Landon Dinkel’s college career will begin where his high school track and field days will end.
Dinkel’s time in a Blacksburg High School uniform will conclude Saturday in the VHSL Class 4 outdoor state meet at Liberty University in Lynchburg.
The finish line is in sight.
And for Dinkel, that was not always a sure thing.
During his sophomore year in February 2019, Dinkel was jumping rope in gym class when his world suddenly changed.
His vision became blurry. The left side of his body went numb.
At age 16, the promising Blacksburg track and cross-country star had just suffered a stroke.
Dinkel clearly remembers the day his world went fuzzy.
“Everything just kind of went blurry and I couldn’t see or really focus on anything.
"My left side went numb. I sat down and just kind of laid there. Then two friends helped me.
“I could barely walk. My left arm just wouldn’t work at all. They didn’t call an ambulance. Nobody really suspected anything. I went to the hospital, got some MRIs and they were like, ‘You had a stroke.’"
Dinkel’s stroke was caused by a blood clot in the right thalamus.
He was hospitalized for less than one week. Most of his discomfort while in a hospital bed was from the alarms hooked up to his heart monitor.
“Machines kept going off because my heart rate would get too low when I was sleeping, just from being fit from running,” he said.
Dinkel’s physical conditioning might have given the Blacksburg teen a head start on his recovery and rehabilitation, which included learning to walk and some occupational therapy.
“It was basically making sure I had some muscle movement and that I could support myself,” he said. “The hardest part was probably regaining fine motor control in my hand, like know what kind of coin I’m holding or be able to hold a pencil and write my name.”
Doctors placed Dinkel on an injectable blood thinner called Lovenox for six months.
Remarkably, he returned to Blacksburg’s outdoor track team for part of the 2019 spring season and ran the 3,200 in the Class 4 state meet in early June, placing 24th with a time of 10 minutes, 1.30 seconds.
Dinkel continued his return to competition with a ninth-place finish as a junior in the Class 4 2019 cross-country meet, followed by another ninth-place showing in April.
Dinkel hopes for a high finish Saturday in the 3,200. He also will compete in the 1,600 at the state meet for the first time.
Blacksburg coach Brandon Bear has nothing but admiration for his senior.
“I can tell he’s worked really hard to get his running form back to the efficiency he used to have,” Bear said. “It’s been quite a journey for him.
“His form is still not quite what it was. You can tell his left arm is a little tighter than the right. He’s much better now.”
Bear said he is unsure what kind of times Dinkel might be running today had the Blacksburg runner not been stricken two years ago.
“It put a wrench in the progression he was experiencing,” the coach said. “We essentially had to restart the clock with him.
“He’s certainly running really well. I’ve been waiting to see if that day will come for Landon where he can pop off something in the 9:30s. He’s certainly capable of it.”
Bear said the only time he has seen Dinkel show any signs of trouble was at the onset of a bus trip to Richmond for a fall cross-country meet.
“We immediately pulled over the bus,” Bear said. “I called his mom. His mom picked him up. He came up and met us and ran the meet the next day.
“I try very hard not to push it too much and kind of let the doctor dictate what needs to be done. Landon’s family was very good at keeping me up to date. Finally, we just reached a point where the doctors said he’s good to go.”
Dinkel said his only trouble now is experiencing stroke-like symptoms — mild numbness or vision problems — that are caused by migraines.
Sleep and baby aspirin usually do the trick.
Dinkel plans to run collegiately at Liberty, where he will major in exercise science.
He already knows more about the subject than originally planned.
Dinkel will approach the starting line Saturday with the same goal as every other runner.
More than two years after suffering a stroke, he does his best to push the episode back in the deepest recesses of his brain.
“I can just shove it out and focus on training or whatever I’m doing. It’s not very remarkable. It’s kind of, ‘Yeah, that happened.’"