Track and field is the purest of all sports: Whoever runs fastest or throws farthest wins. There are no judges, no style points and no bonus points for working overtime.
But track and field is also an ambiguous sport, with the team and individual components often conflicting. Does a superstar athlete put his team first or himself? Does he race all out for himself and then give his team whatever is left over? Or if his relay races first, does he hold back, saving himself for individual glory?
It is truly complex, especially for high school runners, who often have dreams of their own. Just ask John Hester.
The Carroll senior came into the recent track season with eyes fixated on individual glory: a state title in the 400-meter run. It was a remote possibility, for sure, but would take every drop of sweat for the 6-foot-2, 190-pounder.
But early in the season, Hester was presented with another opportunity: run on the Chargers' 3,200-meter relay team. A state medal (top 9) was a possibility.
The negative: As a sprinter, training even part time for an 800-meter race surely would put a dent in his 400-meter dreams. Not only can 800 training take the spring out of a sprinter's step, but the 3,200-meter relay comes before the open 400 in meets. So, chronologically, team would come before individual.
That's a tough choice for an 18-year-old. A year ago, it was a no-brainer: Hester would've said, “No, coach. I'm good.”
But this year was a different story. Hester raced the third leg, and fastest, of Carroll's state champion 3,200-meter relay team, guiding a trio of juniors to unprecedented success. Then, with what energy was left, Hester placed sixth in the 400 at the state finals.
For Hester's unselfishness and success, he has been named The News-Sentinel Boys Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
After helping win the IHSAA title in the 3,200-meter relay, Hester and his relay-mates went to Greensboro, N.C., for the New Balance Nationals Outdoor where they placed fourth in 7 minutes, 38.29 seconds. It is the second-fastest time ever run by an Indiana high school team.
So, was a state title and fourth in the nation better than sixth in the state? No question, said Hester.
“It was an adjustment, for sure, but definitely worth it,” said Hester, who said he was honored to be asked to join the distance crew for a relay. “(Carroll) always has great distance guys, but this group had the speed to do something special in the relay. So that made it a little bit easier (of a choice).”
As a sprinter Hester didn't consider himself much different from the other three distance runners (Eric Claxton, Alex Hess and Jon Harper). In fact, they all had something in common.
“They're not 800 guys either,” Hester said. “So, they were sacrificing, too. We all gave up our main events (the 1,600 for Claxton and Harper, the 3,200 for Hess) to come together on this relay.”
Hester's long stride had caught the attention of Carroll distance coach Zach Raber, who trains the 400- and 800-meter group during track. When he first talked to Hester about trying the longer race, the student wasn't so sure.
“It kind of took me off guard,” Hester said. “The training is different. Longer stuff. I didn't know about that.”
But it wasn't just Hester's longer stride that set him apart from his relay-mates, according to Raber.
“John has that attitude,” Raber said. “He's tough, doesn't like to get beat and doesn't get intimidated. When he steps on the track, it's with a different attitude. Those guys fed off John. It was beautiful to watch.”
Carroll came into the state meet with the state's fastest time on the season, but because the quartet ran poorly at regional, they were seeded ninth. That was the perfect setup for Hester.
“I got my guys ready,” Hester said. “What were we seeded? Ninth? We knew we could do big things. We just knew we could run fast and we did.”
Two hours later Hester spent every last bit of energy in the 400, earning another medal. But his highlight of his senior year is obvious.
“What we did? Winning a state title, putting our names in the record books? It can never be taken away from us,” Hester said. “Winning a state championship with those guys means more than anything to me now.”