UA sophomore Henson leads Wildcats on and off the field, despite suffering one of the greatest losses.
Nov. 22, 2009
Short in Stature, But Not In Heart
Sophomore leads the Wildcats through thick and thin, despite suffering the greatest loss of her life just eight months ago
By Jeremy Hawkes - Arizona Athletics
Standing just a tick over five feet tall – and that's being generous – Hanna Henson is the smallest member of the Arizona cross country team. Her official height, according the UA roster, is 5 feet, 1 inch - though she admits that she “rounds it up” from 5 feet and half-an-inch.
This is not to say her height has any impact on her performance level, mind you, but it is an interesting statistic to note.
The sophomore is one of only three members of this year’s squad to return from the 2008-09 line-up and her experience has been a key part of getting a young Arizona squad as far as it has come this season.
The phrase “big things come in small packages” may be cliché, but in the case of Henson, it’s fitting. If not for her level of competition on the course, then it fits for everything she does outside of her running shoes (just see the story earlier this week on her FeelGood organization). The diminutive Henson may be a small package, but she is the complete package.
So while being smallest member of the team, there is no denying you would be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bigger heart.
Like many on the UA roster, Henson really got her start in distance running in high school. Also like many Wildcats on the squad, Henson began her career somewhat humbly by running her first career cross country race in training flats and a recycled Rio Rico High School uniform.
It didn’t take long after that race for Henson’s coaches got her the proper equipment and uniform and kick-started Henson’s career. She advanced to a state championship appearance for cross country during that freshman year where she would finish fifth.
Throughout her high school tenure, Henson finished in the top ten at each Arizona state meet leading up to being the individual state champion in 2007 where she led her Rio Rico squad to the team championship at the 4A-II level.
“It was seriously one of the best days of my life and there’s no other way I could imagine ending my senior year,” she said. “It really helped propel me to college when I was unsure of where I wanted to go or whether I even wanted to continue (running).”
Her impressive high school campaign coupled with her close proximity to Tucson made it an easy recruiting trip for UA head cross country coach James Li. Shortly afterwards, Henson was a Wildcat and making an immediate impact on a squad desperate for depth.
During her freshman year at Arizona, Henson was one of the team’s most consistent point-scoring individuals, including a performance where she improved her personal best by 42 seconds to finish in 46th place at the Pac-10 Championships. UA assistant coach Erin Dawson attributed that performance to team’s overall finish at the meet, noting that without her they would not have had nearly as good of a day.
Henson continued to improve throughout her freshman year, crediting running with giving her better discipline and time management skills. She will tell you of the papers she has written, regarding running as her “beacon in life” and all her teammates credit her as being one of the strongest individuals on the team in terms of work ethic.
It was this commitment to running and to the bond with her teammates that would ultimately prepare her for what was to come – an event that could have tested even the strongest of wills.
It was March 27 of this year. Henson was in Palo Alto, Calif., taking part in the Stanford Invitational. Henson recalls her 5000-meter race being the worst of her life after entering the day looking for a regional qualification in the event. It went so badly for Henson, in fact, that she had to drop out.
After a strong run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, the UA basketball team wound up getting crushed by Louisville by a score of 103-64 the same day and Henson recalled that did very little to help her mood.
“I just remember it being like the worst day of my life,” Henson said. “I ran the worst race of my life and the basketball team lost.”
“But I just knew something else was off, I could kind of sense it.”
After her race, Henson had been warming down with Dawson and was just trying to come to terms with the race. It was then that Li approached her and told her she needed to contact her aunt.
Henson immediately thought that something had happened with her grandmother and expected the worst. Her aunt told her that she actually needed to call her parents and so she called her father who informed her that he couldn’t talk at that moment.
Frustrated with being given the roundabout, Henson called her mother, demanding to know what was going on. With a little hesitation, her mother informed her. It was about her brother. He had been in a car accident. He didn’t make it.
Kyle Henson, just 22 years old, was an airman in the United States Air Force. He was slated to graduate from tech school with top honors from his class just five days later. Henson and her family were expected to be there for that moment. Instead, on a day when they should have been celebrating one of the great accomplishments in his life, they were attending his funeral.
Henson remembers her heart dropping and a sense of despair swept over her. She found herself not knowing what to do or what she should be doing. The coaches offered to fly her back home but she declined, choosing to finish the trip and watch the rest of the meet with her teammates.
“Looking back, I don’t think I would rather be with anyone but the team,” she said of that moment. “We formed a bond then that you just can’t have with anybody.”
Her teammates were with her through everything, even attending her brother's funeral services with her.
Upon her return to Tucson, it could be expected for her to take a couple weeks or maybe even the rest of the season to get things back in order. But not Henson, who knew her brother would want her to do what she does and loves the most – run.
Henson didn’t participate at the Jim Click Shootout in Tucson the following week. She did take part, however, in the Sabino Canyon Sunset Run that same weekend. And she won it.
“I was just very determined to bounce back and in a weird way, I got stronger,” she said. "You could go two ways when something like that happens: you fall apart or you figure, ‘Okay, we’re going to get through this’.”
Henson said that incident drew her closer to her family, especially the members that are further away.
Henson’s track season did not end the way she would have liked; she did not get the regional qualification she was pursuing. But it got her more motivated as she went into summer training, ready to “work her butt off” in an effort to get to the level she wanted to be at.
“Hanna is the oldest 19-year-old I know,” junior team captain Maggie Callahan said. “Even all through last year she was diligent about everything she did. She was a rock.”
“She never slows down. Something like that could never slow her down.”
Callahan credits Henson for being the person everyone on the team can look up to to do the right things, no matter how small they may seem. From simple stretching and icing to her community service involvement, Henson is the one who does all things the “right way”.
Henson always seems to have a piece of her brother on her. She wears a sweatshirt that she gave him at Christmas last year – the last time she was around him in person – and a bracelet around her ankle that simply says “In Memory of Kyle F. Henson”. They are simple tributes but ones that mean everything to the UA sophomore as he serves as a continuing driving force in her life.
“When the going gets tough I always think about what my brother would say,” she said. “It’s always just more motivation to excel at what I do.”
“I’m just the type of person that, when I do something, I like to do it to the best of my ability and I’ll find a way to do it.”
Only in her second year, Henson has represented a person with a attitude and outlook at life that is beyond her years. Her impact on the both the UA cross country and track and field teams has and will continue to be a treasured and welcomed addition over her next three years.
While Henson notes the difficulties, she continues to credit her success and her outlook on life to that fateful day.
“Once you go through something like that, you will obviously never be the same,” she said. “But the strength and spiritual growth that you will go through is something that happens just like that.”
And so the sophomore will look to continue getting stronger and continue improving with the hope that when she leaves Arizona she will have done something big for the school and the program and not be forgotten - just like the legacy of her brother.