The Sensational Rolf Harmsen
Rolf Harmsen was deaf, so he couldn’t hear the gun, the hard breathing or the pounding steps of his competition on the track. But, the Hazen native was also quick, so chances are he wouldn’t have heard them anyway as he strode far ahead of his competition, despite his disability. Unlike the other boys who reacted to the sound of the gun, Rolf had to wait for his competitors to move. This put Rolf at a split-second disadvantage—a split-second that could mean the difference between first or second place. But the disadvantage was easily overcome as he became known as the “North Dakota Flier,” and on this day in 1968, earned a place in the American Athletic Association of the Deaf Hall of Fame.
Rolf claimed his first state title in the 100 yard dash as a junior at the Devils Lake School for the Deaf in 1921, but his track career reached new heights the following year. Rolf proved himself a formidable competitor throughout that track season and when the weekend of the state meet came, Rolf really hit his stride. Far out-classing the other runners, Rolf had no one to beat but the state record-holders of 1910. In a race against the clock, Rolf sprinted for record-breaking times in the preliminaries for both the 100 yard dash and the 220 yard low hurdles. If this wasn’t enough, he knocked another fifth of a second off his day-old 100 meter dash record in the final race. Before the meet was over, Rolf had also picked up a third gold medal for the 220 yard dash, and he and another record-breaker, Mike Mueller claimed fourth for the School for the Deaf in the half-mile relay.
That track meet, Rolf proved himself a “wonder,” and the newspapers couldn’t get enough of this sensational athlete. What really caught their attention was when he took a trial jump in the running board jump and leapt 21 feet. Rolf was not able to compete in the running board jump because he was already in too many events, but had he been able to, he would have also claimed first in this event by one foot. The North Dakota Banner reported on Rolf’s all-around performance: “There is no question but if the Deaf School athlete were allowed to enter in all the events he wanted to, he could win the meet alone. He is one of the most powerful runners seen on the university track since the days of Claud Runyon, or Boyd of Langdon in most recent days.” The School for the Deaf placed third in the overall track meet, and Rolf was the overall point winner with his total of 15 points.
Rolf went on to compete for Gallaudet College and improved his time in the 100 yard dash by a half a second—without starting blocks or a hard track. He continued to dominate in the sport and was considered a good bet for the 1923 Paris World Olympics. Unfortunately, the Olympics committee ruled a club could not sponsor its own athlete, and Rolf was not able to show his prowess on the international level. After college, he returned to North Dakota and became a printer for the Bismarck Tribune. Rolf remained an avid fan of track and field until he died March 4, 1977.
By Tessa Sandstrom
“Grand Forks and Fargo Teams Split Even in the Interscholastic Tourney,” Grand Forks Herald (Evening). May 22, 1922: 16.
“Interscholastic Track Tournament Ends in the Tie: School for the Deaf is Third,” North Dakota Banner, vol. 31, no. 14. June 20, 1922: 43.
“Rolf Harmsen, Tribune Printer and Athlete,” Bismarck Tribune. March 5, 1977: 15.
Schmidt, Steve. “Harmsen, ‘North Dakota Flyer’ of the Twenties, Initiated Into Deaf Hall of Fame,” North Dakota Banner. May 1968: 10.