What's in Sam Hill?

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2003

Last Friday's Mount Marathon race was spectacular and all, but for the 16th-place finisher, it was just another run up the Hill.

Sam Hill, that is.

The Kotzebue-born 1996 Nikiski High graduate and all-around athletic phenom returned to the Kenai Peninsula to continue his dominance of Alaska sports, notching yet another impressive accomplishment. But for his top-20 finish in his first time participating in the grueling 3.5-mile climb and descent on the 3,022-foot mountain, he really had to pay.

No, really!

Hill forked over a cool $600 in the auction for first-timers trying to get one of the final 10 spots available the day before the race. But standing amid the waning celebration that followed the race, a very cool, very much laid back Hill recounted his thoughts after winning the bid.

"Six hundred bucks is a lot of money," he said following the race. "I'm just lucky to have it."

Luck has nothing to do with it, however.

Hill has been busy since he walked away from high school with Alaska's 1996 male Prep Athlete of the Year honors.

While in school at Nikiski, the 25-year-old excelled in five different sports, winning state titles in basketball, track and wrestling, finishing runner-up in the small-schools cross country championship and starting at wide receiver for the Bulldog football team.

After graduation, he went to the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore., where he double-majored in exercise and movement science and environmental science. He made the men's cross country team as a walk-on and eventually earned the mantle of team captain his senior year. He completed his studies and returned to Alaska to work for Teck Cominco as an environmental officer at the Red Dog zinc mine northwest of his hometown of Kotzebue.

"He's a very goal-oriented guy," said Bulldog wrestling coach and former wrestling teammate Abe Porter. "Sam's pretty much good at everything he does."

But that only breaks the surface of Hill's character.

In the 1996 area wrestling tournament, Hill faced a younger opponent in his best friend, Porter's twin brother Eli, in an elimination match that would only allow one of the two to go to the state tournament. Hill won the match Porter said none of his teammates could watch, and went on to steal the state 152-pound weight division crown as an underdog.

He gave Porter the championship medal, and the following year, returned from Oregon to the state meet in Fairbanks to support the younger wrestler's bid for the title.

That character could be seen as far back as his younger years growing up in Kotzebue. There in 1991 he met Steve Gillaspie, his close friend and wrestling and cross country coach in high school, and the coach challenged Hill to defy gravity and good sense and leap off a bridge into a river far below.

Hill was in the eighth grade and said he was a bit scared because the drop was so far down.

"But Gillaspie was like, 'You gotta try it,'" Hill said. Hill acquiesced, and the two began a relationship where the mentor continued to challenge his apt pupil to push the limits of his potential.

"I think it's in his makeup," Gillaspie would say. "He's got a lot of family-instilled values. His mom and dad were huge in getting things out of him.

"He wants to please people so much and his avenue to that is by hard work and showing respect. That's just a tribute to his parents. I guess I just happened to be the outside voice that kept spurring him on."

And so, on the two would go, with Gillaspie leading Hill from Kotzebue High to Nikiski for his senior year, and encouraging Hill to succeed in every endeavor.

Hill said when his friend, fellow '96 Nikiski graduate and co-Athlete of the Year Annie Berdahl, sent him a text message inviting him to join her in the 2002 Portland Marathon last fall, he received the same response from Gillaspie he always got.

"I jumped in the Portland and Gillaspie egged me on like always," Hill said.

He finished in the top 100 and qualified for the 2003 Boston Marathon. He received similar encouragement from his mentor. In April, Hill completed the race in two hours, 58 minutes and 14 seconds, finishing 501st out of more than 17,000 runners. And he did this after only having an elliptical running machine and exercise bike to train on at Red Dog.

"I've been doing indoor workouts," Hill said. "At work, I trained like 50 miles a week."

After Boston, Gillaspie suggested running at Mount Marathon, to get a comparison against Alaska's top runners.

"Gillaspie told me, 'You've gotta try it to see where you stack up against the best,'" Hill said.

He compared the expense he incurred to race in Mount Marathon last week to Boston, paying more than $700 for a plane ticket, entry fees and lodging. Both experiences, however, he said outweighed the costs.

"My father asked me if Boston was worth it and if Mount Marathon was worth it?" Hill said.

"Not everybody can say they ran, and not everybody can say they finished."

Sam Hill isn't lucky; he just works hard at being good. And not everybody can say that.

Marcus K. Garner is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. Send comments to clarion@alaska.net.

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