WESTPORT — Hannah DeBalsi had modest hopes when she arrived as a freshman for her first practice with the Staples High School cross country team: earn a varsity spot that would also serve as a springboard to expanding her social circles and meeting new people.
DeBalsi immediately had an inner circle of friends. FCIAC, state and New England championships took just weeks more. One year later she was a national champion, winning the outdoor two-mile as a sophomore.
DeBalsi, with an admitted offbeat sense of humor that has become her third-most famous trait — she will graduate next month as Staples’ salutatorian — soared to become one of the most decorated scholastic athletes in state history. She will attend Stanford next year. After that? Right now there appear to be no boundaries, in track and academia.
I sat down with DeBalsi last month for a wide-ranging 45 minute interview. Here are some of the highlights.
The Ruden Report: As you get ready to finish up your high school career, does it seem like it has gone by really fast?
Hannah DeBalsi: Day by day it seems like it goes by slowly, but I think back on the last three and a half years and it seems like yesterday was my first practice.
TRR: When you first arrived at Staples, what did you think you could accomplish? Are you shocked by where you are right now?
HD: I didn’t expect any of this. I thought I could be a varsity-type athlete. I didn’t think I would be No. 1 on the team or anything.
TRR: So all your early goals were just to be a varsity member?
HD: I ran a little bit my 8th grade year. I liked running just because I had a little bit of experience with it and it is what I thought I would be the best at. I also wanted to join a team too to make friends and stuff.
TRR: What is the part of your success that you least enjoy? Is it having the microscope on you?
HD: Yeah, probably. I don’t like being the center of attention. When I am in a race and people are watching I don’t think about it but after the race, I just think I am a pretty awkward person sometimes.
TRR: You mention that a lot. Why do you feel that way?
HD: I don’t know; I’m just not comfortable with all the eyes on me I guess. I think it’s funny to make other people feel uncomfortable. I vicariously do weird things and make people feel like that. I’ve been like that ever since I’ve been old enough to have a sense of humor.
TRR: Has that changed as you have become more accustomed to the publicity?
HD: I’ve gotten a little more used to it. I still don’t really enjoy it that much.
TRR: What is your least favorite question that gets asked repeatedly?
HD: (Pause) It’s not really a constant but if it is a bad race and everybody is like, how do you feel, I used to get really tired of saying, ‘Oh, it was a bad race.’ I just wanted to put it behind me. I can’t think of any particular question besides that.
TRR: How have you changed the most during the last four years?
HD: I think that 14-18, everyone grows up a lot during that time. When I first started running I had no idea what I was doing. I definitely understand how the sport works more now. I’m a lot more respectful of other runners too who do what they do. When I was a freshman I would be nervous and bit the seniors. I know it is weird.
TRR: It seems like you consider yourself kind of quirky and you enjoy that side of yourself. Is that true?
HD: Yeah, I would have to say so. I think it is funny. Personal entertainment.
“I think that 14-18, everyone grows up a lot during that time. When I first started running I had no idea what I was doing. I definitely understand how the sport works more now.”
TRR: What are your favorite subjects in school?
HD: Math and science. Definitely not English. I’m sorry, I know you write. I think my brain works that way with numbers more than it does with words, I guess.
TRR: Do you like to be challenged as a student the same way you do as an athlete?
HD: Yes, definitely. I like learning. I don’t particularly enjoy homework. The act of learning I like. I think I may want to major in engineering. I know everyone says engineering now.
TRR: What made you decide on Stanford?
HD: The academics are really important. Of all the trips I took I felt most at home there. It was also the best combination of athletics and academics. I didn’t want to be too close to home. Now that I made my decision I think it will be nice to live in another part of the country. I think it will be a good experience even if I don’t end up living out there, to see what it’s like.
TRR: Given your dual success and being in the national spotlight, how do you feel you are viewed in the Staples community? You are not a typical student.
HD: I hope I’m viewed in a positive way. I wouldn’t say people look at me differently but people who know what I’m up to after a big race will say ‘Good job’ and ‘Congrats.’ I don’t know if people are looking at me. Who knows, maybe they are. I probably have different life experiences than some of them so far. I think everyone has something they work hard at and something they excel in. I don’t think I’m that different.
TRR: What things have you been able to do because of your running success that you wouldn’t have been able to otherwise?
HD: I’ve been to Seattle and San Diego and the LA area so it is definitely cool to travel and meet new people. It’s just nice to feel like you have a place you belong, like you’re meant to be there. It has been nice to find that opportunity.
TRR: If you have to be good but not great in one area, would it be academics or athletics?
HD: Probably athletics. You can’t run forever so later in life academics will be more important. I feel right now I’m probably prouder of my running accomplishments because I put more work into it. I work hard in school.
TRR: You have already received so much attention but if you were a football player it would be exponentially greater. Do you feel track gets the recognition it deserves and if not does that bother you?
HD: I definitely want to say most school cultures value the football team over the track team. That’s understandable because football attracts more fans. There aren’t too many people who follow track but the ones who do are very dedicated. It’s OK.
TRR: How far do you hope to go with track? Would you like to try and qualify for the Olympic team some day?
HD: If the opportunity presented itself obviously I would take it without question. It’s kind of hard to think that far ahead with track. No one knows what will happen, or if you get injured or something goes wrong. Right now the focus is to do well in college. I’m focusing on this season and after that doing well in college. And then see what happens after that if it ever becomes an opportunity. It’s not something I think about. If I thought it was possible I guess I would but I just feel like it is out of the realm of possibility right now.
TRR: With your schedule do you ever feel burnt out?
“If the opportunity presented itself obviously I would take it without question,” DeBalsi said of one day qualifying for the Olympics. “It’s kind of hard to think that far ahead with track. No one knows what will happen, or if you get injured or something goes wrong. Right now the focus is to do well in college. I’m focusing on this season and after that doing well in college.”
HD: There are days where you don’t feel like running or anything but after you take a step back I just love the sport. My coach is really good about making sure I enjoy it. It also helps out that I love my team. It is a very social experience.
TRR: Do you still get the same sense of joy now when you win a race?
HD: Sometimes in the moment if I’m not 100 percent happy with my race, I’ll be like whatever, I don’t care, but if I take a few steps back I feel like I appreciate it more. Maybe when I am 30 I will appreciate it more than I do now in the moment.
TRR: Is there any part of the high school experience you feel you missed out on due to your success leading to track taking up a greater part of your life than you expected entering Staples?
HD: It would have been cool to try out for more clubs. There’s definitely no other sport I could see myself doing. Coordination is not really my thing. Sounding kind of nerdy but maybe the math team. A lot of my friends do that too. Maybe something with charity and giving back to the community.
TRR: I would imagine you are having a melting pot of emotions now as your high school career nears its end. Do you think about it?
HD: It is definitely very bittersweet. I’m obviously really excited about Stanford and college and beyond but I think about how this will be my last something at Staples High School. It’s definitely kind of sad. And you take for granted some of the races you win but it will be the last time I compete in those races ever. It’s not scary, but it went by so fast.
TRR: Is there a win that means the most and a race you didn’t win that annoys you the most?
HD: If there is one that means the most it is when I won nationals my sophomore year Just because it was nationals. The one that annoys me the most is the following weekend at Brooks. Another girl went at me hard and then I caught her and thought I won and she somehow had something left and kicked me down the last 100. I looked at the tape and I was like I had it. I was so close.
TRR: What are you going to remember most about Staples?
HD: That’s a good question. Probably the friends I made on the track team. I feel the friendships I made are going to last a long time. There are some races, but really the good friends.
TRR: Last question: what has your high school track career meant to you, what has it done for your life?
HD: I don’t even know if I can verbalize what it has done for my life because my life would be so different if I never did track or cross country. What would I be doing right now? Everyone has been so supportive. My family but Staples as a whole. Just running in general. To see what you can accomplish as an individual. I feel like it empowers people.