The mechanical mind of Hunter Nicholson has brought the Glacier High School senior to an extremely promising future.
A four-year engineering student in high school, Nicholson and his teammates — Brigham Pitts, Morgan Cordell and Brady Peiffer — were the reserve champions at this year’s Flathead County Science Fair (high school division), and he will turn his attention to biomechanical engineering when he arrives on the campus of Montana State University in the fall.
He is an intelligent, high-achieving student and a quick-learner, receptive to feedback and driven to improve. His future study of the way the human body operates — biomechanical engineering, Nicholson says, is a “mix between a doctor and an engineer” — will allow him, he hopes, to design and optimize prosthetics worn by those in need.
And to have that type of mind — focused and detailed, yearning to understand how every tiny piece of the body works — must give such a student an advantage on the field of competition. To be able to maximize one’s physical gifts by employing them deliberately and precisely, surely that boosts the state’s defending Class AA triple jump champion as he lines up his next leap. He can engineer every step on his way down the track — a sophisticate out-thinking the competition.
But there is another side to Nicholson. It is the side that battled his older brother in pre-pubescent dunk contests on an 8-foot hoop, and the side that went undefeated for two full seasons in middle school. It’s the side that shrugged off heartbreak to explode to a state title one year ago. That is the side, Nicholson says, that gets channeled on the track, the one that pushes aside mechanics and taps into raw competitiveness and desire.
“I want to win,” he said. “If I don’t go all out, then someone could go farther than me.”
Few high schoolers these days go farther than Nicholson, who arrived at Glacier four years ago as a fairly polished if physically unimposing product. Arron Deck, the Wolfpack’s head track coach, and Melody Strauss, one of the team’s jump coaches, pointed out that boys typically develop later, physically, than girls, and Nicholson was no exception.
But what Nicholson did have was a springy step and a passion to be successful from his very first days on campus. He initially appeared in Glacier’s gym in eighth grade, tagging along with his older brother, Brayden, who was a pole-vaulter on the team and no slouch as an athlete himself, having played football as well as track. Hunter, too, played football for the Wolfpack, and when Deck and Strauss first saw the younger Nicholson they saw a unique combination: someone who had solid technique, immense potential to grow, physically, and an unending desire to be coached and improve.
“I just knew his drive and determination and love for the sport was going to carry him along the way,” Deck said. “We knew he was talented and focused, and we knew we were going to have a good one for four years.”
Nicholson’s 6-foot-3 frame has filled out since his freshman year, and he has made vast improvements in all three of his events — triple jump, high jump and long jump. He earned a fifth-place finish at the 2015 state track meet as a freshman with a triple jump of just over 42 feet, but he and his coaches believe that a 47-foot jump sometime this year is not unrealistic. He’s come within one inch of matching or setting personal bests in all three events this spring despite suffering a mild hamstring injury in April.
And while he may not overanalyze each jump while he stands at the start, Nicholson is methodical in the way he prepares. His natural curiosity along with Strauss’ penchant for finding the slightest imperfections have made them an excellent pairing, with Nicholson digging for every edge and Strauss rarely fully satisfied.
“Every time, I’ll think I have a good jump and then (Strauss) comes toward me and she’ll have a video, and she’s like, ‘Yeah, you did many things wrong here,’” Nicholson said, smiling. “Everything I know is because of her.”
“He’ll ask a lot about, ‘What can I do better?’” Strauss said. “Hunter’s an incredibly smart young man in the classroom and on the field, so if you break it down for him he’ll be able to pick up those tiny adjustments and make them the same day. He’s always been receptive to the coaching staff.”
Nicholson plans to jump at Montana State, where he says he could qualify for an athletic scholarship his sophomore year, and Deck believes his star leaper has the ability and potential to contend at the Division I level.
“You look at his frame and I think he has definite upside to him,” Deck said. “I don’t know that he’s done growing … and you go get some college coaching and you focus on your nutrition; I think he has huge upside.”
There are still plenty of things for Nicholson to accomplish this year, before beginning his next chapter in Bozeman. He expects to return from his hamstring injury in time for the Archie Roe Invitational at Legends Stadium on May 5, and when he does, he’ll begin a final charge toward this year’s state meet on May 25-26 in Great Falls, where he has his sights set on pulling off the rare state-title trifecta. He will also have a chance to redeem one of the lowest moments of an otherwise stellar prep career.
In Butte last May at the state meet, Nicholson stepped to the line for the long jump as one of the favorites and promptly scratched on his first of three attempts. Then he scratched on the second one, too. And then on the third. Strauss was there to see the final attempt.
“(To see) any athlete, when you have failed to put a mark on the board and all you needed is one to get into finals,” she said. “It’s devastating.”
Nicholson was understandably shaken, and although he had already finished second in the high jump earlier, he would need to recover mentally to have a shot in the triple jump the following day. The moment, however, was not unique to Strauss. In fact, she experienced a bit of déjà vu.
“At the end of that long jump,” she said, “he came over and I told him a story.”
She relayed the tale of Kyle Griffith, who as a sophomore in 2011 had suffered the same three-scratch fate as Nicholson, and on the same track at Butte’s Bulldog Memorial Stadium, no less. Griffith was crushed, at least initially, before finding a remarkably resilient mental place.
“(Griffith) came back the next day and said, ‘Hey, the worst thing already happened to me,’” Strauss remembered. “And he had the jump of his life.”
Griffith won the state title that year, just as Nicholson would — on his very first jump of the competition — in 2017. It was the highest point of his track and field career, so far, and Nicholson reveled in the moment.
“That was great,” he said with a sly laugh. “The first thing I remember is my dad giving me a big hug, and after that it was just people saying ‘congratulations.’”
Strauss beamed with pride remembering the kid who first showed up in eighth grade gifted with a prodigious mind if not a prodigious build, and who nonetheless stood atop the entire state at the end of last season.
“There are athletes that are good athletes because they just are born athletic,” she said. “And there are athletes that have some athleticism but have an incredibly hard work ethic. And there’s something to be said when the one with the work ethic gets to walk away with the title.”
“There’s bigger things than a state title in high school,” she continued. “But when you can experience ‘work pays off,’ and doing the right thing at the right time in the right order; to be able to transition that into life later, that will pay off.”
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