From Rivals to Best Friends and Colleagues

By Peter Carrels

Anthony (Tony) Fiegen and Nathan (Nate) Jacobson certainly knew about one another as athletes while attending high school in South Dakota. Jacobson competed for St. Thomas More High School, in Rapid City, while Fiegen made his mark at Madison High School, in Madison. Each school proudly refers to its accomplishments as “dynasty-worthy” in boys’ sports, especially football and basketball. And Fiegen and Jacobson played vital roles boosting the reputations of their respective schools. As high schoolers, the two competed against each other in three basketball games, with Jacobson’s squads winning twice, including in a state tourney semifinal, and Fiegen’s Bulldog team winning once. Each landed on the all-tourney team for the 2007 state basketball tournament.

Jacobson was also a decorated football quarterback, throwing for 32 touchdowns in a single season and 79 touchdowns during his high school career, both state records in Class 11A. He also contributed to his high school basketball team’s winning back-to-back state championships, and went on to play basketball for South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. There, he was a two-year starter on a Hardrocker squad transitioning from NAIA to NCAA Division II status.

Fiegen graduated high school a year after Jacobson, and he propelled Madison to the 2009 state “A” championship during his senior season. That year he was named South Dakota’s Gatorade Player of the Year. Fiegen was recruited to play basketball at South Dakota State University, and in his sophomore year emerged as a starter. The 6-foot-7-inch forward ended up starting 83 consecutive games for the Jackrabbits, including 35 each in his junior and senior campaigns, the only Jacks player to start so many games in consecutive seasons. In his final collegiate contest Fiegen shot 6 for 6 from the field in a loss versus Michigan during the first round of the NCAA Division I tournament.

Both also excelled in the college classroom, earning their way into medical school. And it was in medical school at USD that their friendship began and blossomed. Jacobson described meeting Fiegen in the lobby of the Lee Med building on the first day of medical school in Vermillion. “We shook hands and started talking about high school, and then sat next to each other at the very first lecture,” recalled Jacobson.

The two discovered they both loved to golf, each had a dog, they’d married their high school sweethearts and their wives were both nurses. They reminisced about competing in sports as high schoolers and collegians, and a bond formed. Four years later – after experiencing and sharing the challenges and rigors of medical school – it felt like that bond was four times stronger.

“I have to believe they used their competitive backgrounds and friendship to motivate each other.”
—Dr. Gary Timmerman

As you might expect, both Fiegen and Jacobson acknowledged the important role athletics played in contributing to their lives.

“Sports challenged me physically, socially and emotionally,” Fiegen explained. “Sports require you to put yourself out there, to be thrown into situations of pressure that may not go as planned. They require hard work and preparation, much like taking an exam. Experiences in sports allow for maturation and learning, and it’s a type of learning that is different than what you get from a textbook.”

Jacobson added his own perspective: “Athletics taught me how to handle adversity, and how to stay humble after winning. But if I could point to one thing over all else, athletics taught me how to be consistent and how to be a part of a team. Athletics taught me about the importance of having an even-keel mindset and trying to get better each day, while making your teammates better. That mentality has helped me in medical school as part of many health care teams.”

While in medical school both Fiegen and Jacobson developed a strong interest in pursuing careers in orthopedic surgery, and each hoped to gain a residency in the orthopedic surgery residency at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, one of the nation’s top programs for this specialty. It seemed a long shot they’d both match to that ambition, but about a week before Match Day Fiegen told Jacobson he had a feeling it was going to happen. “I didn’t want to get my hopes up,” said Jacobson. “But I felt that our training at USD had prepared us as well as anyone in the country.

“You can’t be certain of anything until you open the envelope,” Fiegen reminded himself in the moments before Match Day 2018 officially started. Minutes later the two friends learned they’d be continuing their medical careers together. “It’s very special to be going to the Mayo Clinic for residency training with Tony after sharing so much with him at medical school,” Jacobson smiled.

“It’s very exciting,” exclaimed a glowing Fiegen. “We’ve already been through so much together, and that excitement will continue as we move to the next phase of our lives.”

The challenge of both matching at Mayo is evidenced by the fact that 132 individuals sought a residency in orthopedic surgery at the fabled institution, and only 12 were accepted. Enhancing their applications was a four-week clerkship in orthopedic surgery at Mayo that each performed in late summer and fall of 2017.

Dr. Gary Timmerman, chair of the USD Sanford School of Medicine surgery department, wasn’t completely surprised by the remarkable Match Day success of his students. “Tony and Nate’s commitment to hard work and their dedication to their chosen specialty paid handsome rewards,” explained Timmerman.

“Both were aggressive in their research and scholarly efforts, publishing numerous articles, completing research projects and delivering several medical presentations. Both also offered volunteer work, including missionary endeavors, local assistance for the impoverished and even tutoring help for local high school students. I have to believe they used their competitive backgrounds and friendship to motivate each other.”