Small Towns, Big Dreams
A selection of the top small town athletes in the country in 2018
In small towns across the country, legends form quickly.
The runner who wouldn’t, or couldn’t, lose. The sprinter who never quit in the final meters, the jumper who landed out of the pit, the thrower who had the strength of an ox.
These stories live and breathe for ages.
Which is why we’re taking a deeper dive into these prodigious talents in 2018. We’ve found that small town athletes who are willing to train when no one else is looking -- a staple for any successful athlete -- are the ones who are doing remarkable things.
Solo workouts. Crazy training runs. Herculean throws. Beastly regiments.
Training to be the great takes sacrifice, especially for those who have little else but their own internal drive.
No matter the cost, small town athletes find a way.
Today, we’re highlighting a few of the best small school athletes in the country. The team at MileSplit USA consulted with local state editors to pinpoint athletes with extraordinary combinations of talent and championship success.
It doesn’t take living in a big city or a big town to have national ambitions. To us, it’s all the same.
And stay tuned next week. We’ll publish a story on one of Texas’ greatest small school athletes of all-time.
Town: Rock Rapids, Iowa
School(s): Central Lyon High School/George-Little Rock
State Championships: 5
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Gable Sieperda learned quickly what it meant to live in the Hawkeye state.
His family named him after Olympic gold medalist and native Iowan Dan Gable, a folkstyle wrestler who won an NCAA Championship for Iowa State University and later a freestyle World Championship at 68 kg.
Athletics were a part of his life from a very early age, especially in a small hamlet like Rock Rapids, a town of less than 2,500 located on the northwestern edge of the state, just a 35 minute drive from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
But in 2014, Sieperda, then a freshman at George-Little Rock High School, learned he had another calling.
He qualified for his first state cross country championship and scored a sixth-place finish. Over the next three seasons, he would return, scoring a sixth- and third-place finish before culminating his career with a state title in 2018 for George-Little Rock.
On the track, Sieperda has undoubtedly been one of Iowa’s most successful small school runners ever, taking five more state titles, including three championships at 3200 meters in 2014, 2017 and 2018.
Statewide, he’s seventh all-time in the 1600m (4:13.78), 10th all-time in the 3200m (9:09.60) and 18th all-time in the 800m (1:53.58).
Sieperda’s experience as a small town athlete in Iowa will live long after he moves on -- which he’s slated to do.
Next year, headed to Iowa State University, the same school where Gable once featured.
Town: Athens, Pennsylvania
School: Athens High School
State Championships: 6
What it means to be a successful athlete from a small town:
“It’s an honor to be from a small town and compete on a national platform. Also being from a small town, I have tons of support from my community. They contribute to my success on and off the track, and I’m forever thankful for their unconditional support.”
On how the region has shaped her experience on the track:
“Being from a small, rural town in PA, there isn’t much competition around to push me like a national or major invitation meet would. I have to create my own competition by setting goals and objectives each meet. Through this, I’ve developed a strong mentality that’s been necessary to succeed in sports, especially track.”
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Gambrell closed her high school career as one of Pennsylvania’s all-time best leapers.
The Class 2A athlete earned six state titles, including four straight in the long jump and two more in the triple jump.
She set a state record in April, posting a mark of 20 feet, 8.5 inches in the long jump.
And she’s not done there.
The outstanding leaper, who was raised in northeastern Pennsylvania in a town of 3,200 people along the banks of the Susquehanna River, will continue her journey at Penn State University.
Town: Lincoln, Maine
School: Mattanawcook Academy
State Championships: 13
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Spencer-Thompson is already one of Maine’s most decorated athletes ... and he’s just a junior.
But it’s hard to argue with 13 titles across three years of work.
In June, he set state records in both the long jump and triple jump, leaping to marks of 24-1.75 (+1.6) and 48-3.75 (+3.5) at the New England Championships.
With one more year of high school left, he’s likely aiming for even higher goals than that.
Can he reach 25 feet? What about 50?
While Maine’s history in the jumps doesn’t compare to that of Florida or Texas, Spencer-Thompson is making his name known to recruiters beyond the state.
Hailing from a town of just 5,000, he’s already competed on Maine’s biggest stages -- which includes a private, public and New England championship -- and scored a second-place performance in the Emerging Elite section of New Balance Nationals Outdoor in 2017.
So what else can Spencer-Thompson accomplish?
Town: Telluride, Colorado
School: Telluride High School
State Championships: 6
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Nestled to the west in the San Juan Mountains, Telluride is known more as a ski and resort town than as a producer of prodigious high school talent.
But Gaylord, much like a fellow small town Colorado athlete by the name of Emma Coburn (Crested Butte), has used her resources wisely en route to athletic success.
Gaylord has benefited from training at nearly 9,000 feet altitude in a town of nearly 2,5000 people to score six state titles in distance events ranging from 1600 to 3200 meters over the past four seasons.
Plus, she’s a world-champion snowshoe runner.
A year ago, Wendy’s awarded her with its own ‘Heisman Trophy’ for high school athletes and gave her a $10,000 scholarship.
She’s raced to personal best times of 5:10.66 in the 1600m and 10:44.86 in the 3200m.
And while she never won a Class 2A title in cross country, the 5-foot-11 Gaylord was a top five finisher over the past three seasons and a top 10 athlete across four years.
She was second overall in 2018, hitting a personal best of 18:12.31 for 5K.
Up next? Likely medical school. She’s headed to Dartmouth College, an Ivy League program with a solid distance pedigree.
Town: Saint Clair, Minnesota
School: Saint Clair High School
State Championships: 4
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What’s most impressive about Weber isn’t the fact that he’s a three-time state champion in the discus -- which he is.
How about this?
How many state champion throwers, at roughly 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, can legitimately throw down a fast 200 meter run in 23 seconds?
Or fly over the 110 meter hurdles in 17.80?
Or long jump 21 feet?
Can they high jump 6 feet?
Weber isn’t only a big-time athlete, he’s the ultimate team player. He’s done anything that’s been asked of him, including the relays, the high jump (6-0) and 400 meters. He’s probably even filled the water tank a time or two.
He’s old school, the kind of athlete that we don’t have enough of nowadays.
And it’s not surprising that Weber, who will be competing at the USATF Junior Championships hoping to qualify for U20s in the discus, is from a small town of less than 1,000 people.
Insatiable work ethic is what often exemplifies small communities, and athletes with big dreams.
Weber fits that thread, too.
Town: Coalville, Utah
School: North Summit High School
State Championships: 9
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Small school athlete? It’s never limited Sargent.
She’s won nine state titles over the last four years, including two in cross country.
She was an All-American this fall, scoring a seventh-place finish at Nike Cross Nationals. And she was sixth this past week in the Brooks PR mile, finishing in 4:52.69.
A closer look at the all-time lists in Utah sees Sargent firmly entrenched within the greats of the state. She’s ninth all-time in the 800 (2:10.78), third all-time in the 1600m (4:50.04) and eighth all-time in the 3200m.
She’ll likely go down as one of North Summit High School’s most accomplished athletes ever, and one of Coalville’s most revered.
Sargent’s decorated record no doubt will stick.
And like many from Utah, she’s staying in the state for college.
She’s headed to BYU next season.
Town: Tully, New York
School: Tully High School
State Championships: 2
What it means to compete in a small area:
“Running for a small school has been a perfect fit for me. My team is really close because there are not many of us, so every practice is with my best friends. Even though we may be doing different workouts at practice, everyone is always supportive. At meets we are all over the track cheering for each other, even in terrible weather conditions. My community is very supportive of all my achievements. I also get to be coached by my mom, which is fun because she already knows me and knows what I need to be successful.”
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One of two freshmen on this list, Rauber has plenty of years -- and seasons -- to advance her athletic pedigree.
But there are already hints of special talent.
An indoor section 1K title. Three section championships in the 1500m, two more in the 2K steeple and three more in the 3K.
Perhaps even greater, an All-American finish at Nike Cross Nationals this fall, when Rauber truly started to emerge.
That came after the freshman’s second state title in cross country and her continued growth as a distance runner -- despite limited mileage.
While New York has churned out countless distance prodigies over its history -- Mary Cain, Aisling Cuffe, (currently) Katelyn Tuohy -- there’s reason to think Rauber could fit within those ranks soon enough, too.
But Rauber is doing it while running circles around Tully, a town of just 3,000.
Town: Rawlins, Wyoming
School: Rawlins High School
State Championships: 4
What It Takes To Be Successful:
“It takes mental strength to train in harsh Wyoming conditions. Also, with the limited running community I must branch out to find workouts that some of the best athletes do (milesplit’s workout Wednesday’s are my go to.) I also try to attend running camps during the summer.” -- Sydney Thorvaldson
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It might not take long for Thorvaldson, an All-American this fall at NXN, to carve out her own legacy in the state of Wyoming.
The freshman, who trains at 6,800 feet in Rawlins--a small dot on the wide expanse that is Wyoming--has already begun to make waves.
She’s 4-for-4 in state championship races and is ranked seventh all-time in the state in the 1600m (5:03.69) and fourth all-time in the 3200m (10:47.13).
“My region has definitely forced me to be a stronger runner,” she said. “Wyoming winds, elevation, and cold temps aren’t easy to run in. It’s also helped me develop friendships with other runners across the state.”