It’s 9 p.m. on another bitter-cold night in December and Sarah Hines is doing her work in an empty hallway of West Elk High.
Classes were let out six hours ago and basketball practice ended an hour ago, yet Hines remains, obsessively honing her craft.
She carried in hurdles and measured down to the inch in a long stretch of hallway because, well, there is nowhere else you can practice hurdles at this hour in the town of Howard, population 649, located 90 minutes southeast of Wichita.
This is how a junior from a Class 2A school in a no-stoplight town came to own the fastest time in Kansas this season in the 100-meter hurdles.
“What if I was sitting on my couch watching TV or laying in bed at 9 o’clock?” Hines said. “The only thing going through my mind would be, ‘What is my competition doing right now? What are they doing that I’m not?’ I need to be there, so I can get better. I put a lot of pressure on myself like that.”
A hurdler is born
When she was a child, Hines had a litany of health problems. While older sisters Amanda and Sydney were able to run free and play sports, Sarah would pass out if she tried to keep up.
“It was generally understood that she wasn’t going to be able to do all of that stuff,” Doug Hines, her father, said.
But tests finally identified the problem and Sarah became a fully-healthy athlete by the time she entered middle school, when she began to hurdle. Her coach at the time told her that if she didn’t become a three-step hurdler — no more than three strides between the barriers – then she would be disqualified.
Of course, Hines didn’t know that not even some high schoolers could three step. She just did it.
Ever since then, Hines knew the hurdles would be her event.
“I loved how technical it was,” Hines said. “There are so many little things you can do to improve. I still have a ton of work with the hurdles. There’s much more I can do and that’s what I like. It’s like you’re always learning something, every day you do them.”
Since winning a state championship last season, Hines said she has felt nothing but pressure. Mostly from herself, but also from what she perceives as the expectation to not only repeat her accomplishment but to elevate it somehow.
“After I won state, there were maybe 10 minutes of happiness,” Hines said. “The rest of the time after that, you’re thinking about all of this pressure because you don’t want to let anyone down. I don’t want to let myself down.”
That feeling is shared by Jim Madison, the coach and next-door neighbor in charge of making sure a once-in-a-generation talent like Hines maximizes her potential at West Elk. The two share a tight bond, as they have spent countless hours the last five years practicing, watching film, and perfecting her technique.
“I haven’t slept real well for a few weeks now because I’m so worried about her getting hurt,” Madison said. “I know it’s not football or basketball, but I put a lot of pressure on myself. I cried when she won last year. I probably shed two or three before she even finished.”
Opportunities like this don’t come along often at West Elk, as the school had not had a female state track champion since 1988 before Hines.
And the best part of the situation is that Hines recognizes this, better than most 17-year-olds ever could.
“Young people seem to not realize things like that,” Doug Hines said. “People who have been around awhile realize how special and how unique this is and how this is not an opportunity you’re going to have the rest of your life. Sarah gets that.”
A second act
If there was ever a question if Hines is the real deal, she settled that a little more than a month ago at the Kansas Relays.
Competing against a collection of the region’s top hurdles, Hines finished second in 14.66 seconds. The time still stands as the No. 1 time this season in Kansas.
“The stopwatch doesn’t lie,” Madison said. “1A through 6A, it doesn’t matter where you come from, the times are the only thing that matters.”
Hines enters the state meet on Friday and Saturday at Cessna Stadium with a few goals in mind as a way to surpass what she did last season.
She has her sights on another state title in the 100 hurdles, as well as the 2A record time of 14.83 seconds. Hines also wants to become the first female track athlete at West Elk to medal at the state meet in four events, as she is qualified in the 100, 200, and triple jump, which she was second in last year.
This weekend is the reason why Hines tormented herself for the past 11 months, coaxed her body into one more sprint in December, one last run through in January, one extra hour of practice in February.
Hines is in pursuit of history, but also of something more important.
She wants another 10 minutes of happiness.
“There’s really nothing better than that,” Hines said. “I think it would make my dad and my school proud. I want that satisfaction of knowing all that hard work paid off.”