DELTA JUNCTION — The way Hailey Williams sees it, this part of Alaska is a land of hidden talents.
A passer-by on the Richardson or Alaska Highways might miss that there’s a city of 900 people, and a region of 3,000-plus, partway between Fairbanks and the Canada border. But Williams, 17, one of the best high school sprinters Alaska has grown, wants everyone to know about her hometown near the confluence of the Delta and Tanana Rivers. Here, among the farmland, birch forest and frost-heaved roadways, people work hard, support one another, see past each other’s struggles.
The athlete chatters as she warms up behind Delta High School.
“I want there to be more recognition for Delta. It is a pretty amazing place,” Williams said. “It’s really easy to say that there’s not a lot of opportunities here.”
A couple of turns off the main drag, Williams works out alone on a flat-calm morning the day after her high school graduation. She runs through warm-ups, stomping and twisting with acuity and purpose, then blasts over 6-inch-high practice hurdles. She sharpens her form for her next opportunity, coming who-knows-when, as if her track season hadn’t been scrapped months ago, as if the worldwide pandemic hadn’t slowed her down.
To her way of thinking, she didn’t become a sought-after Division I athlete with sky’s-the-limit potential despite being from Delta Junction, Alaska. It’s because of it.
“The word needs to be out. It is possible,” she said.
The field is quiet, except for a couple distant voices.
“This is a rare day,” Williams said. “This was the best day to train ever.”
A quick study
A day earlier, Williams decorated her brother Cameron’s pickup truck with help from her mother, Eileen. Hailey planned to stand in the truck’s bed and fly a Duke University flag during the car parade for Delta grads, a celebration adapted to ensure social distancing. Hailey committed to run for Duke last November, an uncommon NCAA D-I achievement for any sprinter in Alaska.
Hours before the graduation ceremony, the mother and daughter recalled that Hailey was a high school sophomore before she figured out she was a good sprinter, and perhaps not meant to play basketball.
“I struggled with basketball, because at times I had anxiety where I’d become really, really stressed out,” Hailey said. “And it was running that allowed me to release that all.”
Eileen recalled her daughter’s look of determination when she stepped to a 400-meter starting line as a freshman. She seemed to will herself to win, despite not knowing to lean into the finish line during the close race, Eileen said.
Hailey ended that season as the state’s fastest girl in the 400-meter race. She was just 14 years old.
She wanted to sprint from then on. Before her sophomore track season, she worked with an Anchorage-based trainer and traveled to compete. Eileen thought the support might help propel Hailey toward the teen’s own lofty college academic goals. Her times at a meet in Hawaii proved she could sprint with Alaska’s best girls.
Back home, Hailey began writing her goals on her bedroom mirror, so she could see them first thing in the morning.
The rest of Hailey’s high school track career can be summed up elegantly: In high school races held in Alaska over the course of the next two seasons, Hailey never toed the starting line in a 100-, 200- or 400-meter race she didn’t win. She won Division II state championships in all three events in both 2018 and 2019, and in each instance her time was also faster than Division I’s best runner.
In those years, Hailey didn’t find close competition in the lanes beside her unless she raced the boys, which she sometimes did in preseason events, or traveled to meets Outside. Twice she flew to North Carolina for the high school New Balance Nationals to compete “unattached" to a team. There in 2018, she ran a 100-meter race in 11.95 seconds, just fifteen-hundredths slower than the Alaska state meet record that has stood since 1981, which was hand-timed. It was the only time an Alaska high school girl has broken 12 seconds in the 100 since then, according to the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
Last summer, she advanced to the 200-meter finals in the “emerging elite” division, one rung down from the highest level.
That moment may prove to be her high school pinnacle if the national meet is canceled this summer. Its implications were huge at the time. Colleges were watching. Before the starting pistol sounded, the 16-year-old, normally so effusive in her joy, felt something else as well. She was irritated.
“Whenever they called my name, they said I was from Arkansas,” Hailey said. “I want them to get my state right. It’s a pretty big deal.”
Williams couldn’t keep quiet.
“I’m from Alaska!” she said.
At first she hadn’t realized she vocalized her thoughts, but embarrassment faded as spectators murmured in the North Carolina A&T stadium.
“You know what? That’s right. I’m proud of where I’m from. Let’s get in these blocks. Let’s get this race over with,” Williams recalled thinking.
Then she sprinted like she never has before or since. Her personal-record time, 24.05 seconds, was good enough for fifth place. If it had happened at the state meet in Alaska, it would’ve set a record by nearly seven-tenths of a second. And by the time she got back to her hotel, it swelled the number of college recruiting emails in her inbox.
Williams, a 4.2 GPA student, fielded offers from top college track programs, including the University of Oregon, which she seriously considered. She chose Duke University and is leaning toward pre-med studies. A couple months before she plans to arrive on campus in Durham, North Carolina, she’s still gobsmacked about how recent years have unfolded.
“It’s really humbling to be able to say — where I’m from, the experiences that I’ve had — I’m wanted,” Williams said. “Me.”
A team sport
In March, Williams sat in her kitchen and cried when she learned that spring sports had been called off as the coronavirus slammed the brakes on everything, she said. Her college commitment was inked months earlier — that much was locked in. But not every high school goal had been reached for the mission-driven senior.
“This season was really important to me,” Williams said. “This season was the last opportunity I had to break the state record in the one and the two (hundred meter races), because those were my written goals on the mirror.”
It would’ve been an exclamation point at the end of a dynamite string of high school wins and a rare shot at getting the words Delta Junction etched with the state’s best-ever in track and field. Hailey wanted to prove it could be done by a kid from "the sticks,” from a school that’s a hundred miles away from the nearest competition-grade rubber track.
Williams can’t set up starting blocks on the asphalt track at Delta High School. She has to do it in the grass, and has to practice her starts separately from her full sprints. The track’s lane lines are faded, it hosts no high school meets, and it’s hard. Perhaps straining for an upside, Williams said the track conditions helped her to resist shin splints.
“Once we finally get to a regular real rubber track, it feels like we’re walking on clouds,” she said.
There was a moment, a couple years ago, when Williams and her family considered moving to Fairbanks to support her track trajectory. In the relatively big city, she likely would’ve found a larger community of athletes to gauge herself against, more coaches to consult and more training options. But Williams said it would’ve cost something, too.
With “Delta” emblazoned on her jersey, Williams felt she had an opportunity to surprise people and change minds about a place she sometimes heard derided as “Dysfunction Junction.” And for other kids in Delta, she could show that it was cool to be proud to be from here.
“I want to be that person,” she said.
In Williams, Delta High School not only had one of its best-ever athletes, but a peer leader whose enthusiasm swirls like silty wind off the nearby riverbeds. She’s so loud and proud, she often loses her voice.
“You know what? I like to consider myself a good singer, but I’m more of the dancer of the crew. I’m the hype-man in Delta,” she said.
Her buy-in was a treat for high school principal Brett Stirling.
“Her whole senior year, she took P.E. She had the requirement met. She didn’t need the class. She just loves to compete. She loves to play,” Stirling said. “She just has this energy that you can’t help but like, and it’s infectious.”
“I know she could’ve done it,” Stirling said of her shot at the state track records. “I think everybody does.”
Williams calls her track teammates her family. She calls everyone in Delta Junction her family. She considers some athletes and coaches at other schools her “track family.” Her heart broke for her lost season in March, in large part, because she missed her family. And to make it worse, there would be no more track memories to be made in Alaska with her actual family, either.
Williams, who doesn’t know her biological father, says her mother is her best friend. She remembers being 4 or 5 years old and living in North Carolina, sleeping on her mom’s bed while Eileen, a single mom of three at the time, stayed up late to work. In the morning, she’d see her mom up again, in time to get the kids ready for school. Now, Hailey realizes what a struggle it must have been, but she doesn’t recall her mom letting on that times were tough.
“She’s just conquering everything, and making sure that we’re able to go out and have fun and have our own things, and still live that kid life,” Williams said.
Eileen grew up in a home about 300 feet from an elevated train in a rough Philadelphia neighborhood. She said her goal was to expose her kids to opportunities, even as she felt isolated when they were young.
“I think for myself growing up, my parents did the best they could do, but they were really limited. We grew up in a pretty impoverished place and pretty hard place, and that’s the best they could provide,” Eileen said. “And there wasn’t talk of going to college.”
Eileen moved to Delta Junction with Hailey and her son Cameron in 2009 to be with her now-partner Eric Stewart. The two run a small general construction company here that mainly serves nearby Fort Greely.
At the family’s home on a country road outside of Delta Junction, Hailey’s family converted a garage into a training room with a squat rack and a treadmill a couple years ago. Mom’s car now parks outside. Hailey calls the garage-gym her quiet place, and it’s where Eileen sent her depressed daughter days after the season was canceled.
“It’s OK to be disappointed that way,” Eileen said she told her daughter at the time. “It just shows you how important it is to you.”
A clean start
At the asphalt track that morning after graduation, Williams’ hands sliced at her sides while she ran. She still wore the bright yellow acrylic fingernails that she wore to the commencement ceremony with a sparkly blue sequin dress, white running shoes and mortarboard cap on which she had written “Remember who you are.” Cars had parked in a giant circle on the Deltana Fairgrounds as, one by one, graduates crossed a small wooden platform under an archway of balloons as the cars honked their applause. Williams was announced the winner of the “Adapting to Adversity” scholarship.
Williams hasn’t taken part in a high-level track meet since Nationals last July. If this year’s Nationals is called off, the next one might not be until the winter indoor track season at Duke, possibly longer, depending on how the coronavirus situation plays out.
Williams is trying to stay ready and stay positive. Sometimes, she takes long drives to Fairbanks to train on a rubber track, and maybe pick up groceries for her mom while she’s in town. She connects with her trainer through video calls and she spends time alone outside Delta High School.
“I don’t know anybody else who’s out there training in May when there’s no season,” Stirling, the principal, said from his office inside.
Williams is already thinking about the goals she’ll write on the mirror when she gets to her college dorm. Win a race. Qualify for the NCAA championships.
Eileen’s nest will be empty whenever Hailey leaves, but she’s looking forward to hearing the stories, from four time zones away, of what it’s like when her daughter’s limitations are lifted.
“That bird is taking flight,” Eileen said.
Eventually, when it’s time to race again, Hailey said she’ll approach it in the same way that has become her ritual. She will stand behind her blocks, checking their angle and height. She’ll put her hands on her hips and look down her lane. She’ll step over the blocks and slap her legs before a practice push-off.
As she walks back to the blocks before the real racing begins, Williams will pray.
“Thank you God so much for this beautiful day,” she’ll think. “I wish for every athlete to do well.”
Back in her stance, just before the gun sounds, Williams will swipe one hand across the surface of her lane. Then the other hand. It’s a symbolic gesture to clear the path before her and release from her mind all that might stand in her way.
“The track is clear,” she’ll think to herself, as she lowers her head and coils for launch. “Now’s your moment.”
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