Austin Hindman: The Superstar You Never Saw Coming
An elite distance runner with a unique story makes a statement in his last high school season
The best distance runner Missouri has ever produced looks like a young Clark Kent. Austin Hindman is tall, strong and handsome, with blonde hair that falls just below his forehead. He’s from the Midwest. He has the kind of unassuming personality that blends into any situation.
If he was a superhero in hiding, part of you wouldn’t be surprised. The only thing missing are the glasses.
“He’s a gentlemen, he’s humble, all those things,” Hindman’s father, Jeff, says. “They are lifelong traits.”
But just watch the Lafayette High School senior run. You know how superheroes make simple feats look easy? Hindman, 18, makes training seem trivial. An average runner pounds the track. He bounces off it. His own coach, Sean O’Connor, has noted that when Hindman runs it looks like he’s floating. During repeats, the coach will look down at his watch and simply not believe what he’s seeing. 31 seconds for 200 meters again. Really?
Regular kid one minute, prodigal endurance athlete the next. Maybe even a future Olympian. After Saturday, he’s also a 7-time state champion.
As you can imagine, there was a moment. It came in April. Before then, most of the general public — the national audience that pays attention to times and outcomes and athletes — knew little of Hindman, maybe outside of two back-to-back top 10 performances at the Nike Cross Country Nationals (NXN) Midwest Regional.
Like many standout athletes, he had won a few state championships in his home state of Missouri, winning the 3200 race as a sophomore and then repeating as a junior, along with a cross country title as a senior. But Hindman hadn’t broken 9 minutes in the 3200 before 2017. He hadn’t raced against the country’s best. He didn’t sign with a big collegiate power in the world of cross country or track and field. Instead, he chose to stay close to home at the University of Missouri.
Of course, there was a reason. Behind that 6 foot, 3 inch exterior, there was more than just a runner. Hindman had been competing in the triathlon since he was 5. He had been shoehorned into a national training program at 13 and won the ITU World Junior Triathlon Championship at 18. It was his biggest and most important victory.
He was the first American to win since 2011, when arguably the best high school distance runner over the last 20 years, Lukas Verzbicas, last took the top prize.
So you’d think a World champion couldn’t surprise anyone. But when Hindman stepped to the line of the Arcadia Invitational 3200m in April, he was the last person on anyone’s minds.
Thirty-two runners from 15 states. Eighteen state champions. There were national names like Cooper Teare and Connor Lane and Casey Clinger.
Hindman wore hip No. 14, and it took more than two minutes for the announcer to mention his name.
“Honestly, I feel a lot of the guys didn’t know who I was,” Hindman said. “I didn’t talk to many of the guys before the race. But for me, going into it, I knew who all of them were.”
Then came the gun.
He was in last place after 200 meters. He moved up to the middle of the pack through 1600 meters at 4 minutes, 26 seconds. After six laps, he was top 10. After seven laps, he was seventh.
And then came the kick.
O’Connor was in the stands watching when the senior hit another gear.
“He’s a lot faster than you would think he would be,” O’Connor said. “He’s got pure outright speed.”
Hindman passed every single runner but one (Teare), finishing his last lap in 57 seconds. The time was an all-time Missouri record of 8:43.40, which surpassed the former state record held by Matthew Tegenkamp, a former professional runner and Lees Summit High graduate who once held all of Missouri’s distance records until Hindman came around.
“They don’t even know who he is and he’s in second place for the last 250 meters,” O’Connor said. “the announcer is flipping through papers trying to figure out who that tall kid is.”
So who exactly is Austin Hindman?
From a national perspective, he’s kind of like a whiff of smoke, here one minute, gone the next.
But before he moves on to more triathlons in Canada and Germany and before he gets a shot at the 2017 World Junior Triathlon Championships in Rotterdam and before he moves on to the University of Missouri to figure out just what kind of runner he is, Hindman will have one more high school race on June 2 in Boston at the Adidas Dream Mile.
Can he become the first American high school boy this season to break four minutes in the mile?
He’s sure going to try.
Born October 5, 1998, in San Francisco, California, Hindman is the youngest of four siblings.
His father, Jeff, and his mother, Gina, work in executive recruiting, where Jeff began his own business in 1995. California was where Hindman, at age 5, entered into his first triathlon.
“As a kid I always wanted to grow up to be just like my dad,” Hindman said. “He put me in a triathlon and I loved it. He’s the reason why I got started on the path I did. He’s the reason why I’ve gotten this far in the sport of triathlon and running.”
But athletics didn’t really run in the family. Hindman was the first child in the household to show a desire to compete.
“To be a world class athlete, you need certain priorities, certain disciplines,” Jeff said. “My oldest son was a phenomenal athlete, but he didn’t have the discipline. My girls, they hated competition. They’d be the first one to the soccer ball, but they would say, ‘Oh, you first.’ They didn’t have the passion. Austin has the passion.”
A former triathlete, Jeff had earned his credentials to coach triathlon in the late 90s and had continued to do so up through Austin’s youth. But by the time his son turned 12, and after the family moved to the St. Louis area, he knew he had to hand it off to someone else.
That’s when he found Jenny Weber, a USA Triathlon certified coach based out of Des Moines, Iowa, who ran a high performance team called Z3 Triathlon that focused on junior development and provided a feasible pipeline toward the Olympics.
“I was fortunate,” said Weber, who works as a corporate dietician for a health insurance company. “I was in the right place at the right time and working with the junior development program was contagious for me.”
For the next several years, Hindman, who’s also an Eagle Scout, spent three to four weeks training with Weber every summer in Iowa, working minutely on each part of his race: the swim, the bike, the run and the transitions.
Over that time, he grew to love the sport, both in its repetition and in its ability to bring out the best in him. He feasted on it.
“It’s something I’ve always loved to do,” he said. “I just want to race and compete and be the best I can be. And yeah, I’ve always loved to win. But I’ve hated to lose more.”
By 15, Hindman won his first big race at the CAMTRI Triathlon Junior North American Championships. Less than two months later, he won his next in Monterrey, Mexico, using a strong performance in the 5K run to claim a 6-second victory.
In fact, one of Hindman’s greatest skills came in running, where he would utilize smart tactics against fatigued runners.
Not coincidentally, just a few weeks later Austin claimed his first Missouri championship in the 3200m on the heels of that endurance block.
As Hindman would learn, running would begin to show him another side of his competitiveness.
The email came to his inbox just hours after his last meet as a high school senior.
It also happened to arrive after Hindman produced four state titles at the Missouri Championships, including meet records in the 1600m (4:09.69) and 3200m (8:54.92) and wins in the 800m (1:55.00) and 4x800 (7:53.90).
In the relay, in fact, Hindman covered a significant deficit to split 1:53.1 for the win.
The towering senior had originally signed up for the Festival of Miles in St. Louis on Thursday — a meet that has had 19 sub-4 performances in its history — but was transfixed by the chance to go to Boston and race among the nation’s premier talent at the Adidas Boost Games the very next day on Friday, June 2.
It’s the same meet where Verzbicas secured his sub-4 mile in 2011.
The stacked field includes nine state champions from seven states, including a rematch with Casey Clinger and Connor Lane -- the two opponents Hindman blew past at Arcadia in the 3200.
He had to pick one. So he chose his best chance at sub-4.
“He’s been talking about this for some time now,” Jeff said.
While Hindman’s 4:09.69 in the 1600 at the state championships marked just the fourth time he’s raced the distance all season — and for his career — he and O’Connor had always planned for one more race.
“The dream mile is something I’ve thought about since freshman year of high school,” Hindman said. “And to be able to actually see that invitation and to be going, it’s so cool. I couldn’t be any more excited to race now. It’s just an amazing opportunity and the level of competition there is unparalleled.”
At his peak training cycle, Hindman had run about 35 miles a week and incorporated two speed workouts along with work on the bike and in the pool. The conversion, O’Connor speculated, was roughly about the same aerobic base as a 70-mile week.
But while Hindman’s biggest statement came in California at Arcadia, his legacy may be earned in his final race as a high schooler.
“I don’t know if other guys are going for it,” he said, “but I might as well.”
Hindman’s decision to continue his education and athletic career at the University of Missouri was a calculated choice.
While the Tigers weren’t exactly known for their powerhouse track and field program, there were more important variables at work. Hindman wanted a place that could foster his development while also improving his run -- a critical component for the next round of Americans vying for a spot in the 2020 Olympic Games.
He found a match in Missouri distance coach Marc Burns.
Up front, Burns was understanding. He listened to the unique situation Hindman had posed. The end result? Burns and the Tigers were willing to work hand-in-hand with the athlete when it came to balancing the triathlon with running.
That’s not always the case.
“It’s tough because it’s hard to have two masters,” Weber said of college athletes who inevitably feel the weight of sports at that level. “At some point you have to decide what you want to do and what you want to focus on.”
Weber had coached one other ITU World Junior Triathlon champion before in Tamara Gorman — she became the first American woman to win a junior world title in 2013 and later went on to win the junior national championships in 2014.
Gorman ultimately moved on on to the University of Minnesota, where she competed for the Gophers in track and field. But in some ways, Weber said, Gorman struggled to find a balance between both skills.
“Her fitness wasn’t there when she came back because she spent a little too much time focusing on running,” Weber said. “It’s too draining to try and do both sometimes and while the coach tried to be supportive, it was just too challenging.”
The women’s triathlon program, however, at least has some positive growth. Gwen Jorgensen, of Waukesha, Wisconsin, was the first American woman to win a gold in the triathlon at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
And it came after a monument decision in 2014 by the NCAA, which approved triathlon as an emerging sport for women. That decision ultimately paved the way for the sport to become a full-fledged member at the collegiate level — Arizona State and East Tennessee University, for instance, are two Division I colleges that have already added the sport to their roster of programs.
But the NCAA still hasn’t replicated that move on the men’s side.
“It can be tricky,” said Steve Kelley, who is the U23 program manager for USA Triathlon. “There are competing loyalties and interests (when it comes to athletes who compete in both at the college level). But it’s certainly valuable for college programs to have world class athletes on their team.”
Burns ultimately knew the bigger picture: He didn’t want to miss out on a talent like Hindman. The seven-time state champion, who won four state titles on his final appearance at the Missouri Track and Field Championships, will end up going down as one of the top ranked distance runners in the nation in 2017. He’s currently ranked US No. 2 in the 3200 and US No. 15 in the 1600.
“To go out and run 8:43 in the 3200 is ridiculous,” Burns said. “This guy is the best recruit Missouri has ever signed on the distance side and he’s one of the top guys in the country right now. We’re excited to have him.”
And while some college coaches could see Hindman’s passion for triathlon as a drawback — considering the potential compromise that could come with being a scholarship athlete for another sport — Burns took it as a value-add.
“The type of approach he has to training is unparalleled for a high school kid,” he said. “The discipline and focus, he knows what he wants to accomplish down the road and I think with him knowing that it will make our program that much better.”
For what it’s worth, Hindman said, he’s on the same page, too. While the 18-year-old has what seems like an obvious future in triathlon, he also wants to bring no less than 100-percent during his 4-years with the Tigers.
“I definitely want to be able to compete at the top of the NCAA level,” he said. “I’m going to want to run four years in college. And I just be the best I can be, help my team win some big titles and help build the program the best I can.”
When it comes to the triathlon, Hindman has the resume of a seasoned veteran. He’s raced in the World Junior Championship, Pan American Championships and National Championships. He’s been to European countries and raced alongside their pristine waters and serene locations and hasn’t been afraid to go up against anyone.
He’s won big races. But he’s also made mistakes, too, finishing deep in fields in others. He’s DNF’ed. It’s a part of the sport.
His experience in high school cross country and track and field is a little different.
Hindman doesn’t own a ton of races to his name, at least in the traditional sense. Much of his talent is still a product of his training in triathlon. Which is why, as an eighth grader, Hindman was able to run 4:47 without a lot of miles on his legs, O’Connor said. Over the years his mileage has increased, though not comparatively to most of his peers.
Entering the Arcadia Invitational 3200m on April 7, Hindman had just a few base weeks under his belt and was hovering around 25 miles per week. He was adding about two to three hours on the bike and about 3-kilometers in the pool.
“He just has a phenomenal engine with a huge range,” Weber said.
But this was a big meet. Hindman still felt it was time to make a statement against power players in high school running. It may have been his only shot to prove his worth among his peers.
“When it comes to running, I never really felt like I’ve been overlooked, just because I’ve got a lot of attention from the state of Missouri and the running community there,” he said. “But I hadn’t done any national level competitions until Arcadia, so there was nothing really for the rest of the country to be talking about.”
Maybe that time could have come sooner, maybe not. Hindman’s junior year was all but erased after a stress fracture — which Weber said was likely a result of too many miles on his feet — took him out for much of the season.
And yet, he still came back on just three races to win his second straight Class 5A championship in the 3200m that year — in a season PR. It’s a period he often reflects back to, signaling that everything hasn’t come easy for him, whether people believe him or not.
Tactically, though, he was ready.
At the World Junior Triathlon Championships, Hindman had finished the first loop of the 5K run in fourth place. By the second loop, however, he had made a big surge and overcame a deficit to win by 10 seconds, finishing in 54 minutes, 2 seconds.
The come-from-behind victory has become a hallmark of his racing style — Hindman says it’s unintended, but sometimes that’s just the way it happens.
“He won worlds running just under hour,” O’Connor said. “That’s way different. He’s running races that are at most 15 minutes long. The endurance it takes that are different than track.”
As O’Connor and Hindman’s father watched Arcadia from the stands, they weren’t sure what would happen. He was out of it, and then he wasn’t. The field would surge, but then Hindman would stick with it. Soon enough, they began to see a plan take form.
Hindman slowly made his way up, holding on with each surge, before putting on the gas in the final lap.
“Too many parents and coaches when kids are young focus on winning,” Jeff Hindman said. “And we never did that. We focused on doing your best. And because of that, he learned to lose just like he learned to win. He was always rewarded for his best effort. And he’s learned to win but he’s learned to compete and he’s been doing it ever since he was a little kid.”
What do you eat after winning four state championships at 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday on the 2-hour road trip back home from Jefferson City?
The answer is McDonald’s.
Even superheroes need calories.
“It was an uneventful night,” Hindman said. “I think I got a 10-piece McNugget, a Big Mac and a crispy chicken sandwich.”
It might seem rare for an elite athlete, no less Missouri’s top distance runner, to eat processed food late on a weekend, but for someone who doesn’t have off days -- or for that matter, cheat days -- there has to be some type of guilty reward.
And when you get one, you take it.
Even Clark Kent would understand.