Feats make Mario a rare Bird

Well-rounded senior excels in athletics, academics and extracurriculars

Posted: Tuesday, April 18, 2000

It would be hard to make up a list of accomplishments much more impressive than Nikiski senior Mario Bird's.

Want to start with athletics?

Bird is a two-time small-schools state champion in cross country, and he led his team to a small-schools state title in cross country this season. In addition, he racked up 85 goals and 49 assists in four years with the hockey team.

What about academics?

Bird has a 4.0 average in the classroom. His father, Bob, has been a teacher for 26 years. He says he has no problem putting his son on a very short list of his best students.

OK, but with all that time spent elsewhere, is there any room left for extracurricular activities?

Bird is the student body president at Nikiski. In addition, he is involved with choir, band, film and National Honor Society.

"Tell me what kid can be the caliber of athlete he is, and the student he is, plus, to be able to sing, be a musician and act in plays," said Steve Gillaspie, a teacher at Nikiski Middle-Senior High School. "He's the epitome of well-roundedness.

"He's the total package wrapped up into 135 pounds."

It seems everybody in Nikiski has a story about Bird's drive. Gillaspie's comes from when Bird was in eighth grade.

Bird was not a wrestler, but he wrestled a match in gym class and lost. Frustrated, Bird hit a drinking fountain so hard he broke his hand.

"I just thought to myself, 'My goodness sake, isn't this something,'" Gillaspie said. "Some of them have that desire and it tapers off.

Mario Bird

In running

Won small-schools state titles in cross country his junior and senior years.

Led Nikiski to a team state title in cross country his senior year.

Finished second at the state track meet in the 1,600-meter run despite being hampered all season by shinsplints.

In hockey

Played 85 games in his four-year career and totaled 85 goals and 49 assists.

Teamed with brother Quincy to score 52 of the teams 79 goals this season.

In school

Has a 4.0 GPA.

Is student body president.

"Some keep it, and take it to the next level."

The person who has come to know this drive the best is Bird's younger brother, Quincy. The two have roomed together their entire lives.

"His inner strength takes him to the next level," said Quincy, a junior at Nikiski. "It's something the media probably doesn't like to hear, but it comes from his faith in God.

"He has a good, personal relationship going with the big guy upstairs. That's what keeps him going when he's running and in everything he does."

Bird's father concurs.

"I'm a firm believer you have to train the body, mind and spirit," he said. "Mario's done the job on all three."

Bird was beginning to stick out as far back as the first grade, when in May 1989 he ran the 40-yard dash in 6.4 seconds for Sears Elementary physical education teacher Don Weller.

The time is still a school record.

"He had a lot of desire to do the best he could," Weller said. "At the same time, he had a good attitude. If somebody beat him, he wasn't mean about it."

Rosemary Bird, Mario's mother, said her son's inner strength continued to shine during elementary and middle school, especially when it came to ignoring peer pressure.

"I think the thing about Mario is that he learned at a fairly early age how to stand alone," said Rosemary, a music teacher at Kenai Middle School. "He learned to focus on whatever his interests were.

"That has paid off in a variety of areas."

It also got the attention of quite a few folks before Bird even reached high school.

In addition to Gillaspie's wrestling story, track coach Reid Kornstad remembers taking note of Bird's attitude in a middle school soccer game, and cross country coach Lori Manion recalls what a great kid Bird was to have in her eighth-grade math class.

Not knowing of Bird's ability as a runner, Manion recruited him for cross country because she enjoyed him so much in class.

Bird resisted joining cross country until his parents told their son, who then had trouble tipping 100 pounds on the scale, that he would not be playing football.

Thus, Bird opted for a sport he was more suited for. Bob's mother made the Italian Olympic team in 1940 in the javelin, but the Olympics were canceled that year.

Bob himself showed talent in long-distance events when he was trying out for his college hockey team. Every day for a month, the 80 candidates ran five miles and Bob never finished worse than third.

"Everyone told me I should have went out for cross country," Bob said. "I didn't want to do that."

Bird did not finish the first cross country race of his career, but his sophomore year he finished third at small-schools state before winning state titles his junior and senior years.

Then came the special state cross country team title in Mario's senior year. Quincy was among those on the team.

"That was unbelievable," Bird said. "My whole high school career, the teams I was on never won a cross-country meet.

"Then, in my last race my senior year, we won and it happened to be a state meet. That'll be a memory that stays with me for quite a while."

The key to Bird's success lies in the mind. He says distance running is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical.

"I just try to focus on anything other than, 'My legs hurt,' or, 'My lungs are going to collapse,' or, 'They're going to have to call an ambulance when I collapse by the side of the road,'" he said.

The mental side of Bird's running was apparent in track season of his junior year, when he finished second at state in the 1,600-meter run and sixth in the 800 despite having to train in a pool for most of the year due to shinsplints.

"I think that guys who are successful runners obviously have to endure pain," Kornstad said. "Last year, Mario would go out and figure he could win those races just by having more guts than anybody else."

This season, Bird is healthy and doing his training on ground again. Many are looking forward to his races against Colony senior Eric Strabel, the premier running and skiing athlete in the state.

"It's definitely tough to go through what he did last year without wimping out," said Soldotna senior distance runner Brandon Newbould. "I think at the end of the season, he'll definitely be able to compete with the big dogs. Or should I say the big dog?"

Although Bird's highest accomplishments came in the mainly individual sports of track and cross country, he always has had a fondness for team sports -- particularly hockey.

"I love hockey," Bird said. "I was indoctrinated by it at a young age."

Bird would be referring to the hockey passion of his father, who had his sons outside at the old rink at Sears Elementary pushing chairs around when they were 2- and 3-year-olds.

"I'm not a fanatic of the sport," said Bob, the hockey coach at Nikiski. "It's just one of the many things I do.

"At one point and time, I might have been a fanatic."

Mario and Quincy ended their high school partnership on the ice by scoring 52 of Nikiski's 79 goals this season. The brothers were two of the three players on the team with a positive plus-minus rating.

"They scored 75 percent of the team's goals, which is something you normally don't like to see," Bob said. "Like I told them, 'What am I going to do, tell you guys to stop scoring?'

"Mario was two-time all state, but I was never able to get him a winning season."

Next year, Bird will attend Notre Dame and pursue running, not hockey. He said two concussions he sustained last season made that decision easy for him.

"Is it worth it that I'm putting myself at risk every time I lace up my skates?" Bird said. "It was for the high school season, but I'm not sure I want to sacrifice my college career in running."

Bird said the track coach at Notre Dame said it would take at least two years before he could make an impact. He has never trained constantly for more than three months, so he is hoping dedicating his time will drop his times.

In the classroom, he is leaning toward concentrating on history and law.

"I feel that God has given everybody on Earth a gift in some area or another," Bird said. "It's up to us to make the best of what we have."

If Bird's list of accomplishments so far are any indication, he's off to a great start.

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