By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
FENTON — Dominic Dimambro was the little kid who often tagged along with his older brother and his friends.
"When we were on the team, he was almost like a team mascot of sorts," said Fenton cross country coach Jesse Anderson, who ran for the Tigers from 2003-06. "We were able to pull out pictures of him out at cross country camp the first or second year he was running. I was on the team with his older brother, Joe. He's been around the running culture for a long time. He's always been very athletic. He's a kid who was able to breakdance and spin on his head when he was 4 years old, so that kept us entertained."
Ten years after Joe Dimambro and Anderson helped put Fenton on the state cross country map, the kid who used to be a source of amusement for the older boys is now the high school senior who has his sights set on big brother's school records.
Joe Dimambro, who went on to run at Michigan State University, holds Fenton's records in cross country (15:24.9 at the 2006 Portage Invitational) and 1,600-meter run (4:12.88 at the 2007 Midwest Meet of Champions). Dominic Dimambro's career bests are 15:48.5, which was good for a 23rd-place finish in last year's MHSAA Division 1 Lower Peninsula cross country meet, and 4:22.67 in the 1,600 from the Regional meet last spring. He went on to place 12th in the MHSAA LP Division 1 LP track and field meet in 4:23.43.
"He's always been coaching me and encouraging me," Dominic said of his older brother. "He wants me to go beyond what he did, so it's a friendly rivalry."
A decade ago, Anderson was a teammate who helped push Joe Dimambro to those school records. Now, he's a second-year coach who could help Dominic break two of the most impressive school records in the Flint area.
"It's great," Dominic said. "He's like a life-long friend of mine. He was friends with my brother growing up. I get to see a lot of him. I get him here at cross country. He's my boss at Red Fox (Outfitters, a Fenton athletic shoe and outdoor gear store). He's been my friend for life. He has a lot of running knowledge. He does a great job with everybody, not just the fast guys – everybody."
And there's one aspect of Anderson's training philosophy that Dominic particularly appreciates — the emphasis on keeping runners healthy.
"He's really done a great job," Dimambro said. "One thing that's been really good is injury prevention. We've had close to no injuries the past two years. He's helped us a lot."
That emphasis hits close to home for Dimambro, because his sophomore year of cross country and track was decimated because of an injury, then an illness. A problem with a nerve in his right leg shut down his 2014 cross country season after only four meets. His fastest time that season was 16:29.2, a time he eclipsed six times as a freshman, with a personal best of 16:17.6.
It was a devastating season for a runner who was the top freshman at the 2013 MHSAA Division 1 LP meet, placing 52nd in 16:24.5. He had to take six months off from running, smack in the middle of a promising high school career.
Once he returned to running, a bout of mononucleosis limited him to four meets the following track season. His best time that spring (4:42.37) was nearly 12 seconds slower than his best as a freshman (4:30.7).
"I was not happy during that time," Dimambro said. "It was really frustrating to see a couple of seasons slip through your hands. For a while, I didn't know if I'd come back to running. I'm really involved in the music program. I thought maybe I'll just stick with that. Now, I use it as encouragement, because I'm back in it and it's all the more reason to do better in the future."
One source of encouragement for Dimambro as he battled through that period was a group of fast running friends that included former teammate Jacob Lee, current teammate Andrew Bond and 2015 Grand Blanc graduate Grant Fisher. Lee was the MHSAA Division 1 LP champion in the 3,200 in 2016, Bond joined Lee and Dimambro on the all-state podium at last year's Cross Country Finals, and Fisher is a two-time national Foot Locker cross country champion who made All-America as a freshman at Stanford University.
"They helped me a lot get back on my feet after my injury," Dimambro said. "Just seeing the times they're posting and encouraging me. They're like, 'You've got to get back into it. You can be right there. You just have to spend some time getting back into it.' They're good training partners and also great friends of mine."
High school runners of Dimambro's caliber don't often have teammates who can keep up with them in workouts. He was blessed last season to have two teammates who could push him in practice and in meets.
At the Division 1 Cross Country Finals, Fenton had three all-state runners who were separated by only seven places and 4.9 seconds. Lee was 19th in 15:46.6, Dimambro 23rd in 15:48.5 and Bond 26th in 15:51.5 to lead the team to a ninth-place team finish. Dimambro and Bond are senior co-captains this year.
"It's always great to have people the same caliber all running together," Dimambro said. "When you have a bunch of other people you're training with, everybody else around you is going to push you. Having a bunch of guys running around the same time is good for the team. Last year, we had a lot of guys running around 18:30. Originally, they were around 20 minutes, but they were pushing each other in practice. No one wants to be the one losing to the others."
For all of Dimambro's accomplishments, he's never won a cross country race in high school. That will happen when you run for three years on a team led by someone like Lee, who now runs for the University of Michigan.
Dimambro had eight top-five finishes last year, with a second place to Lee in the Flint Metro League meet his best. He was third in the Regional behind eventual Division 1 Finals runner-up Mitchell Day of Alpena (now a senior) and Lee.
"I've always just been kind of like Jake's shadow in those races where we'd go 1-2," Dimambro said. "It'll be a little different this year. I wouldn't count out Andrew. He's in phenomenal shape. That kid's fit."
Anderson said he doesn't try to project a goal finish for Dimambro at the MHSAA Finals, because that can be dependent on other runners. He tries to get his runners to control what they can control.
"Our goal for him is to get an underlying strength that he can respond to different stresses in races later on in the year," Anderson said. "He's one of the smarter racers you'll encounter at the high school level. If he's in a pack of people in the same shape as him, I'll take him nine times out of 10. He's very tough and very smart."
Having two returning all-staters at the top of its lineup bodes well for Fenton, which won the Regional championship in Anderson's first season last fall. The Tigers ran in a Regional hosted by Bay City Western last year, but move to one hosted closer to home at Linden this season.
It's a Regional that includes White Lake Lakeland and Milford, two perennial powers who finished among the top seven in last year's Division 1 Finals meet. The top three teams from Regionals qualify for the MHSAA Finals.
"We've got our work cut out for us, but that's why we're here in the morning in the summer to take it day by day," Anderson said. "We'll worry about them when we get in a race."
Bill Khan served as a sportswriter at The Flint Journal from 1981-2011 and currently contributes to the State Champs! Sports Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Dominic Dimambro (55), flanked by teammate Andrew Bond (51), moves ahead in the pack during last season's Division 1 Cross Country Finals. (Middle) Dimambro works to stay ahead of a Northville runner during this spring's Division 1 Track & Field Finals. (Top photo by Carter Sherline/RunMichigan.com; middle photo by Bill Khan.)