas with the Dallas Stars.

“Roger helped out in one of the charity events,” Cruikshank said. “He was one of those guys who stayed involved.”
 

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