Run To Pray, Run To Win: Hopi High Cross County Team Has Longest Winning Streak In US
“Your 2015 state team champion with a team total time of one hour 25 minutes and 29 seconds ... 59 points! For the 26th year in a row, Hopi High School!”
At this year’s Division IV cross country state meet, the announcer calls the Hopi High School boys team. Cheers drown out the announcer’s voice as seven skinny boys walk in front of the crowd to accept their high school’s 26th trophy.
Coach Rick Baker follows, pumping both fists in the air. On the back of his blue T-shirt is one of his legendary slogans:
“We will be fearless.
We will be strong.
We will be aggressive.
We will be dangerous.
Let the other team be afraid.”
Coach Baker’s tough training and his mantras appear to be the secrets to the cross country team’s winning streak, the longest in the country. He’s been coaching the team for almost three decades. But in typical modest Hopi fashion, the coach credits the athletes.
“I think just having great kids that are willing to really work hard,” Baker said. “A lot of these kids we get are naturally gifted endurance runners. So it’s our job as a coaching staff to bring that out.”
One of the oldest living cultures in documented history, the Hopi once ran in search of water in Arizona’s high desert. The remote tribe ran messages from mesa to mesa. It became a tradition and a spiritual practice, each step on the trail, a prayer. Today they still run in hopes of prompting rainfall. They run for a good harvest. They run for peace.
“Running is instilled in our blood,” said Juwan Nuvayokva, the assistant coach of the boys cross country team. “Every Hopi kid has this natural ability of running. And our ancestors done it for years. And if they do work hard, they surprise themselves that they all have this running ability in them.”
They also have great determination. On the sidelines at meets, Hopi will cheer “nahongvita.” It means dig deeper, find the inner strength to push yourself harder.
Both Nuvayokva and Baker grew up living on dirt floors, hauling water and working the corn fields. Nuvayokva said the strong Hopi culture makes it difficult to leave the reservation. And only a third of the people who stay have jobs. So the coaches realize they’re not just shaping strong runners, but determined young men facing tough odds.
“So we aren’t just all about running,” Nuvayokva said. “We talk to them about how to apply it to life. Be a fighter. Be aggressive today. Today you got to compete for jobs. Today you got to compete for scholarships.”
Nuvayokva knows all too well how tough it is to compete. As a Hopi High School alumni, he ran in the early days of the program, and competed on the tribe’s third, fourth and fifth state title teams. He went on to become an All-American cross country runner at Northern Arizona University.
“Running took me many places, opened many doors for me,” he said. “And without running, I probably wouldn’t have become this individual who I’ve become.”
Sophomore Diome Talaswaima is just starting to realize how far running can take him.
“It gave me the thought that I’ll make it like to college, make it higher,” Talaswaima said.
Coach Baker tells Talaswaima and the rest of the team to be proud of their victory but be humble.
“As Hopis, we’re humble,” Baker said. “Yeah, we acknowledge (our win) but at the same time we go back to our lives. We go back to our families and we got to chop wood. We got to bring water in. We got to bring the coal in. We got to get ready for the winter. In that way we’re still humble about it.”
With the most recent state championship under their belts, most of the athletes on the team have moved onto another sport — wrestling or basketball. But if Coach Baker has any say, they’ll continue to run, in some form, everyday until next season when the chance of yet another state title will be theirs for the taking.