Hopi High cross country battles sociological forces one title at a time

Tuesday December 3rd, 2013

Rick Baker watches his team's grueling training, which ties to the sacredness of running in Hopi culture.
Felicia Fonseca/AP

Long before everyone on the Hopi reservation called him The Legend, his village elders called him a hongivt. A strong one. The elders recognized in 8-year-old Rick Baker power in his legs and purity in his heart and sent him south, running from their ceremony in the village with their prayers and a handful of ritual feathers.

Baker felt the sun on his face and a growing serenity in his soul as he descended the mile and half over rocks and desert shrubs in search of their sacred shrine. But after making his offering and sizing up the 700 meters climb he'd have to run back to the ceremony, another emotion overtook him: the unrelenting need to beat the boys the village elders had sent north, east, and west.

On the eve of the 2013 Arizona State High School Cross Country Championships last month, Baker, now 54 and head coach of the Hopi High Bruins cross country team, issued a stern reminder to the boys huddled before him in a Phoenix hotel room. "You don't want to be the ones to break The Streak."

The Streak. The longest active run of schoolboy state team championships doesn't belong to a program stocked with big city prodigies, country-strong farm boys or wealthy suburban programs; instead The Streak belongs to the smoke-thin boys of the Hopi reservation, home to 65% unemployment, 35% poverty and 23 state boys cross country titles and counting.

The Streak had been threatened over the decades, from shin splints and sprains that hobbled Baker's rosters, to the Arizona Interscholastic Association's realignment in 2001 that bumped the 400-student school up into a bigger division and prompted one rival coach to tell Baker, "Well, now you're going to have to really coach."

But as Baker wrapped up his team meeting with his standard axioms about "trusting your training", he sent his boys off to bed and worried that his biggest trouble was no longer about breaking some streak, but instead losing something far more valuable: their heritage.

On the Hopi Reservation, racing is a sport but running is a sacrament. The ancient Hopi have run across three mesas in northeastern Arizona since 1100 A.D. Without horses or burros to carry them across the land, the Hopi once hunted their game by chasing it. Running became an act of both survival and faith, with the Hopi people incorporating ritual runs into their most sacred ceremonies. The act of putting one foot in front of the other, they believe, brought health not only to the runner but to the entire community and could summon rain to their parched land.

The world writ large first heard of the tribe's running culture at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics when Hopi Louis Tewanima won the silver medal in the 10,000 meters and set the American record (32:06.6), which stood for 52 years. But in classic Hopi humility, Tewanima told the white men who interviewed him, "Me run fast good. All Hopi run fast good."

Baker would silkscreen that Tewanima quote on team shirts. After Hopi High opened in 1987, placing no higher than third at the state meet in the school's first three seasons, Baker figured he didn't want the Hopi who ran fast good, he wanted the Hopi who ran faster better. He tracked down the swiftest runners at ceremonial runs. He unearthed raw talents and polished them with his punishing summer workouts in which runners log at least 500 miles for the slackers, 1000 miles for the strivers.

He unearthed Tilford Tungovia and Ron Adams, who finished first and second respectively in 1990 to give Hopi its first title. Then came Jonathan Lomayestewa, Juwan Nuvayokva and Ralston Lamson -- state championship runners lining up like kernels on the cobs of corn the Hopi raised and venerated. "Tradition Never Graduates," reads a sign outside Baker's office door.

By 2000, the Bruins notched title No. 11 ¬and a perfect score, the first in Arizona history. After so many titles over so many years, the announcer at the state championship trophy presentation introduced Baker as "The Legend." The moniker stuck so well that the nameplate outside his office door now bears it. The titles piled up so consistently, so easily that one year a group of Hopi supporters pre-printed t-shirts congratulating the title before the race. Other teams glared as the Bruins, slipping into their shirts after the race, exhibited the least Hopi trait of all: hubris.

The night before the 2013 state meet, Baker's reticence to anoint his team as No. 24 had little to do with his Hopi-mandated humility. Hopi had the same caliber of talent. Ran the same 12-day macrocycle workouts they had for nearly 30 years. Performed the same strength training -- 100 sit-ups, 50 push ups, 25 leg lifts. But Baker and his staff noticed an ever so slight difference, barely as perceptible as the earbuds peeking out of his runners' ears as they headed out to train.

"Focus on your breathing. How can you check your instruments if you're listening to music?" an exasperated Baker asked his team. Former state champion-turned-assistant coach Nuvayokva noticed the Hopi tradition of elder respect giving way to backtalk and eyerolling. "They respect a dead rapper over their grandmother," he says. A heritage that prided itself on its privacy collided with a generation on Facebook. How could Hopi keep winning titles if they kept losing their culture?

On the morning of Nov. 9, as the bus made its way from the team hotel to the state championship start line, the questions occupying Baker's mind focused on strategy not sociology. Baker knew team leaders Anfrenee Howard and Terry Honvantwa had enough kick to cross the finish line in the first wave of runners. The key to winning No. 24 rested mostly on their fifth man, Aaron Swimmer. "Your job is to beat the other teams' fifth guys," Baker told him.

The runners broke their pre-race huddle by chanting one of the few Hopi words some of the boys knew -- Nahongvita, Dig Deep -- then waited for the start gun. Howard covered the 5-kilometer course in 16:32 to come in 18 seconds behind the overall winner. Honvantwa relied on his superb hill speed to ascend the course's final incline and pick off a few runners for a 12th-place finish. By the race's midpoint, Baker saw Swimmer. . . ahead of every other fifth man.

Moments after Swimmer clocked in at 17:57, good enough for 26th place overall, an electronic scoreboard displayed the results. Hopi: 69 points, 55 points better than Pinon, the runner up. A member of the Hopi faithful who caravanned to race snapped a photo of the scoreboard.

Back on the reservation, Baker's wife, Deborah, stood observing a ceremonial basket dance when she notice the pinging of cellphones among the ceremonial observers. The photo of the score lit up phone screens, announcing state title No. 24 for Baker's boys. As the news of another title spread, it was time for another ceremonial run. The next generation of hongvit took off running in search of the sacred.

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