Hopi High in Arizona mixes culture, competitive spirit to become cross-country powerhouse

By Felicia Fonseca

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Oct. 31 2013 10:35 p.m. MDT

In this Monday, Sept. 16, 2013 photo, members of the Hopi High School boys cross-country team head down a trail near Polacca, Ariz. Hopi High School has earned 23 state cross-country titles in a row. But this is not only about sports. This is about the enduring spirit of a culture, where running is rooted in this tribe's tradition.

Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

POLACCA, Ariz. — The group of boys head out toward the mesa, setting their feet upon dirt trails that are lined with scrub brush and corn fields. It's the same earth that their Hopi ancestors would tread as they ran in prayer for rain, prosperity and all of mankind.

For these boys, the drive is as much about the competitive spirit as the enduring spirit of their culture.

Hopi High School, where they are students, has earned 23 state cross-country titles in a row, and according to its coach, is one of three schools in the country to earn a perfect score at a state meet.

No high school in the nation is as dominant when it comes to winning consecutive championships, and the team wants to make sure the streak continues.

"We have a lot of pressure at every race," said junior Kelan Poleahla. "Everyone wants to beat us. Our job is to not let that happen."

Running is deeply rooted in the northern Arizona tribe's tradition as a way to carry messages from village to village and bless the reservation that gets little moisture with rain. Tribal members regularly challenge each other to footraces on the trails considered the veins of the villages, and running is prominent in ceremonies.

The boys on the team draw from that tradition and a desire to remain champions, as the school has done since shortly after it opened in 1986 to keep Hopis rooted in their culture and attending classes on their own land.

The team is led by coach Rick Baker, a high school and college runner known as "The Legend." His program encourages students to rack up 500 to 1,000 miles in the summer. During the cross-country season, the team meets for at least one early morning practice and daily afternoon practices during the school week, with a long run on Sundays.

Baker insists there's nothing special about his coaching. He simply wants athletes who believe in themselves and the school, and who are disciplined and dedicated.

The girls team also brings pride to the small, remote reservation with 21 championships, making them fifth in the nation for most state titles, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. They're shooting for a seventh consecutive championship this year.

In the Hopi's story of running glory, there is inspiration that comes from a Hopi man who competed at the 1908 Olympics and earned a silver medal in 1912. The federal government shipped Louis Tewanima off to boarding school, and he rose to become one of Indian Country's most famous athletes, along with fellow Carlisle Indian Industrial School classmate Jim Thorpe. Tewanima's American record in the 10,000 meter race stood for more than 55 years before being broken by Billy Mills, an Oglala Lakota.

Even though Tewanima was a celebrated athlete, he knew others on the Hopi reservation could beat him. When he returned home, Tewanima quit a 12-mile footrace he initiated against two men in their fifties at Second Mesa because they were so far ahead at the halfway point, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert writes in an article about Tewanima and the continuity of Hopi running.

Despite Hopi High School's successes in cross-country, few of the runners have taken their skills to the collegiate level. Juwan Nuvayokva, who holds the top five times for the school in cross-country, is one of them and now serves as an assistant to Baker.

After being pushed onto the team by his mother, who was concerned he would otherwise get in trouble, Nuvayokva became a high school state champion and an All-American at Northern Arizona University. The difficulty he sees in getting other runners to strive for college is a focus on the reservation on immediate, not future, plans.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere