“You must realize one thing. In every little village in the world, there are great potential champions who only need motivation, development, and good evaluation.”
The words of legendary New Zealand distance running coach Arthur Lydiard could prove foretelling to the Idaho towns of Rigby and Challis.
Separated by 161 miles, they are home to two track athletes whose accomplishments thus far are as impressive as their future ambitions.
Despite different backgrounds, Rigby High School sophomore Elsja Mecham and Challis High School junior Hannah Cain share a deep motivation for their sport that has given them shattered records, regional and national recognition and Division I dreams.
Mecham, a four-time 4A state champion whose 300-meter hurdles personal record is a second shy of qualifying for this summer’s World Junior Track Championships, relishes pushing herself.
“I love to compete,” Mecham said. “I love to feel the rush of pulling ahead and making my heart race as much as I can.”
For two-time 1A state champion Cain, who broke Challis’ school records for the 100 and 200 while in junior high, running is an inspired experience much like what Scottish runner Eric Liddell described in the 1981 film “Chariots of Fire.”
“All of the beauty that God ever meant for this world, he just packed into one 400-meter race, 200-meter race or 100-meter race,” Cain said. “I think you can feel that when you run.”
Rigby High School head track coach James Parrish and Challis head track coach Paul Lind still have moments of disbelief while watching Mecham and Cain compete.
Mecham set a Rigby Junior High School program record with a 49-second 400-meter race as an eighth-grader.
“She just had natural running form and had a drive in her that you don’t see in a lot of kids in your career,” Parrish said. “I’ve only one seen one other athlete in my entire career who had that kind of mentality, and she ended up being a pro basketball player.”
Lind, who has worked with Cain since she was in elementary school, said it is an honor to coach her and celebrate the recognition she has brought to a school with an enrollment of 123.
“What a thrill to have an athlete like that, let alone one I’m very close to,” Lind said. “Having the announcer announcing that red shirt crossing the corner and it’s Challis, she gives us an incredible amount of exposure. For one of the smallest schools in Idaho, I’d say Hannah has definitely assisted in making us a very well-respected program.”
Mecham lights up when she speaks about her father, Ted, and older brother, Scott.
Ted ran for BYU and competed in steeplechase at the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials, while Scott contributed to three consecutive Rigby 4A boys team state championships and won the 300 hurdles in state-record time as a senior in 2012.
The second oldest of four siblings and the only daughter, Mecham played soccer first and started running in local Hershey track meets at age 11. She competes in both sports for Rigby, but she said eighth grade was a turning point.
“I was iffy if I wanted to do track,” Mecham said. “After I watched my big brother Scott do so well … I talked to my dad. I’ve decided to pick track over soccer because I have so much dedication to track.”
Also the only daughter in a family that owns Fire Mountain Fitness Company, Cain got her start on a co-ed youth baseball team coached by her father, Titi. She met Lind through his son and her teammate, Cody, and started running track in fifth grade and cross-country in sixth grade.
By eighth grade, Cain had won the middle school 100 and 200 at the YMCA Invitational in Boise and broken Challis’ high school records in both events.
“I’m the only (Challis) kid who got to do junior high track before I was actually in junior high,” Cain said with a laugh. “I was a distance runner until eighth grade until I realized, ‘I’m pretty fast.’ That year after [YMCA], that’s where I realized I wanted to do this more than anything else.”
Both girls run indoor track and attend camps — Cain has been a regular at the University of Oregon track camp each summer since her freshman year and Mecham went to BYU’s and Utah Valley University’s camps last year — and they maintain detailed training schedules.
When she isn’t on the track, Mecham runs two miles every morning and lifts weights every other day. She was restricted to swimming, weights and core and upper body conditioning when a strained Achilles tendon kept her sidelined for three weeks this season.
In the summer, Cain is in the gym or running hill workouts. She runs on an old 80-meter mine conveyor belt on the football field when Challis’ dirt track is frozen and spends the spring lifting with her father and stretching as soon as she and brothers Drake and Hunter get home from track practice. She decided to give up cross-country and basketball to focus on track and regaining her health after an injury-plagued sophomore track season.
“She pretty much trained the entire fall and winter by herself,” Lind said. “Very rarely was I there with my [workout] schedule.”
Mecham’s 2013 state champion 4x400 teammates Shaina Hansen, Kelsie Blanchard and Kayla Adams joked they would tell their friends they ran with her in high school if she made an Olympic team.
Ironically, Mecham hopes to run in the Olympic Trials like her father and pursue a professional running career.
“If I can make the team, that would be a dream come true,” Mecham said. “I want to be one of the best nationally ranked runners. That comes with a lot of sacrifice and dedication. I want to go pro like [American teenage phenom] Mary Cain, pretty much.”
Parrish has known about Mecham’s ambitions since her eighth-grade season, and he said he anticipates recruiting efforts to increase after June 1.
“She’s always wanted to compete at the best levels,” Parrish said. “I would not be surprised if she has a full-ride offer by the end of next year to a school of her choice.”
Mecham sees herself transitioning to 400 hurdles and competing at a Pac-12 school. Oregon and Washington are on her list, and BYU has become a favorite.
“I love the coach there and I’ve been to their camp,” Mecham said. “It’s an LDS community and wouldn’t be as much of a culture shock. I want to go somewhere I can compete well.”
Cain’s ambitions have changed tremendously since junior high, when she dreamed of running at Oregon and making the Olympic team.
“I’m gradually setting my sights on going to the U.S. Naval Academy,” Cain said. “I’m keeping my options really open.”
For now, Mecham and Cain are making the most of where they are entering Friday’s state championships. Mecham is hoping to clinch a 300 hurdles Junior Worlds qualifying time and Cain said she is going for the “triple crown” of winning the 100, 200 and 400 titles.
Their coaches are savoring this time, too. Parrish has two more years with Mecham, and he said the sky is the limit.
“I have no idea what her ceiling is,” Parrish said. “To see a track girl this young who is already recognized nationwide is pretty phenomenal. I’ve never had anybody on the track level that came even close to that.”
Lind said the best thing about this weekend is that Cain is a junior because coaching her for the last time next spring will be bittersweet.
“I’m not looking forward to next year,” Lind said. “It’s going to be emotional.”