15-year-old sprinter is on fast track to fame
Sprinter Hannah Cunliffe owns national records and AAU championships with times that would win high-school state titles and place in the Pac-10 championships. But she dreams even bigger.
By Mason Kelley
26 January 2011
The YouTube video opens to a techno beat and a list of the jaw-dropping accomplishments of Federal Way's Hannah Cunliffe, one of the fastest 14-year-olds in the country.
It cuts to a photo of the teenager in midstride, the muscles in her arms and legs making her look like she's closer to 20.
That photo fades into video of the start of the 100-meter semifinals at the 2010 AAU (American Athletic Union) Junior Olympics. Cunliffe rubs her hands, slaps her legs and fits her feet into the blocks.
She takes off. The finish isn't close. She wins her heat in 11.71 seconds — a national age-group record if not for a tail wind. Her time would have easily won a 2010 state title in Washington's two largest high-school classifications. Would have taken third at the Pac-10 championships. Would've ranked No. 4 on the University of Washington women's all-time list.
"She's already a sprinter of national quality for her age group," says Tony Veney, the former co-chair of USA Track and Field women's sprint development. "As long as she continues to maintain her focus, her enjoyment and stays healthy, in my mind there's no doubt that she can be a top high-school athlete, a national-caliber collegiate athlete and an Olympian down the road."
Then the video gets better. Cunliffe lines up for the Junior Olympic 200-meter semifinal and flies out of the frame at the start. She charges around a turn. Her ponytail flicks back and forth. Her arms swing. Her legs pump. She wins the race by more than 10 meters.
"When she took off down the track, it's like, 'Wow,' " says Bryan Hoddle, a former U.S. Paralympic track coach, of watching Cunliffe run for the first time. "It's the wow factor that just blew me out of the water."
Goal: the Olympics
Hannah Cunliffe, now 15, is already a national champion. She has won medals and competed all over the country and in Europe. But her dreams are set beyond the AAU Junior Olympics, beyond high school and even college.
Sitting at a Subway restaurant between a weightlifting session and track practice, she is asked about the future.
"I want to go to the Olympics," she says.
"Do you want to go or do you want to win?" jokes Mike Cunliffe, her father and track coach, as his daughter eats.
"Go and win," she says. "That would be nice."
As a smile spreads across her face, she looks away. It is almost as if she is a little embarrassed to say it out loud.
Her current goal is to run 11.35 seconds in the 100. That could qualify her for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. — as a 16-year-old.
Big goals for someone so young, but her smile and laugh tell you she hasn't forgotten how to be a teenager.
She still loves the beach, birthdays and shopping.
"I'm different," she says between bites of her turkey sub, "in a good way."
"I'm faster than you"
When Mike and Michele Cunliffe married they planned on having four or five kids. They never expected nine, but when they hit four and had only one son, Sam, they decided to have more. Sam still doesn't have a brother.
"Some people would say it's more like a zoo," Hannah says of her family. "But it just seems normal."
Hannah, their third child, always seemed fast. When she was a baby, she crawled so quickly, "she was like a spider," Michele says. They would put her in a doorway jumper, turn on some old-school hip-hop and she would bounce for 45 minutes. Mike and Michele would chant, "Hannah! Hannah! Hannah!" as she bounced higher and higher.
When Hannah was 4, her older sister, Madison, then 8, had just won a race to become the fastest third-grader at her school.
Hannah looked at her and said, "I'm faster than you."
"No, you're not," Madison replied.
Dad let them race from one driveway to the next, about 40 yards. Hannah won. "I knew right there," he says. "I could see the form. I could see the force application. I could see the mechanics."
But Mike, a former long jumper at Washington State University, didn't want to rush his daughter's development. She would have plenty of time to try track when she got older.
Then, in 2004, Michele gave birth to Isabella, who was born without fully developed lungs. The family spent a lot of time at Swedish Medical Center, and Mike wanted his children to have an outlet.
The Rainier Beach Community Center had a track team, and Mike could drop off Hannah and Sam for a few hours. By age 8, Hannah was ranked No. 2 in the U.S. in the 100 for her age group.
"It was a good release," Mike says. "It got her started maybe a year or two before I was going to start working with her, and it worked out."
Hannah was also a very good swimmer. One year, she asked to go to a camp put on by gold medalist Megan Quann Jendrick from Puyallup. Hannah was able to hold Jendrick's Olympic medals. A lithograph of Jendrick and her medals was announced as a raffle prize.
When the raffle number was called, Hannah screamed. She won, and the framed picture still hangs in her room. When Michele thinks about moments like these, she's convinced her daughter's destiny has been decided.
"I realized this is not just Hannah's dream," Michele says. "It's kind of what has been put before her."
Yet if Hannah ever wants to quit, she can. In fact, brother Sam, now 13, is the world-record holder in the long jump for 10-year-olds, at 16 feet, 10-¾ inches. But he quit to focus on basketball.
Mike and Michele didn't argue. Their only requirement is that their kids stay active. It is the same reasoning they used when allowing Hannah to swim.
"Anyone with a rudimentary background in track and field for sprinting knows that's Kryptonite," Mike says of mixing the two sports. "[But] if you want to swim, swim."
Hannah only recently decided to quit swimming to go through an indoor track season.
"You just let them go"
When an athlete is as successful as Hannah at such a young age, there is the question of burnout: How much is too much?
So far, that's not an issue with Hannah. From age 8 to 14, she trained only three days a week. Now that she is 15, she has added a day, and Mike limits her to about 12 meets per year.
The Cunliffe kids are home-schooled through Columbia Virtual Academy, but Hannah will compete for Decatur High School in Federal Way. Her bedroom is her classroom. It's also the place where she tracks the times of other elite runners.
Mike sometimes checks on her at night and finds her asleep next to her laptop. On the screen are the top times of her competition.
Because she needs only a laptop to attend school, her education doesn't suffer when she travels to events.
"Hannah's just like a college student," Mike says. "She has certain things that are required for her to do in school, just like every student."
Similarly, her track accomplishments belie her age. Her bedroom is a high-energy space with fire-red walls and numbers from track bibs linked by safety pins hanging from the ceiling like laundry. Medals dangle all around the room, so many that when she puts them all on, they make her neck hurt.
Despite appearances, Hannah is still learning.
When she was 13, her social life became her priority. She had performed so well at 12 she thought she could cut back on her core training and add an event, the 1,600-meter relay. She helped her friends get national medals at the AAU Junior Olympics, but saw her 100 and 200 times suffer.
Without any prompting, she rededicated herself.
"A kid like that, you just let them go," Mike says. "They're Type A. They've found their space."
In 2010, she won national titles in the 100 and the 200. Her time in the 100 final (11.86) set the AAU national record for her age group. Impressive considering she ran into a headwind. During a meet in Switzerland, she ran 11.72.
"When I lose it's more like, 'Oh, my gosh, Hannah got beat,' " she says. "So I work very, very, very hard. Even harder, so it motivates me even more."
"This is my life"
Hannah Cunliffe and Tatum Taylor have a bet.
As a freshman at O'Dea High School, Taylor took sixth at the Class 3A state meet in the 100 meters. No matter. Hannah is sure she can beat him out of the blocks, positive she can be ahead after 10 meters in the 100.
The bet is $20.
During a recent practice at the University of Washington's Dempsey Indoor, they shake hands and settle into the blocks. Hannah's smile disappears. Her ponytail dangles in front of her as she leans down, brown hair shrouding her focused face.
They fire out of the blocks and down the track. Hannah loses the bet, but she's getting closer.
"Any time you let up with her, you're going to lose," says Taylor, now a sophomore. "Even me, being a boy and pretty fast, she's going to run after you. She's going to catch you if you let up for a second, no matter who it is."
People come up to Hannah Cunliffe all the time and ask her what it's like to be fast.
"I don't know what that's like, not to be fast," she says. "This is my life."