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A New Track

By Skip Tate

Kerry Hils likes to go running with her dogs, Bear and Red. They’re puppies, really, just eight months old and still full of energy and life. They’re that way, at least, until they get done running with Hils. The dogs stagger in from the run, find some comfortable spot and sleep for the next five hours.

It’s a dog’s life, true. But it’s also because Hils isn’t just your average recreational runner taking them for a leisurely jog around the block. The junior transfer from the University of Missouri is the best runner ever to lace up a pair of shoes at the University, and keeping up with her is exhausting.

If you don’t believe the dogs, ask her opponents. Last fall she finished first in six of nine cross country meets, rewrote the school record for both 5-kilometer and 6-kilometer races, was the Atlantic 10 individual champion and was named to the all-region team. And this spring, she may do something that no other University athlete has done: compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association track championships—a remarkable feat considering the University doesn’t have a track program. Or a track.

“It depends on getting good race conditions and good competition to run with,” says cross country coach Scott Swain. “If she can get those two things, she has a very good opportunity to do it.”

Swain began taking his cross country runners to outdoor track meets four years ago so they could run in the distance events. His intent is to let them compete individually, since there aren’t enough members to compete as a team, but mostly just to use the meets as training for the fall cross country season. The runners did OK, but never won any of the races. Hils, though, may change all that.

In addition to running the 800-meters and 1,500-meters, she’ll compete in the steeple chase, a grueling 3,000-meter run that involves jumping over a large hurdle placed immediately in front of a water pit. As a freshman at Missouri, her coach convinced her to try the event, and the first time she ran it, she broke the national record and found herself ranked third in the world behind an Australian and a South American. It also earned her an invitation to try out for the 2000 Olympic Games.

She wasn’t completely healthy at the time of the trials and finished 25th, a result that still disappoints her and she would like to erase. “If I ran my best time,” she says, “I would have been in the Olympics.”

Part of the health problem, she says, was burnout. She ran cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, outdoor track in the spring and trained during the summer. She needed a break. That finally came, but not until she transferred to Xavier this year.

“I was ready to pick up and go,” she says. “I was totally burned out and ready for a change. When coach Swain told me there wasn’t a track program I was so happy.”

Hils’ coming to Xavier wasn’t because of the burnout, though. It was because of the Bengals. The football team drafted Hils’ boyfriend, Justin Smith, and the two had an agreement: wherever he went, they would go together. Hils grew up in Missouri and hated to move away from her family but wasn’t about to live five states away from Smith.

“When he went to the combines for four weeks, it seemed like an eternity,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine going a whole season without seeing him.”

She began asking her coaches about good track programs in the area, and they told her about Ohio State and a few others around the region. She rejected them immediately.

“The whole reason I was coming to Cincinnati was not to be three hours from Justin.”

She wanted to stay in the city, but didn’t like what she saw of UC. When her parents found Xavier’s web site and told her about the school, she called Swain.

“Hi, coach Swain, I’m a national champion, Olympic qualifier, Big 12 champ, academic all-American. I’d like to attend your school.”

Swain was thrilled at the prospect, he says, but stuck. The recruiting season ends in April. This was June. He went to athletic director Mike Bobinski and asked for assistance. Bobinski increased his budget to allow for another scholarship.

And she needed one to attend. Hils agreement with her parents was this: whatever you don’t earn toward college, you pay for yourself.

Sure, Smith’s a professional athlete and could afford to pay her way. But she’s too independent for that. Besides, when they first came to Cincinnati, she had just as much money as he did.

He hadn’t come to contract terms with the Bengals yet when school started in the fall, and had to spend their first three and a half weeks in the city living in various hotels.

He found a house, and the people selling it let them unload their belongings—clothes included—in the house so they could turn in the U-Haul, she says. He couldn’t buy it until he signed. “So I started school with two pair of shorts and three shirts—for practice and school. I was wearing the same thing almost every day and doing my laundry in the sink.”

Theirs is an interesting love affair, one that’s as independent as it is intertwined. They love each other and love to work out, but they know nothing of the other’s sport.

“I hate football, although I like to watch Justin play,” Hils says. “Whenever he starts watching football on TV, though, I just leave and go do something else. He doesn’t know anything about track, either, although he has seen me run. He went to a meet in Missouri once. I told him not to go, but he did anyway.”

Justin, she says, is just a big ol’ farm boy from Missouri—low key and low maintenance. Even though he got a $10.85 million signing bonus and has a contract worth a potential $40.5 million, he hasn’t spent a dime—no cars, no clothes.

“He got a truck free for doing a commercial for a guy in his hometown,” she says, “and he could care less what he looks like. When we go somewhere, he just grabs a pair of jeans, puts on some socks—they don’t even have to be the same kind—grabs a t-shirt, stretches out the neck and the biceps and that’s it. Ready to go in five minutes.”

What they share, though, is a love of competition and being the best at what they do. Hils has brought that to the cross country team, too, pushing her teammates and the program up a notch. Swain, who trains the team by driving them in a van several miles away from campus and telling them to run back, entered more competitive meets next year because of her competitive influences.

Which means everybody is going to have to run longer and harder. “No pain, no gain,” she says. “I hate that saying, but it’s so true.”

Just ask the dogs.

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