NORMAL — The weight of self-imposed expectations combined with the fear of letting others down can prevent athletes from enjoying their sport.
That was the trap from which Alex Hess escaped while competing for University High School's cross country, swimming and track teams the past four years.
"When I finally came to the realization that no one had expectations for me athletically, it freed me," said Hess, who has augmented his substantial athletic contributions at U High by being named to the 26-member IHSA All-State Academic Team.
"The joy I experienced from running and swimming began rushing back to me, and it motivated me this past swim season. Again, sports became something I enjoyed and had fun with rather than something I only did because I was good at it."
The senior was good enough in cross country last fall to become the No. 1 runner for a perennial state powerhouse. He placed second in the Central State Eight Conference Meet and fourth in the Intercity Meet.
In swimming, he was part of U High's best relays, including its league champion 200-yard freestyle relay. A versatile swimmer, he was an especially good freestyler, clocking 23.56 in the 50 free, 51.96 in the 100 free and 1:55.25 in the 200 free.
In track, he posted 2019 bests of 10:28.20 in the 3,200-meter run and 4:45.91 in the 1,600 en route to becoming a 3,200 relay state meet alternate.
U High cross country and track coach Lester Hampton helped Hess see things differently.
"When a kid does not want to disappoint their parents or their coaches or their teachers or whomever it may be, ultimately they end up applying too much pressure to themselves," Hampton said.
"A part of life is figuring out how to handle that because you'll be a much better person once you figure out how to handle all that. Alex was certainly one of those individuals that did that."
Too much pressure impairs performance, according to Hampton.
"You've got to make them realize that as far as the competition part of it, that it's not about the end result," he said. "It's about enjoying the process."
Hess is the first athlete in Hampton's 31-year coaching career to make the IHSA All-State Academic Team. Nominees needed to have a 3.5 or better grade point average on a 4.0 scale, have competed in at least two sports and displayed good citizenship.
Hess notched a 4.0 GPA and scored 35 on the ACT exam.
"Alex has been everything I could have imagined in terms of his leadership and the person that he is," Hampton said. "Alex is the total package."
In swimming, Hess served as a co-captain for two seasons.
"He is a positive leader and a great role model who leads by example," said Pioneer swim coach Michelle Meyer. "He has led the team both in and out of the pool. Alex is a great teammate and team captain. He is always supporting and cheering on this teammates."
Hampton says few U High boys have attempted the three sports Hess did.
"I'm not trying to knock any other sports, but I know first hand what those three require in terms of a work ethic and it's unbelievable," he said.
"How someone could do all three of those sports and still have a 4.0 GPA and accomplish the things he's accomplished academically, don't ask me because I could have never even come close to that."
Hess views making the All-State Academic Team as something that came while he focused on other things.
"It is tangible recognition of the work that I have put into both my athletics and my academics," he said. "It was never necessarily a goal I had, but ended up being a positive byproduct resulting from personal goals I had achieved."
Hess didn't turn off his competitive juices upon entering a classroom.
"I never had any genuine competition with my classmates," he said. "All the competition was with myself."
Hess expected to compete in track this spring until the coronavirus pandemic cancelled the season.
"This track season being cancelled was something I never could have imagined," he said. "Full disclosure, I always enjoyed cross country more than track for many reasons, but I was sad to see the season go. I will miss my teammates the most."
With no meets to train for, workouts have been challenging for Hess.
"Since quarantine has started, I have been running on my own and doing at-home ab workouts," he said. "While I do enjoy running alone, it is much more difficult to go out for a run by yourself with nothing specific you are training for."
Hess plans to study biochemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., with an eye toward attending medical school after graduation.
"While I considered running in college, I realized that I was at peace with my running career and was ready to start a new chapter of my life," he said. "I plan to join the run club at Emory, but as of right now, I have no intention of competing for Emory."
Hess feels prepared for future challenges.
"Twenty years from now," he said, "I hope that the hard work and determination I learned from sports will be with me."
My town: Randy Sharer reflects on the best parts of Bloomington-Normal
Contact Randy Sharer at (309) 820-3405. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_sharer
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