BILLINGS — Wrenzi Wrzesinski is not one of those rebellious teenagers who veers in an opposite direction from her family members. Her parents and older brother have led such enviable lives, she would have a hard time taking another route.
Wrenzi’s mother, Michele, was a hurdler at the University of Mary. Her father, Jon, was a decathlete at the University of North Dakota. Her brother, Cleet, is currently a decathlete and football player at Dickinson State University. And the whole Wrzesinski family lived in Asia for 10 years.
Wrenzi, a senior at Baker, will join her brother on the track team at Dickinson State next year, and she hopes to join him in an exclusive club: Montana high school track athletes to win three straight state titles in both hurdles events. The well-traveled Wrenzi is happy to follow a path paved by the older Wrzesinskis.
Jon and Michele spent 10 years in Harlowton (Michele’s hometown), where they taught physical education and coached track and field, winning several Class C state titles. By year 10, when Cleet was 6 years old and Wrenzi was 4, Jon and Michele discussed the possibility of teaching overseas.
Neither had left the country up to that point, but the prospect became enticing. In the late 1990s, Jon, a Stanford native, received a recommendation about worldly travels from then-Montana State football coach Jim McElwain, now the head coach at Central Michigan. By 2004, Jon and Michele felt ready to live in a different country.
“It kind of felt like we needed a change, needed a new challenge,” Jon said. “We wanted to do something different, and the kids were young enough that it wasn’t really going to disrupt their lives.”
The parents eyed Indonesia initially, but they couldn’t simply choose a destination; they needed to find a school that was willing to employ them, so they attended a job fair. They were intrigued by Pakistan, which had teaching opportunities for both of them in Islamabad. They took the leap.
It was 2004 — three years after the September 11th terrorist attacks and one after the United States invaded Iraq. Pakistan borders Afghanistan and Iran, which borders Iraq.
“We didn’t want to tell people where we were going,” Michele said. “We thought they were gonna think we were crazy going with a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old.”
Jon admitted feeling some apprehension about moving to Pakistan, but he had a contact there, and he and Michele knew that not every part of the country was unsafe. Their fears were quelled after they arrived. The climate was warm, the people were friendly, the school was impressive and they never felt at risk.
Wrenzi doesn’t remember much from her two years in Islamabad, but her few memories are fond.
“Looking back on things now, I guess it’s a little bit scary. But living there, I never remember feeling like we were in danger,” she said. “I think people just have the general assumption that everyone is bad that lives in the Middle East, but that’s just not the case.”
The Wrzesinskis moved to Shanghai after two years in Islamabad. One thing Wrenzi does remember from those first few years abroad was how locals were fascinated with her blonde hair. They tried to touch it and take pictures with her.
“You come to feel like a movie star over there,” Michele said.
The schools in Islamabad and Shanghai were academically focused, and the track teams would only practice three times a week, Michele said. Those limitations hardly held Cleet and Wrenzi back. Jon and Michelle praised their children’s work ethics while providing expert coaching and gifting them with athletic genes.
Track prompted the Wrzesinskis to return to the States five years ago, when Cleet was entering his sophomore year of high school and Wrenzi was close behind. Jon and Michele wanted better competition and better exposure for their children, so they moved back to Montana.
Wrenzi knew virtually nothing about life in the U.S. at the time and had grown comfortable in China. Long gone were the days of locals gawking at her hair.
“I guess I wasn’t as cute,” she joked.
The Wrzesinskis first settled in Ennis, and they moved to Baker two years ago after Jon became superintendent of Baker Public Schools. The move proved to be fruitful for Wrenzi from an athletic standpoint.
Wrenzi, whose middle name is Wrace, missed the Class C state tournament her freshman year because of a stress fracture she suffered at divisionals. She set a goal right then that she would win the state 100- and 300- hurdles the rest of her career. She’s two-thirds of the way there.
After moving to Baker, Wrenzi won both hurdles events in each of the previous two Class B state tournaments. This season, she’s run the 100 hurdles six times and the 300 hurdles on three occasions. She has placed first in all nine of those races (she’s also won the 100-meter dash and the long jump four times, the 200 once, the 400 once, the 4x400 relay once and the 4x100 relay five times).
Until recently, Wrenzi didn’t realize Cleet was the only male Montanan to win both hurdles events at three state tournaments (on the girls side, Big Timber's Paula Berry, Harlowton's Erin Jones and Lewistown's Jennifer McMillan all won both hurdles events at least three times).
“I don’t compare myself to him. He’s a lot better than me,” she said with a laugh.
Wrenzi and Cleet are looking forward to their reunion at Dickinson State, as are Jon, 53, and Michele, 49. After Wrenzi graduates Baker, they will move to Vietnam, where they expect to spend four or five years before returning to the U.S. for good. The timing felt right, and Jon is ready to retire.
Wrenzi, like her parents, wants to become a teacher, mainly because she likes being around children. Once she graduates, she plans to teach overseas, ideally somewhere “beachy,” she said. Thailand is currently at the top of her list.
“I’ve just seen the way my parents live,” she said. “I definitely feel lucky that I’ve been able to experience the world outside of Montana.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to include the other female Montana athletes who have won both the 100 and 300 hurdles three or more times at state.