Elliott Sampson’s jaw-dropping victory at the 1981 state cross country championships is the Alaska version of “Hoosiers.”
Sampson, an Eskimo from Noorvik who trained in snowshoes on the tundra above the Arctic Circle , came from virtually nowhere to beat the big guns from the big cities that autumn day at Settlers Bay.
At the starting line, Sampson gathered with runners who had established names and impressive credentials. Among them was Marcus Dunbar of Anchorage’s Bartlett High, the race favorite who several years later would win a national championship in the mile.
Few knew who Sampson was, or that he had spent the summer logging marathon-like mileage on Alaska’s desolate, wind-swept western coast. Race officials were stunned when it was Sampson and not Dunbar or one of the other big-city kids who led the way to the finish line of the 5-kilometer race. He beat Dunbar with a wicked finishing sprint, setting a state record in the process.
His victory sent a powerful, and empowering, message to rural Alaska. “He opened doors for village kids who always kinda looked at each other like, ‘We can’t compete at that level because we’re out here in the Bush and we can’t do it,’” said Mike Zibell, a longtime Noorvik resident, teacher and coach.
Sampson went to college in Oregon on a running scholarship but soon returned to Alaska, unable to adjust to life away from the village. He battled mental-health issues and in 2004 died at age 40 after wandering away from an assisted-living home in Fairbanks.
His legacy lives on. Dunbar, who became a high school teacher and coach in Kodiak, sometimes tells his athletes about the boy who denied him a state championship in 1981.
“It’s an example of how, as an individual, you can achieve great things,” Dunbar said. “You can be president of the United States from a small little city. And you can beat all the guys from the big schools.”
– Beth Bragg