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A legend returns: Hall joins Griz coaching staff

10 Dec 2021 | 08:00 | Track & Field

When one of the most decorated and accomplished track and field athletes in Montana history first gave the sport a try, she entered the long jump at an all-comers meet at Dornblaser Field in Missoula and went … two feet, three inches.

Granted, Lindsey Hall was just three years old at the time. “I still have the ribbon for that,” says her mom, Deb, who would later have to make room for armfuls of her daughter’s trophies and medals. It was 27 inches that would change a young girl’s life. She loved it and that passion has never left her.

As a fifth grader, at another meet, her interest piqued by seeing scrapbook photos of her mom competing in the event at Bethel, a Division III school in Minnesota, where Deb was a three-sport athlete in volleyball, basketball and track and field, she asked her mom if she could try the hurdles.

“I said, No way. You don’t just jump into those things because you think they look cool. You have to train for them,” Deb told her daughter, who sidestepped those orders just like she avoided the hurdles when she self-entered the event anyway, crow-hopping her way to first place.

“She had stars in her eyes. She said, ‘I love them,'” recalls her mom.

That scamp would go on to win six individual state titles, with four runner-up finishes, at Big Sky High, then go on to a record-breaking career at Montana, where she would win seven Big Sky Conference championships and twice represent the Grizzlies at nationals.

She capped her collegiate career earning all-America honors as a senior in the heptathlon before going on to represent the U.S. at the Thorpe Cup in Germany in the summer of 2015.

After working as a volunteer coach at her alma mater for a number of years, Hall spent the last three as an assistant at Utah State.

Now Hall is back home, at the track where her love for the sport first took hold. Her first day in her new position as an assistant coach for the Montana track and field program was Thursday.

“It’s a little surreal,” she said. “When I put on a Montana Track shirt this morning, which I always put on when I come back to Missoula, I felt like I was stepping back into some shoes that I’ve missed being in. Being a Grizzly again is a full-circle moment. It’s something I’ve looked forward to.”

Hall was brought back to Missoula by head coach Clint May, who was hired on a permanent basis last month after leading the track and field program with an interim title in 2020-21.

He was the distance coach at Bozeman High in May 2009, when Hall, then a senior at Big Sky, put on a tour de force at the Class AA state meet in Kalispell.

She won the 100-meter hurdles, the 300-meter hurdles, the long jump, the triple jump and finished second in the high jump. The 48 points she scored on her own were just two fewer than Bozeman High totaled as a team.

“Knowing pretty much everyone in the state still remembers how great of an athlete she was at Big Sky makes her incredible to have on staff,” said May. “I can’t wait until this gets announced to the state of Montana. They are going to realize we got a very, very good coach.

“It’s completely accurate to say I’m beyond excited to have her. She is a great person and is about as passionate about track and field as anyone you’ll meet.”

Hall was already one year into her tenure at Utah State when May was hired as Montana’s cross country coach in the summer of 2019, so he’s never seen her in action. He thought he had the right person for the job when he first talked to Hall. The coaches at Utah State only confirmed it.

“I know what’s been happening down at Utah State. She’s done a great, great job,” said May. “I needed to call and do a reference check, and the coach I talked to said, ‘I can’t believe we’re in a situation where we’re going to lose Lindsey.’ That reassured me that we got an excellent coach.”

Hall takes over the position and event areas previously coached by Adam Bork, who spent a decade and a half turning Montana’s multi-event athletes and jumpers into a dominant group within the Big Sky Conference.

On the women’s side alone, he coached seven Big Sky pentathlon champions, four heptathlon winners and his athletes to 10 titles in the jumps. It was a galaxy of stars, though none shone quite as brightly as Hall, who scored a remarkable 205.5 Big Sky championship points in her illustrious career.

Hall, the USTFCCCA Mountain Region Field Athlete of the Year for the 2014 indoor season, was named the Most Valuable Athlete at the 2011 indoor and 2014 outdoor Big Sky championships, the meet’s Outstanding Performer at the 2013 outdoor and 2014 indoor championships.

Her final act, at the league level, was to score 43 points at the 2014 outdoor championships. She won the heptathlon, then turned around and over the next two days finished second in the 100-meter hurdles, triple jump and javelin, and fourth in the long jump. She tied for fourth in the high jump.

Bork had been planning his exit from coaching for a few years. His final day in the office was Wednesday. A day later, Hall arrived for work, protégé replacing mentor.

“It means a lot to me,” Bork said of the succession. “I knew I wouldn’t work here forever, so it’s something I’ve thought about the last one or two years. It’s probably been a hope of mine the last four or five because I knew at some point I’d be getting out.

“I was hoping not just that someone like her but that she would be able to take over my job and continue on with the tradition and the program we’ve built in that area. I was very happy that it worked out and that she was able to take over. I’m excited to see what she does.”

There is a fire-and-ice contradiction when it comes to Hall and the sport of track and field.

The former is the fierceness with which she competed. The latter is the part of the sport that so appealed to her from the start: the camaraderie, not just between teammates wearing the same uniform but all the athletes who were there, competing and striving for their own level of greatness.

“I remember her telling me, way back in high school, that track is a family,” said her mom. “It wasn’t just a track team. To her it was a family. A male discus thrower is cheering you on, and you’re cheering someone else on. I think she’s always liked that connectivity.”

That connection crossed not just team colors but the most bitter of all divides. When Hall ran across the finish line of the 800 meters to win the heptathlon as a senior, she edged out the runner-up, Montana State’s Carley McCutchen, by a mere 10 points, 5,401 to 5,391.

In most cases, across other sports at the two schools, it would have been a sweet victory, Grizzly over Bobcat, the victor lording over the vanquished.

There was some of that, because they were both intense competitors, but they were also the best of friends. After all, who else knew what it was like to train for the multi-events at a high level? And they saw each other weekend after weekend, often at meets that could take the better part of a day.

“Some of Lindsey’s closest friends in track and field were her rivals,” said Deb. “You spend that much time with people, you don’t just compete, you connect. She really developed a love for that, that connection as well as the competition.

“She has that sensitivity, but she also has this fierceness about her. She’s driven.”

To see Hall at the peak of her powers, when she was long, lean, strong, lithe, was to assume she’d been gifted a track and field physique from birth. But that wasn’t the case, and it’s probably why she coupled it with an underdog’s mentality, which led to so much success.

“Lindsey was small growing up compared to her peers. She was a late grower, just like me and her father,” said Deb. “For her to do anything, she had to be the hardest-working person out there. I just told her, show them what you can do. I think she took that to heart.”

There was also the matter of in-house bragging rights. Hall’s mom still owns the Bethel record for the heptathlon. She ranks among the top-five all-time Royals in the indoor high jump.

“I grew up knowing my mom was a three-sport athlete, so I feel like I’ve been competitive forever. But it started out being competitive against my mom,” Hall said.

“I wanted to be better than my mom was. In a sense, the biggest compliment you can pay to a mentor is to want to surpass them and then work hard for that.”

She grew up around the Montana volleyball team, serving as ball girl when her mom worked as a line judge, the Grizzly inside her growing by the day.

On her way to and from the gym, whether for a match or another summer camp, she was always drawn to the plaque for Marsha Hamilton, who earned six varsity letters for Montana in the mid- to late-70s, three in gymnastics, three in track.

There she was, in the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame, the first female recipient, in 1978, of the Grizzly Cup, which to that point had been given out annually only to the top male athlete on campus. Hamilton changed all that.

She proved that girls could compete a little bit too, earning all-America honors in 1976 by placing eighth in the 100 hurdles at nationals.

“I remember looking at her plaque and seeing all-American. I couldn’t even imagine what it took to do that, to be able to get to that point,” said Hall.

Hamilton would remain in Missoula after graduation, becoming a longtime teacher and coach. One of her prized track pupils: Lindsey Hall, when she was coached by Hamilton in the hurdles in middle school.

“She kind of sparked my passion for that event area,” said Hall, who was among thousands of mourners when Hamilton died in January.

“I never thought about where those seeds were planted, but when she passed away this year, I did a lot of reflection. That was really special. I got here by following some strong women.”

When Hall signed with Montana in the spring of 2009, Bork hinted at what was to come.

“I think she’s going to be super for us,” he said at the time. “She’s got a lot of raw talent and is just an all-around stud in the events she’s been doing. We’re going to put a little more power into her and get her some more speed. Having the longer season to train, she’s going to be really good.”

Sometimes an athlete so special comes along that you just know. And Bork couldn’t have been more spot-on.

Hall scored 16.5 points at her first Big Sky championships, 2010 indoors as a freshman, then followed that up with 25 points at the outdoor championships that spring.

Twenty times across eight Big Sky indoor and outdoor championships Hall would place in the top three in an event. The 205.5 points she scored is the numerical equivalent of more than 20 first-place finishes. In other words, she earned every penny of her scholarship. And then some.

She four times qualified for regionals, twice in the high jump and javelin, an event she didn’t pick up until she entered college, once in the hurdles. She graduated holding six school records, four of which still stand.

But track and field has never been a solo pursuit for Hall, despite the individual nature of the sport. Team as family, remember? As great athletes do, she upped the belief and performance of those around her, greatness bringing out greatness, a leader before she ever had the title of coach.

“I have always looked up to Lindsey,” said Sammy Evans, who competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the triple jump last month and was another of Bork’s champions.

“Seeing her success made me realize I could have that as well, so I pushed myself to work hard and try to get on her level, which I’m not sure I ever did.”

In the eight seasons Hall competed, Montana twice finished runner-up at Big Sky championships, four times finished third, once fourth, once fifth. The Grizzlies were talented, but more than that, they were tight-knit. Both combined to make them title contenders year after year.

“I was thinking about that (Thursday morning), about getting that camaraderie across all events,” Hall said. “That’s what set apart the time I was here and made that so special.” Consider that a tenet of her coaching philosophy.

Hall concluded her career with a trip to Eugene, Ore., in June 2014 to compete in the heptathlon at nationals. She would score 5,603 points to finish seventh, one spot better than Hamilton did in the hurdles nearly four decades earlier.

The little girl, who looked at Hamilton’s plaque over the years and wondered how anyone could ever do something like that, something so special, so memorable, had become an all-American herself.

It wasn’t an hour after the heptathlon had concluded that day in Eugene that Hall, talking on the phone, dropped a hint at what her future might look like.

“I still remember sitting on the high jump mat before the first indoor meet of my freshman year and the coaches projecting what they thought I could do the next five years,” she said back then.

“I didn’t have the confidence I would be able to (become an all-American), but they did, so I can’t say enough about how special that relationship is.”

This week she added, “I loved relationally how it seemed (the coaches) were always so happy to be interacting with so many athletes in so many ways every day. It made me feel like they had the best job in the world.”

And now she has it, at the school she loves.

For two years after her collegiate career was over, Hall continued to train. She finished 10th at the U.S. Track and Field Championships in the heptathlon in 2015, scoring 5,751 points.

On the side she was a volunteer coach at Montana, assisting Bork and then head coach Brian Schweyen while getting more hands-on experience working with the Mountain West Youth Track Club.

“That kind of spurred me toward, hey, I want to do this. If I could get paid to do this, this is all I want,” Hall said. “I would go home high as a kite from working with kids and getting that energy. It’s something I didn’t know I wanted until I got the opportunity. Now I don’t know how I could ever leave it.”

Once her body told her enough is enough, to please go into coaching full-time so it could take a break after running, jumping, hurdling and throwing for most of her life, she looked into anything and everything that might be her break into the profession.

Rejection followed rejection followed rejection. But she kept at it. Her dream wasn’t going to be denied. Finally Utah State reached out. The Aggies were interested. She interviewed, won them over, then went about doing what feels like is her life’s calling, now that her days of competing are done.

She’s taking her love of track and field and finding those who have the same passion, then coaching them into the best version of themselves they can be, on the track and off it. That she gets paid to do it is just an added bonus. And she’ll never feel like she has to work a day in her life.

It was only a matter of time before an opportunity at Montana opened up, her love of home finally pairing up with love of job, the best of both worlds. And nothing has ever felt more right, more natural.

“Lindsey will be an amazing coach for Montana. She is a Montana native and was a part of the program,” said Evans. “She was a powerhouse and a team leader when she competed, so she really understands what it’s like to be an athlete there and what expectations she should set for her athletes.

“I don’t think you could ask for a better scenario than handing the multis and jumps off from Adam to Lindsey.”

Yes, it comes with a bit of pressure and expectation when you’re handed the reins of event areas that have been so good over the last two decades. After all, there will never be another pairing like Bork and Schweyen, but that doesn’t mean they are irreplaceable and that their success can’t be duplicated.

You’ll see their influences on Hall on a daily basis, in the way she coaches, in the way she instructs, in the terminology she uses, but she is no clone. Three years at Utah State, testing her own methods, trying different things, have given her a confidence that she is up to the challenge.

“I have taken my experiences with Adam and Brian and applied them to my coaching philosophy and continue to put my own thoughts into it,” Hall said. “That’s been strengthening and refining itself over the last three years.

“I feel like it’s the perfect timing to step in here. I feel like I have a great pulse on where this program has been. I’m excited to be who I am but also honor them by continuing the tradition that has been established.

“At the root of it, I have a passion for Grizzly Athletics, and I’m excited to let that fire kick back up again.”