On March 10th, Hunter Price will step into the starting blocks staring down 60-meters and a shot at a national championship in the heptathlon at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field championships in College Station, Texas.
Track and field was never in the plan for Price, but sometimes, walls have to collapse in some areas so that a house can be built in another.
No, Price was never supposed to be a national-caliber athlete, at least not in what he loves now. Yet, he has come a long way to get here. Turns out, it is right where he is supposed to be.
At Ralston Valley High School in Arvada, Colorado, Price played just about every sport possible, but football was where he excelled. It was his passion, and he was good at it — good enough to earn All-State honors as a defensive back his senior year.
Football earned him a scholarship, and a ticket to Easton, Pennsylvania, home of the Division-1AA Lafayette Leopards of the Patriot League. He found early success on the field as a freshman, but everything does not always go as planned.
“I enjoyed the football aspect of being at the school, but it was a completely different place compared to Colorado, and the East coast is just a different world,” Price said. “Really, the only thing I was familiar with there was football.”
He felt at home on the field, but far from it. After a while, he decided Easton was not the place for him. He weighed his options, and before long, found himself at Colorado State for the second half of his freshman year.
His football dream was far from over, there was still the aspiration to compete. He wanted to walk onto the CSU team, but after a while, he decided it was not the road to take.
“At that point it kind of seemed like my sports career was over,” Price said.
You can take the kid out of athlete, but you can never take the athlete out of the kid. Eventually, Price got restless of the everyday college life. He missed competition.
That is how he found himself in class one day looking up the email for Brian Bedard, head track coach at CSU.
Price ran track his last two years in high school, but it was always secondary to football. Now, he wanted to walk-on at CSU to compete in a sport he had not thought about for over a year and a half.
Coach Bedard sent him back an email saying the walk-on period was over, and he would have to try again next year. But Price did not take no for an answer. He emailed Bedard back, this time he sent in some of his high school marks. His persistence was enough to warrant a meeting with assistant coach Ryan Baily.
“You could tell his character right away,” Baily said of that first meeting. “He wanted to be good. You could tell he had something. He wanted to be great.”
Baily said Price’s initial high school marks were not off the charts impressive individually, but he knew he had a well-rounded athlete on his hands.
That is when Price first found out what a decathlon is.
The decathlon is the ultimate test of athleticism. The indoor version, the heptathlon, features seven different events spanning two days, while the decathlon (outdoors) consists of ten events over two grueling days. It tests mental toughness just as much, if not more, than physical ability.
“I noticed he was a four-sport athlete, he could do just about anything,” Baily said. “I didn’t know where to put him, and I knew if we started him in the decathlon we could find his niche.”
“I had never even heard of the decathlon, but I thought it sounded like fun,” Price said. “(Baily) kind of said, ‘if you want to be a part of this team that’s kind of what I’m feeling for you, so if you want to give that a shot, we can have you work out for us for a couple weeks and just see how things go.’”
Initially, Baily proposed the idea of being a multi (an athlete whom participates in multiple events) because he knew Price was athletic, he just did not know what events he might be strong in. The decathlon stood as a trial run for Price on the track team.
In a little over three months, that trial run turned into a spot on the podium at the 2015 Mountain West Indoor Conference Championship, where he took third in the heptathlon behind teammates Justin Green and Josh Cogdill.
It was an extraordinarily fast ascension for a raw walk-on who just found out what a multi was.
“The stars kind of aligned for me,” Price said. “I had some natural ability that helped me a lot, but without being placed in the environment that I was in that first year, I don’t think I would have been as successful as I was able to be.”
Baily says that early on, he knew he had something special in Price.
Even though he was raw in some events, Price was still showing Baily something different everyday — something better. Soon enough, Price was picking up on techniques. He was changing his approach and understanding that the decathlon is not to be seen as ten different events, but ten puzzle pieces that fit to make a whole.
A year from that 2015 Indoor Conference Championship meet, Price was in new territory. He won the Conference Championship in the heptathlon at the 2016 MW indoor meet, setting a school record with 5,621 points in the process.
“My second year, I got some experience under my belt,” Price said. “I started to buy into the idea of the whole multi deal and I started to realize that maybe I could be pretty good at this thing.”
Price was rolling, but he might have gone a little far. In addition to his 2016 heptathlon championship at MW indoors, he also competed in individual events that weekend. It took a toll on his body, a toll that was tough to overcome Baily said. Price spent much of the 2016 outdoor season in the training room, incapable of training the way he wanted to.
But he was still there that May for the 2016 MW Outdoor Conference Championships in Clovis, California. He felt great going in, better than he had in a long time, and it showed.
After day one, Price had a sizable lead over the rest of the field in the decathlon. After the first two events on day two, the 60-meter hurdles and the discus, he was even more confident.
Then came the pole vault, where Price failed to clear his opening height. The “no-height” dropped him out of the running in the meet, and after pushing through the final two events he took fifth.
Missing out on the conference title hurt, but all he had to do was clear his opening bar and he was going to NCAA Outdoor Nationals. That is the kind of meet he was putting together, and in all of about 30 minutes, that goal was wiped.
“It was probably one of the biggest roadblocks I had faced in my athletic career,” Price said. “In my 15-plus years in sports I would say that was the biggest let-down I had faced.”
“As much as I hate to say it, it was the best thing that could have happened to him,” Baily said. “Because it not only brought us back down to ‘oh, you’re a stud and you have the tools to be one of the greatest American decathletes, but we still need to be healthy enough to practice.’”
That outdoor meet sent Baily and Price back to the drawing board. Baily knew he had an athlete with unforeseeable potential in his hands, but he had to figure out how to reel him in. Price, along with the other multi athletes, opened up a constant line of communication with Baily about how they were feeling on any given day, and what they felt comfortable training.
The 2017 season is not to repeat what Price went through in 2016.
The “no-height” left the kind of taste in Price’s mouth that can only be wiped out with the kind of work it takes to make sure it never happens again.
“After that last outdoor conference meet, I was more driven and motivated, and hungry as ever,” Price said. “Having dealt with that failure, I knew that I was not going to leave any questions about how this season was going to go.”
After Baily and Price took their foot off the gas a little bit and restructured Price’s training this past fall, he was healthier than he had been in a long time. All of the puzzle pieces of the multi were starting to fit.
At the Mines Alumni Classic and multi meet at the Colorado School of Mines on the weekend of Dec. 8th, Price surprised himself. He knew he was in good spot physically and mentally, but he had no idea just how good.
Price walked away from the heptathlon that weekend after scoring 5,906 points. His 5,906 smashed the previous conference record of 5,771 set by Grenadian Olympian and former Boise State Bronco Kurt Felix. Right now, Price has the third-highest score in the event in the nation. He has all but assured his trip to the 2017 Indoor National Championships in College Station.
After that meet, Price and Baily were happy, but they weren’t satisfied.
“It was hard for me to go up to a kid who had just crushed (the conference record) and say, ‘that was a decent meet,'” Baily said. “I didn’t get too excited. There was still things we can work on. We left some points on the table. We are setting him up for a great national meet.”
Right now, everything is geared for that nationals weekend in March. All of the training, the mental preparation and the eventual tapering. Everything pinpointed so Price can put together the meet he is capable of — a meet that could make him a National Champion.
“I definitely have started to believe in myself a little bit more,” Price said. “Before this year, I was a little bit unsure of what I was capable of, but gearing up for Nationals, I definitely feel like I have a new level of confidence in my abilities.”
What sticks with Baily, is that he is working with a national-caliber athlete who has really only spent four years in track and field. Price’s training age is so young, that really, the only way to go is up.
“When you look at that, I think you are looking at potentially one of the greatest decathletes to ever come out of here,” Baily said. “And that’s saying something when you look at the fact that we have an Olympic champion, Glenn Morris, back in 1936. When you have a guy like (Morris) and you are making a statement like that, it’s because it’s a real statement. (Price) is a guy who can do something very special here, and make a name for himself. Even if that’s not his goal, it will happen.”
Baily says that there is no doubt in his mind that Price will be ready to face what the national meet is going to bring him. He says Price does not hit the panic button.
Baily points out the “no-height” at last year’s outdoor championship as something that allowed Price to clear that last hurdle.
“It changes an athlete,” Baily said. “It makes them see things in a different light and I think he does now. He is not afraid of stuff like that anymore. Before something like that happens, you are afraid of it. After something like that happens, you are not really afraid of it anymore.”
And so, in just over a month, Price has an opportunity to etch his name up near CSU legend Glenn Morris.
It is a long way go for someone who was playing a different sport 2,000 miles away and three years ago.
“Going out East and playing football, I felt like there was a lot in my life that I was unsure about, and I didn’t really understand all of the moving pieces,” Price said. “I finally feel like everything’s coming together and understand what all of the moving pieces were geared towards.”
Everything he has been through, from high school football standout to an email with a track coach, has led him to this.
He has found his niche. Now, it all makes sense.
Collegian sports reporter Eric Wolf can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Eric_Wolf5