The Pride of Delta Junction

The Pride of Delta Junction

By Kyle Williams, GoDuke The Magazine Online

The idea of competing for an athletic program at Duke University has long attracted student-athletes from well beyond the state of North Carolina. Teenagers from all over the country – and in many cases all over the world – view the prospect of becoming a Blue Devil as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a Division I sport at an elite academic institution.

Yet with the countless hometowns, states and countries that have been represented by Duke student-athletes, very few over the years have come out of Alaska.

There are, of course, the obvious instances, such as men’s basketball All-American and Anchorage native Trajan Langdon – who was aptly dubbed ‘The Alaskan Assassin’ in reference to his excellence as a perimeter shooter. Juneau product Carlos Boozer also graced the hardwood at Cameron Indoor Stadium, helping lead Duke to its third national championship in 2001.

Kelly Cobb came from a small town called Chugiak to the Duke women’s soccer program, where she quickly developed into one of the best offensive players in the nation on a team that advanced to the 2011 College Cup final.

So while historically, the student-athletes who made the trip to Durham from The Last Frontier have found remarkable success, it is perhaps even more so a notably rare occurrence. The Duke track & field roster was absent of an Alaskan since 2003, with over 40 states and seven different countries represented in the years that followed. 

That was until Delta Junction native Hailey Williams arrived on campus in the summer of 2020.

Williams was sold on Duke since her conversations with sprints coach Mark Mueller in high school, and going from the times recorded during her freshman campaign, it did not take long for her to make an impact for the Blue Devils. She finished second in the 60-meter dash at her debut collegiate meet and quickly became a key member of Duke’s 4x400m relay team that had three top-five results during the indoor season.

She concluded her rookie campaign by setting personal records in the 100m and 200m at the Duke-hosted Tobacco Road Challenge (finishing fourth in each event), before clocking a PR 400m time at the Charlotte Invitational in late April. 

But while Williams’ adjustment to D-I sprinting may have appeared seamless to those watching, her path to Duke was anything but. It was filled with never-ending days that included 300-mile drives, training sessions in a garage and missing out on the traditional high school experience.

Before ever acclimating to extreme sunlight cycles or dealing with bone-chilling temperatures, however, Williams was a North Carolinian. She lived in Greensboro from 2008-09 with her mother, Eileen, and her two siblings: older brother, Cameron, and older sister, Megan Santillo. Eileen raised the three kids on her own until meeting Hailey’s now-stepfather Eric Stewart, and with the youngest wrapping up first grade, Eric introduced the idea of a radical move.

“It was so funny because when you’re a kid, you think the state you’re in is the only place that exists,” Williams said. “I remember when my mom and my stepdad came up and asked, ‘What are your thoughts on Alaska?’ I was like, ‘Alaska – where is that?’ When they showed the map, I thought, ‘Wait, there’s all these other states and then that?’ I was mind blown hearing about Alaska. Not only that, but just realizing that’s a very big transition, especially for me as a young kid.”

They settled on Delta Junction, where Eric and Eileen would operate a general construction company near the Fort Greely military installation. Williams’ new hometown had a population under one thousand and serves as the intersection of the Alaska and Richardson Highways. An elementary school, junior high and high school can all be found in the same location, with three mountain ranges visible in the distant background. 

In short, Delta Junction was a far cry from where her family began its journey. But to Williams, it quickly became what Greensboro was previously and what Durham is now – home.

Hailey WilliamsAs she got into middle school, Williams dedicated her autumns to long-distance running, while her winters were consumed by basketball. To this day, she still has her moments of missing the game, especially now that she follows the men’s program at Duke. She recalls playing in pickup scrimmages with the military members stationed at Fort Greely, noting that her constant energy up and down the court would often be an annoyance to the older guys looking to get in a light run.

Then there were the one-on-one battles with Cameron, which would end either with a frustrated storming off the driveway or the little sister faking an injury before popping up and scoring uncontested. Whatever outcome was produced, it was those early days that showed Williams just how ambitious she was when it came to sports.

“I’d have to say I’m a very competitive person and I know that if it wasn’t for athletics, I probably never would have gotten through academics in school,” she recalled. “The athletic side of stuff was my driving force through anything I really did. At that age, I wanted to see what I could do and what I could excel at. I’m always the type of person where I want to see what my full potential is.”

That incessant need for new challenges was ultimately what steered Williams towards the track in her sophomore year. She was sitting in the gymnasium at Anchorage Christian School, in between games of what would end up being her last basketball tournament, when she noticed a banner hanging from the rafters. It was a recognition of the 2016 Gatorade State Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year, Tanner Ealum. For Williams – who was still primarily a middle to long-distance runner – catching a glimpse of another athlete’s memorialized success sparked her competitive nature.

“She’s known for having the records for the 200 and the 400 in the state,” she said. “I told my mom, ‘I want to get a Gatorade banner for track,’ and she was kind of like, ‘Oh?’ I thought in order for me to do that, I had to switch my focus to doing track. She told me, ‘If that’s what you say, let’s get you a trainer and get that figured out.'”

As it so happened, a trainer by the name of DeWayne Ingram was introduced to Williams at that same tournament. Ingram founded Alaska Peak Performance (now Ingram Peak Performance) in 2013 and provides speed, agility and quickness training for young athletes around the Pacific Northwest. A former sprinter at the University of Oregon, he has helped athletes realize their D-I dreams in track, basketball, football and swimming, among others. So when Williams decided to work with Ingram over the following months, she knew it would require a full commitment.

With Ingram guiding her training routines, and boosted by her mom’s unwavering support, Williams quickly exceled on the track. She qualified for the New Balance Nationals Outdoor in Greensboro at the end of that 2018 spring season, where she finished ninth in the 100m prelims and consequently caught Mueller’s attention for the first time.

Williams’ times kept getting lower following that performance, and the next winter she set indoor PR’s in the 60 and 200. As her potential became more and more apparent, so did her drive to keep improving.

“My mom, she was the one who helped me a lot, especially when it came to transitioning from doing basketball into focusing on track,” she said. “I’d never lifted weights until I started training and I was like, ‘Oh, I can actually hold muscle.’ Then, being able to see my times drop and qualifying for nationals twice in my high school career – and then being able to have really big PR’s – I just knew that there was still so much more in the tank. It kind of made me hungry to see more.”

One of the difficulties the star athlete faced in rural Alaska was the limited access to tracks and exercise equipment. Of course, given Williams’ unflappable motivation, this would never become a deterrent, but it did call for extensive sacrifice as well as some creativity. To cut down on the time spent driving hundreds of miles to the nearest resource, Williams and her mom converted their house’s garage into a makeshift training room, complete with a treadmill, squat rack and dumbbell set.

Hailey WilliamsThe constant desire to improve – successful as it may have been – also came at the expense of a conventional teenage life. Williams still refers to her mom as her best friend, and remembers many nights staying in with Eileen, Cameron and the family dogs. She understood early on that in order to get the results she craved, it would take an uncommon commitment for a 16-year old still relatively fresh in the sport.

“I dedicated all of my time into academics and working hard,” she said. “I never spent time with friends outside of school. It was either staying at home training or it was traveling to Anchorage because I didn’t have a track where I stayed. Anchorage was either a six-hour drive or a 45-minute flight, or I could drive two hours to Fairbanks to get to a track. I wasn’t able to use the weight room in Fairbanks because I had to be 18, so that was a lot of sneaking around to make sure that I could lift weights.”

Fortunately for Williams, a much more convenient option was soon presented, compliments of the same people she used to frustrate in pickup hoops.

“I ended up using Fort Greely, because they told me, ‘We know what you’re trying to do – you’re trying to break records and go D-I. We’re just going to open the gym for you.’ I’m so grateful for the military people out there for that because they helped a lot.”

With her training process established, Williams shot up the state record charts as a junior and senior. She was named Alaska’s Gatorade Athlete of the Year in back-to-back seasons – doubling up on her original goal – while also winning the 2019 Fastest Girl in Alaska award and the 2020 Pride of Alaska award, given to the state’s top high school athlete. Williams’ notoriety burgeoned at the 2019 state championships, where she sprinted her way to a clean sweep in the 100, 200 and 400.

On a national scale, she could only remain an unknown for so long before the recruitment inquiries began piling up. Williams recalls her first letter from Miami as the initial indicator that she could “get out” of Alaska. When she told Ingram about her fascination with Oregon – his alma mater – he made it clear that she would need to put in even more work to receive an offer from the historic program. Naturally, Williams grew more determined, and eventually was rewarded with an official visit to Eugene.

Her final decision came down to the Ducks and Blue Devils, and even now Williams would tell you it was perhaps the toughest choice she’s ever made. After numerous phone calls with Mueller, a pro’s and con’s list she made with her mom and a developing interest in medicine, she committed to Duke in November of 2019.

“I knew from the moment I talked to [Mark Mueller] that he was going to be the coach that not only cared about me performing but me as an individual,” she said. “That’s really what stood out to me, especially throughout what I experienced in high school. I wanted to be seen as more than just an athlete – I wanted to be seen as an individual who is going through tough academics and someone who has mental health and other things going on. It was honestly the big picture at Duke.”

After graduating from Delta Junction High School in May of 2020, Williams stepped foot on Duke’s campus ready to answer all of the stereotypical questions that come with being a native Alaskan. Some, she admits, conjure up vivid memories, such as the times she and her friends had to jump-start their cars in negative-70 degree weather. Other times, Williams uses the interrogations as a chance for some playful fibs, telling people about the imaginary igloo she lived in or convincing them that she had her pizzas delivered via helicopter.

Hailey Williams“I don’t get those questions as much anymore,” she said. “People more so ask questions about whether or not I deal with the midnight sun and if I like that in the summer, how I even get through the winter if there is no sunlight, and then they ask me the worst temperatures I’ve ever dealt with and if I see the northern lights. Those are probably the majority of the questions I get. It used to be like, ‘Do you guys ride your moose to school?'”

Perhaps all of the references to her hometown, coupled with being away from her family for the first time, made Williams even more homesick than her freshmen counterparts. It was at its worst on her birthday in October, she recalls, as she spent most of the day FaceTiming her mom from her dorm.

“It was really bad,” she said. “It hit hard when I was celebrating my birthday without my mom. I probably called her every single day freshman year – it was almost weird if I didn’t. I missed my dogs, and all the memories from back home went through my mind. Not having a winter was weird for me. I think the biggest thing was seasonal depression, understanding that even though we have sunlight here, my body has gone through 12 years’ worth of only seeing three or four hours of daylight during the winter months. 

“Not having that, but still very much aware of the cycle that my body was used to – it was hard. Training was even difficult during that time. I found myself sleeping so much. I did something and then I was automatically tired. It was sensory overload, getting used to the classes, getting used to intense workouts and not having my family around.”

As the indoor season continued, though, and Williams further established herself as a prominent member of Duke’s sprinting corps, she grew more comfortable and motivated. Her improvement was evident – she set a PR in the 60m at the ACC Indoor Championships in late February and posted a pair of sub-25 second times in the 200m in April. Williams’ outdoor campaign was cut short just weeks before ACCs as she suffered an injury, but she knew the foundation was set for future success. According to Williams, freshman year brought with it a multitude of lessons both on and off the track.

?Hailey WilliamsWhat she didn’t know at the time, however, was that the injury would become a blessing in disguise. After returning to Delta Junction temporarily to recover and spend time with Eileen, Williams got in contact with her sister. Megan Santillo did not join Hailey and Cameron in the 2009 move, but instead stayed in North Carolina with their biological father. The two sisters had not seen one another in nearly 12 years, but with an entire summer ahead of her to heal physically and recoup emotionally, Hailey made up for lost time by living with Megan and her two children in Phoenixville, Pa. 

“It was divine timing – that’s what my sister and I call it,” Williams said. “She decided to go back and do college courses so that she could get paid more for the job that she has. She also decided to be more of a stay-at-home mom and focus on getting the kids ready, so then I was able to have a better relationship with her and understand what it was like for her growing up. We were able to share those stories with each other.”

In addition to growing close with Megan, Williams also had a newfound connection to other members of her family that she previously shared little association with.

“My sister grew up with more of the black side of our family, and I didn’t really get that so much,” she said. “That was something that I always longed to experience. Being mixed, you’re kind of put in a position where for me, I grew up with my mom, so therefore I see that side more. But when you’re around a group of friends, they don’t see you as just white and you don’t really fit in with that category. They’re going to see you as being black, but it was hard for me to identify with that side as much because I didn’t even know my family members on that side. My sister was the connection for me to be able to reach out to that side comfortably.”

Now three months into her sophomore year, Williams acknowledges feeling exponentially more comfortable, confident and prepared for the upcoming season. Her interest in medicine carried over into an acceptance letter for the CAPE program (Collegiate Athlete Pre-Medical Experience), which offers female student-athletes a variety of clinical experiences at the Duke University Medical Center. Though only starting the program a few weeks ago, Williams and other Blue Devil athletes will have opportunities to job-shadow and receive hands-on training in the field. 

As it pertains to life as a regular college student, she can’t wait to attend men’s basketball games for the first time, already considering herself a Cameron Crazie.

On the track, she is part of a group that looks to further establish itself among the ACC’s elite. That mentality, in Williams’ estimation, is contagious at every practice.

“The team dynamic this year, compared to even last year, everyone is so optimistic and so enthusiastic,” she said. “I’m able to get through my day knowing that I’m going to a team of people who push each other. That makes me beyond happy.”

While her career at Duke unfolds, Williams knows she will never come short in self-belief. It is what helped her make Delta Junction home, what allowed her to go from being a point guard to a seven-time state champion sprinter, and what led to her choosing a school four thousand miles away. Whatever is in store for Williams – in track, in medicine and beyond – the Alaskan has proven to herself that there are no limits to her potential.

 


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