Ski-U-Mah Life is a weekly feature from GopherSports.com that highlights some of the more than 700 Minnesota student-athletes outside of their athletic accomplishments. This week, tag along with some of the Gophers as they traveled to the Minnesota State Fair.
Nearly two million people of all ages, ethnicities and backgrounds from the Land of 10,000 Lakes and beyond converge just outside the gates of the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus for the Great Minnesota Get-Together.
Just a few miles down the road, the same thing happened last week as more than 700 Gopher student-athletes returned en masse to begin the school year.
It’s hard to ignore the juxtaposition of the two, particularly when the stage at the University of Minnesota building off Dan Patch Avenue provides an opportunity for the two to co-exist.
“It’s really cool when you come here and see a bunch of a people,” said Blaine native Kunle Ayinde, a senior on the football team. “You might come with a group of people and see some high school friends, old friends, people you didn’t expect to see. It’s kind of a big Minnesota reunion every year.”
With their first game a week away, Gopher football players had first crack at the fair, traveling as a team to take part in the fun and games on the opening day. While several Gophers had been there in years past, including Plymouth native Thomas Barber who counts at least 15 years as a fairgoer, many visited for the first time.
And it wasn’t just the freshmen, either. A third-year Gopher, Winston DeLattiboudere made his inaugural trip to the fairgrounds.
“I’ve definitely heard about it,” he explained of his expectations. “Everybody has always said, ‘Winston, you gotta go. They’ve got some of the best food you’ll ever taste – deep fried this, cookies that, all that good stuff. Ice cream, see all the animals.’
“I was like, ‘I dunno, I’m not sure.’ But now with this new coach and everything that’s happening, I stepped outside my box and finally made my way here.”
As you might expect, fair food was a hot topic among the football team. Barber, who normally attends with his parents but has given that up while in college, summed it up nicely after identifying his favorite refreshment.
“The lemonade always keeps me coming back. It’s probably the best lemonade I’ve ever had. And the corn dogs and the deep fried food – it’s not good for you, but I’m still going to eat it!”
The day trip wasn’t all about eating and exploring, though. Head coach P.J. Fleck saw a benefit for his team beyond a break from the rigor of preseason camp.
“We wanted the team to experience the fair as well and to get out and meet people in the community and connect with them,” he explained. “It was awesome to see them talking to fans and taking photos with them. I know our players enjoyed the food as well and I certainly enjoyed the cookies and fried olives. It was an elite time and experience that we won't soon forget.”
Redshirt sophomore Zo Craighton agrees.
“It’s been elite,” he explained. “I feel like we’re having a lot of fun, the team’s coming together and we’re bonding real well. Reminds me of back home in New Orleans, with the big festivals and parades happening, food everywhere. It’s an enjoyable time. I’m glad we were able to come together as a team.”
Carnival rides and food on a stick is serious business, but for Annalese Lamke, the state fair means more.
The Galesville, Wis., native spent much of her summer traveling to beef cattle shows and state and local fairs. She even captured top honors with the Grand Champion Steer Overall at her home fair in Trempealaeu County.
Growing up on the farm, Lamke has a unique perspective on the annual event, which has its roots in showcasing livestock and agricultural technology. Although her family has never shown cattle at the Minnesota State Fair due to schedule conflicts – she played volleyball while her brother played football in high school – she cherishes her experience there.
“I always like to head to the barns,” Lamke said. “I love looking at the animals. When I have time to walk around, enjoy the fair, and eat a lot of food, it's a lot of fun. A lot of the time when we are showing, it's just time spent showing cows and working in the barn. It’s nice enjoying the fair for what it is, seeing all the stuff that’s part of the state.”
“The state fair has always been a family vacation actually because we all go together and we spend about five days at the fair for the show,” Lamke added. ”It's partially fun but partially like a business trip. We spend a lot of our time getting the cattle ready for the show.”
So what to make of her teammates and fellow Gophers who might not normally be caught dead inside the cattle barns or the show coliseum?
“It’s always really funny to me how in awe and in shock they are of the animals,” Lamke said. “I always get the question, ‘Oh these are dairy cows? What’s the difference?”
Among her favorite moments are seeing relative newcomers in the barns. While she enjoys the opportunity to explore the fair and all it has to offer – at the same time, expressing disappointment that the beef shows are usually over by the time she gets to the fair - some of her best entertainment comes near the animals.
“It's always funny. Even when I'm at the fair watching people, it's funny that someone will step in poop or something with their nice shoes,” she joked. “You know which people are the pros at the fair, wearing not-so-nice-looking shoes. The reactions are hilarious, like when someone acts like their whole day has been ruined.”
Farm work is hard work, and she knows that her summer spent delivering and raising a calf, along with the day-to-day duties at her family’s farm just across the Mississippi River from southeastern Minnesota, can only benefit her as she transitions back to the hardwood and life on campus.
“Show day is like game day,” said Lamke. “Showing can be more unpredictable than games because you don't know how your animals are going to be once you get into the ring. Just like basketball and school, you just have to focus on what comes your way.”
So what does going to the Minnesota State Fair mean to her? It’s about hard work.
“For the most part when I think of the state fair, I think of the 4-H and FFA exhibitors who put all the work in and what a big deal it is,” Lamke explained. “It was a big deal for me [as a kid]. People think they're just bringing their pet cow to the fair but it's actually months of work to be able to showcase in front of a lot of people.”
Eric Curry boarded the bus behind Ridder Arena as one of a dozen student-athletes heading to the fair on Monday. He and Amir Coffey represented the men’s basketball team along with five other programs under this year’s new format at the stage. Emcee Matt Nelson had the chance to poll a cross-section of the Gophers about their upcoming seasons, life as a student-athlete, favorite fair foods and more.
A sophomore and veteran of the fair, Curry knew the 10-minute ride along the U of M transitway well. As the bus filled up outside TCF Bank Stadium, a couple from the Willmar area took hold of the empty seats next to the forward, who was already challenged to fit his 6-foot-9 frame into the seat.
It wasn’t long before Curry, a Memphis native, and the woman were discussing the fair, whether he had been before, and what this group of maroon-clad young people were doing on the bus. They even got a chance to discuss favorite fair foods.
As the bus arrived at the fairgrounds and quickly emptied, she passed along a word of wisdom for Curry.
“Have fun, but don’t eat too many of those cookies!”
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