College sports: UMD’s Stromme recovering from heart attack, open heart surgery

Stromme, a beloved pillar of the Bulldogs’ athletic community, is doing well and looking forward to getting back on campus.

Minnesota Duluth men’s basketball coach Justin Wieck is flanked by senior associate athletic director Karen Stromme and athletic director Josh Berlo after Wieck was introduced to the local media May 1, 2018. (File / News Tribune)

Gary Holquist and his wife, Karen Stromme, were snowshoeing with their neighbors near their cabin just outside of Port Wing Sunday when something went terribly wrong.

Stromme was feeling ill, her blood pressure spiking out of control. Unbeknownst to them, Stromme, Minnesota Duluth’s senior associate athletic director and former women’s basketball coach, was having a heart attack.

Holquist rushed Stromme to St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth, where she was stabilized while Dr. Mary Boylan and her medical team could thoroughly diagnose the situation and prep for surgery. Stromme , who recently turned 61, had successful open heart surgery Wednesday.

Holquist said there was no permanent damage to her heart.

“We all got the outcome we wanted,” said. “It was successful, and now it’s just going to be a long haul to recovery and becoming better. Hopefully she’s going to have a good long healthy life.


“We feel very fortunate that Karen was able to survive this scare, and we’re very appreciative of the fact we live in a community that has this type of top-shelf medical care, for everybody. We’re just so thankful for Dr. Boylan, for her skill and ability.”

Holquist was speaking by phone Saturday from St. Luke’s.

When Holquist dropped Stromme off at the hospital Sunday he couldn’t go in with her due to COVID-19 protocols. He was allowed to go in Wednesday morning and spend two hours with her before she was taken to the operating room.

Those restrictions have since been loosened and Holquist spent a good part of Friday and Saturday with his wife. The two were noticeably absent when the UMD men’s basketball team hosted Minnesota-Crookston that day. Holquist, UMD’s senior development officer and former men’s basketball coach, said he probably missed a Bulldogs’ home game in the past 36 years, but he couldn’t recall it until this weekend.

“We’ve been streaming everything UMD, women’s and men’s basketball games and hockey,” he said.

Stromme spent 21 seasons as UMD women’s basketball coach before moving full-time into administration in May 2005. She never had a losing season and compiled a gaudy 440-184 overall record.

But beyond the numbers, on top of all that, there is Stromme’s effervescent personality, passion and smile. There hasn’t been a person, friend or foe, she hasn’t welcomed into Romano Gym since she stepped into her administrative role, while at the same time she has been very protective, loving and supportive of UMD athletes and students.

“As we all know, Karen’s got a big heart,” Holquist said, even bringing himself to laugh. “We are just so lucky we were able to get her here and give her the opportunity to keep giving.”


Stromme, a Duluth native and Duluth Central graduate — and the daughter of the legendary sports figure Graydon “Soup” Stromme — is an ambassador of sorts for Duluth and certainly UMD.

“It’s been an emotional week for everybody,” UMD men’s basketball coach Justin Wieck said Saturday from Romano following the Bulldogs’ victory 84-45 over Crookston. “We’re glad that she made it through well. I’ll call them again when we get out of here. I think one of their joys has been watching our women’s and men’s teams play the past couple days. We’re thinking about her every day and want to get her back here as fast as possible.”

Stromme is expected to leave the hospital within a week and will have eight to 12 weeks of rehab.

With social media, news travels fast and Holquist said they’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring from “Bulldog Country,” as he called it.

“There are so many people we have coached or been affiliated with over the years through our involvement with UMD athletics that the outreach and support has just been amazing and has helped us immensely,” Holquist said. “Karen is doing well, she’s strong and has tremendous will. I’m happy to say that we’ll be back with the Bulldogs really soon.”

Related Topics: BULLDOG SPORTS
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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