Estes Park mayor also a legendary CSU alum

Wendy Koenig is more than just the mayor of Estes Park. She also is the greatest female middle-distance runner in CSU history. Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photography

If you’ve lived in Estes Park for more than a few years, chances are pretty good that you know the mayor, Wendy Koenig.

She might have checked your ears at her business, Community Hearing Center, before she retired in 2017. Or you might have seen her cheering on her three children at a local swimming meet. Perhaps you passed her as she rode her bike on the scenic byways that wind in and around this iconic mountain town.

But those who really know this historic and scenic place are well aware that their mayor is much more than, well, a mayor. Koenig, you see, is a two-time U.S. Olympian, having run the 800 meters at the 1972 and 1976 Games. She is the biggest celebrity in this small (pop. 6,000) town with an international reputation as the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park.

“Pretty much everyone in town knows Wendy,” said Eric Blackhurst, a local realtor who served with Koenig on the Town Board. “They know about her running in the Olympics, but they also know she really cares about Estes Park. That’s why she was elected.”

Koenig is not shy about proclaiming her love for her hometown. She was born in Boulder but all of her formative years were spent here. She attended Estes schools and discovered her remarkable talent for running while playing on the hillsides that surround the town.

“I loved growing up here,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to move back here, so my kids could have a similar experience.”

Humble beginnings

Wendy Koenig

Wendy Koenig at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games.

Estes Park was hardly a hotbed for female track talent in the late 1960s. The town had slightly more than 2,000 residents, and Estes Park High School didn’t even have a girls track and field program.

But Koenig’s middle school physical education teacher recognized that the gangly 13-year-old had been blessed with great speed and outstanding overall athletic ability. He encouraged her to enter a state AAU track meet in Broomfield, Colorado, to compete in the pentathlon, even though she had only run in four of the five events before.

“I went home, and my dad taught me how to run the hurdles,” she said. “We went down the next day and I won the pentathlon, qualifying for regionals. From there I went on to nationals. That’s how I got started.”

By the time she was 17 and a senior at EPHS, she had been competing nationally and internationally for several years. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team and the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, when she was still a senior in high school.

The opening ceremony to the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, West Germany.

To say it was an eye-opening experience would be a colossal understatement. This was the Olympics that introduced stars like Mark Spitz (seven swimming gold medals), Frank Shorter (first American marathon winner) and Olga Korbut (mesmerizing multi-medal-winning Soviet gymnast), and included the infamous men’s basketball game that saw the Soviets take the gold medal from the U.S.

Those performances, however, were overshadowed when a Palestinian terrorist group, Black September, kidnapped members of the Israeli Olympic Team, demanding that imprisoned Palestinians be released. When the terrifying incident was over, 11 Israelis, a West German policeman and most of the terrorists were dead.

“I was never scared – I guess you feel kind of bulletproof when you’re 17,” Koenig said of the event that came to be known as the Munich Massacre. “I was there to compete, and I tried to focus on my race. I didn’t make it past the first round, but I learned a lot. After that, I knew I needed to improve my stamina to make it through all of the rounds of qualifying at the Olympics.”

Becoming a Ram

Prior to the Games, Koenig was a hot commodity in the world of college athletic recruiting. With the new Title IX requiring colleges to provide athletic opportunities to female athletes, the talented runner had her choice of several schools. But a visit from Colorado State University legend Thurman “Fum” McGraw – then the assistant director of athletics – convinced her to come to Fort Collins.

“With Title IX, CSU needed to get some female athletes on scholarship – like other schools,” Koenig said. “I was very impressed that Fum came to my house. I was also tired after lots of international travel and just wanted to be close to home, and CSU had the academic program I was interested in.”

A CSU legend is born

Wendy Koenig at the Albuquerque Jaycee Invitational in 1976.

Koenig is the greatest female middle-distance runner in CSU history. That’s no opinion; the facts are simply too obvious to ignore.

More than 40 years after graduating, she still holds four school records: the indoor and outdoor 800 meters, the seldom-run 1,000 meters, and the outdoor 1,500 meters. Koenig was good at pretty much everything – she still ranks on CSU’s all-time top 20 list in both the 400 and the 400 hurdles, and she even competed in the long jump in a few meets.

“Wendy was an absolute superstar at an early age and managed to excel long enough to be regarded as one of the very best middle-distance runners to emerge in the USA,” said former CSU athlete and longtime coach Del Hessel, who held the men’s school record in the 800 for many years himself. “I coached in the college ranks for 35 years and I never had an athlete even slightly comparable to Wendy. I have seen her run on tape/video; sometimes you see an athlete run, jump or throw and you just say ‘Wow!’ Wendy was one of those athletes.”

Before she graduated, she won several national AAU titles and the 1976 national collegiate title in the 1,500. But of all her accomplishments, her time of 1 minute, 59.91 seconds in the 1976 Olympics might be the most impressive. She was just the second American to break 2 minutes in the tortuous two-lap sprint.

Some perspective: Her astonishing time is 6.9 seconds faster than the second-best time run by a CSU athlete (2:06.8 by Mary Ridder in 2002). Her record time would have won the 800 at the past four NCAA Outdoor Championships. And she remains the only Colorado collegian to break 2 minutes in the event – not even the great Mary Decker, who ran at the University of Colorado and held multiple world records in her prime – matched the feat.

“I had always wanted to break 2 minutes, even before I got to CSU,” she said. “I think that runners today have the wrong strategy in the race, always trying to save something for the last 200 meters. That was never my style – I went out hard and just ran to win. I loved to run and loved to compete – running was my joy.”

Koenig married Lyle Knudson, who had coached her on the Colorado Gold Track and Field AAU team, at age 18 and competed for the rest of her career as Wendy Koenig-Knudson. She earned a bachelor’s degree in hearing and speech science in 1977 and her master’s in CSU’s now-defunct audiology program in what is now the College of Health and Human Sciences in 1978 and started her medical career – when she wasn’t running, coaching, serving on various national track and field advisory boards or raising her three children.

Coming home

Koenig returned to Estes Park in 1987 and divorced Knudson in 1991 before marrying childhood friend Roger Schuett in 1995.

“Roger and I used to catch ground squirrels together when we were kids,” she laughed. “We had always liked each other, and it was a good fit. He had two children, so we blended together to make a family.”

Koenig opened her hearing clinic in 1989. Her daughters – Kristin (B.S., Nutrition and Food Science, ’03) and Karin (B.S., Biological Science, ’08) – followed their mom to CSU and earned swimming scholarships, while son Jason used his swimming skills to become a special warfare crewman in the U.S. Navy.

Entering politics

Wendy Koenig said she believes in giving back to her community, one of the reasons that she entered Estes Park politics. Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photography

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Koenig quickly became involved in her community, serving on various boards and in city government. She served two four-year terms on the Town Board, including a stint as Mayor Pro Tem, before term limits sent her to the sidelines.

Her time away from the fray in city government, however, was short-lived. The most recent mayor and Town Board were plagued by controversy, and citizens responded with a recall of one board member. Koenig decided to run for mayor and was elected this spring.

“I truly believe in giving back to my community, and I really didn’t like what was happening in Estes Park politics, so I thought I would run for mayor,” she said. “My top priority is the health and safety of our citizens, plus finding ways to shore up our infrastructure. I’m a good listener, and I think we can make some positive changes here.”

An ally in Fort Collins

If anyone can relate to Koenig’s journey it is Wade Troxell, mayor of Fort Collins. Like Koenig, Troxell was a scholarship athlete at CSU – a three-year starter for the football team. Heck, they were even contemporaries, with Troxell graduating in 1980. And like Koenig, he became mayor of his hometown.

“I knew Wendy when we were at CSU – she was an amazing athlete,” Troxell said. “Since then, we’ve been on a couple of boards together, when she was on the Estes Town Board. She always comes prepared, she’s always very thoughtful, and she’s a great person to work with. I attribute that to athletics – she’s a strong leader but she gets things done in a quiet, very effective way.”

Troxell was delighted when he heard Koenig was running for mayor.

“I think there are more advantages to being a hometown mayor than disadvantages,” he said. “I have context for things. A lot of people new to Fort Collins have no idea that the town is always growing, changing. In my lifetime we’ve gone from 20,000 residents to 177,000. Fort Collins has always had this nice balance between planning and doing, and that has helped enhance and maintain our quality of life.

“In a community like Estes, it’s much the same. You get people moving up there to retire who have no connection to the community, and Wendy gets that,” Troxell continued. “She’s perfect for this time in that community. You need to love the town more than yourself, and you get that with someone who grew up there. And I know Wendy loves Estes Park.”

Challenging times

Estes Park’s most prominent residents – herds of elk – now move around town with relative ease because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by John Eisele/CSU Photography

Koenig laughed when it was suggested that her timing was awful. Who would want to be mayor in the midst of a pandemic, when business have been shuttered and the town’s lifeblood, Rocky Mountain National Park, was closed?

“COVID-19 has certainly complicated things,” she said.

And how. Estes Park has the highest per-capita number of people in the high-risk age group of any city in the state. And with most businesses in this tourism-centric town closed for more than two months, tax revenues dipped considerably. The town’s most prominent residents – herds of majestic elk – moved around town with relative ease.

Estes Park just recently started to reopen, with the national park, which drew a record 4 million visitors last year, also opening on a limited basis. Things are looking up, and Koenig is cautiously optimistic about the town’s immediate future.

“Well, we don’t need 4 million people walking around up here, but our businesses do need relief,” she said. “It will nice to be able to walk down the streets and smell the smells that are so familiar up here, but we also need to be careful. The last thing we need is another spike to shut us down.”

Still playing

Koenig hasn’t been able to run in years – a hip injury ended her career – but it’s not unusual to see her riding her bike, swimming, fishing or skiing. She and her husband have enjoyed scuba diving around the world, so it’s safe to say the joy she gets from outdoor activities remains intact at age 65.

And even though she’s not competing for her school or her country, she still gets that taste of competition on a daily basis as she battles to keep her beloved town healthy and thriving.

“I’ve been fortunate to lead a great life,” she said. “And I’m so happy to be here in Estes Park, the place I love.”

Wendy Koenig