As much as we celebrate Alaska Sports Hall of Famers, they celebrate us

March 20, 2014

They come to the auditorium at the Anchorage Museum one night each year to be celebrated for fantastic feats or remarkable careers — sometimes both — and yet they never make it about themselves, and that grace only endears them to us more.

The annual Alaska Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony honors the greats. Invariably, though, they honor us with their humility, and point to their families and communities as the support groups that made their dreams possible.

Four-time Olympic nordic skier and Hall of Famer Kikkan Randall of Anchorage, the reigning three-time World Cup sprint champion, received a Spirit of Alaska Award, not only her manifest athletic achievements but also for her work inspiring youths toward a lifestyle of fitness and health.

This is a woman who only last month endured grave disappointment in Sochi, when an Olympic medal eluded her in her best event. So naturally she spoke of the 500 emails and Facebook posts she received from Alaskans and how those messages comforted and buoyed her.

“I feel like I’ve won a gold medal tonight,” she said.

Kodiak’s Trevor Dunbar, the gifted University of Oregon runner, last year became the first Alaskan to run a sub-four-minute mile. Anchorage’s Eric Strabel took down the Mount Marathon men’s record that had stood for 32 years. They received Spirit of Alaska awards too.

Dunbar said nothing made him happier than having his parents and grandparents, his touchstones, on hand. This wasn’t about him, he offered.

“It’s about my community, Kodiak, that gives me so much support, and the rest of the state,” Dunbar said.

Strabel, while noting his Mount Marathon training included endless sessions on a home treadmill “staring at my garage door for hours,” gave a shout-out to the older mountain runners who so inspired and guided him.

Marko Cheseto, the former standout UAA runner who lost both his feet to amputation, mused that anyone can aspire to achieve — “Everybody is great in one way or another,” he said. Then the native of Kenya pronounced himself an Alaskan.

“I am so proud to be part of Alaska,” he said. “I identify myself as an Alaskan. I was in San Diego last week and I identified myself as an Alaskan and a guy looked at me like, ‘Does this guy know what he’s talking about?’ ”

Dick Mize of Anchorage, the former Olympic biathlete, somehow spoke briefly about the myriad trails he has helped establish throughout town, from Bartlett High to Kincaid Park, and in between, and almost made it sound like, yeah, he put in a couple or three hours. Truth: If you’ve enjoyed almost any trail in this community, the ground you covered came in large part from Dick Mize’s vision and sweat and diligence.

Mario Chalmers, the two-time NBA champion guard with the Miami Heat, who also won a national championship at Kansas and a state champion at Bartlett, weighed in on video — as smooth-piped emcee Gary Donovan noted , Chalmers “does have gainful employment” — and repeatedly said he was “humbled” to be inducted into the Hall.

Jeannie Hebert-Truax, a two-time state basketball champion as a player and a four-time championship coach of the Wasilla girls team, was already in the University of Miami’s Hall of Fame before she was inducted in her home state’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday. She eschewed the microphone — “If you don’t mind, I’m just going to walk around and chat,” she said — and pointed out some of her current players in the crowd.

Those girls, Hebert-Truax said whimsically, represented 19 years of athletes “that I’ve run into the ground and yelled at for missing lay-ups.”

The UAA men’s basketball team’s monumental upset of Michigan in 1988 — get this, a Division II team beat the team that went on to win the Division I national championship that season — was honored as a great moment in Alaska sports history. Coach Ron Abegglen lauded the support he received from his administration and joked he sometimes double-checks to make sure the miracle indeed occurred.

“I get out the video every once in a while to make sure that happened,” he cracked.

The Yukon Quest, the daunting 1,000 sled dog race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, Yukon — and in true Alaska fashion, brainstormed in a bar — was honored as an event. The race’s executive director, Marti Steury, hit on the theme of the induction ceremony: Community.

“It takes a thousand people to go a thousand miles,” she said.

So it goes with the Alaska Hall of Fame, which Wednesday also honored the Alaskans who represented the U.S., and our state, in Sochi.

As any of those athletes would tell you, they did not get there alone.

– From the Anchorage Daily News, by Doyle Woody