The greatest lessons in sports often come from heartache rather than victory.
The thing is, winning’s a whole lot more fun.
This year’s choice for The New Mexican’s Prep Sports Female Athlete of the Year experienced plenty of success and at least one setback. Along the way she set a state record and carted off plenty of hardware for her trophy case, but it’s the one thing she failed in that might well push her into an even higher orbit and make her a familiar name around these parts for the next few years.
Meet Raylee Hunt, a freshman at St Michael’s. One of three kids born to a pair of Division I athletes, she’s a 4.4 GPA student who’s not unlike most other teenagers in that she spends plenty of time watching YouTube videos on her phone, prefers Instagram over Snapchat and navigates the peaks and valleys of teenage social interaction the best she can.
Her upside, said St. Michael’s cross country coach Lenny Gurule, is almost immeasurable at this point.
“Her ceiling, yeah, honestly, it’s as high as she wants it to be,” he said during a recent FaceTime interview from a bungalow in the Caribbean Islands. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve seen some pretty special athletes come and go, but I’m telling you, Raylee is up there with the best of them. I’m not even sure any of us can see her ceiling at this point. That’s how good she can be.”
Before we dive into the medals and trophies that threaten to overrun the Hunt household, let’s take a look at the sequence Gurule said was a defining moment in a year filled with accolades.
Having posted the top preliminary qualifying time in the 300-meter hurdles at last month’s Class 3A State Track and Field Championships, Hunt toed the line for a shot at a win in the finals at the University of New Mexico’s complex. She’d just set the 3A state record in the 800 and was only about 25 minutes away from the start of the 1,600, in which she was the overwhelming favorite.
It was all going well until the instant Hunt’s front foot clipped the upper edge of the hurdle. She fell flat onto the track, leaving her face first on the surface as those trailing streaked by. In an instant her dream of reaching the top step of the podium in an event she excelled in had been wiped out.
“Ugh, it was so annoying,” Hunt said. “I just went and sat on a bench and just thought, ‘Well, OK, moving on.’ ”
But it’s not that simple. It rarely is.
Gurule usually gives his athletes a chance to cool down and catch their breath before he talks to them after a race. He knew he’d find Hunt isolating herself in a shady, quiet place.
As he approached, he knew he didn’t need to say much.
“That’s not really a time to give a big speech,” Gurule said, “so I kept it simple. I told her she has to have a short memory, that it’s hard to come back and get ready for another race, but it’s exactly what she had to do. She didn’t have time to dwell on it. And, really, that’s the thing about Raylee. She’s super focused. It doesn’t matter if she’s running or doing something in school, she has that ability to regulate it. Not a lot of kids her age can do that.”
Hunt did, indeed, bounce back. She won the mile by more than 6 seconds, completing the distance grand slam by winning state titles in cross-country, plus the 800, the 1,600 and the 3,200 meters in track. She was also third in the triple jump and managed to finish fifth in the hurdles despite the fall.
Learning to control her emotions and stay in the moment is, perhaps, the greatest achievement Hunt has had thus far. Still a few months away from getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time, she said she has studied methods on how to keep her composure when adversity hits or moments seem too big.
She said she uses visualization of positive outcomes, of strategies she knows will work for her. She also spends plenty of time watching videos of techniques used by athletes and coaches to sharpen the mental approach.
“As you grow in confidence by winning a race, it just mentally changes the way you think,” she said. “I used to not be able to do that, especially when I first started doing varsity races. Everyone just seemed so much stronger and faster that I would kind of, I don’t know, not handle it well. I’m glad I’ve moved past that.”
Having a family that knows all about pushing through certainly helps. Her father, Santa Fe attorney Lee Hunt, was a goalie on Western Kentucky’s soccer team and has been known to go on runs with Raylee.
Her mother, the former Kristi Hartley, was one of the best high school basketball players the state has ever produced and, depending on who’s doing the talking, one of the faces on the proverbial Mount Rushmore of prep legends from New Mexico. A product of tiny Roy, she was a highly touted recruit who chose Western Kentucky after the Lady Toppers had reached the national title game in 1992 and were a perennial top-25 program when she first arrived.
The pair have made Santa Fe their home, and all three of their kids are already carving out their own successful niche in athletics.
“I mean, all of them have their own style,” Kristi Hunt said. “They’re all different, but we’re a family that gets out and loves to do things that keep us busy.”
The competitive nature of both parents — they competed in this year’s Boston Marathon and each has played a role in their kids’ development in various sports — has clearly been passed into the DNA of their offspring.
That said, Kristi Hunt knew right away that Raylee Hunt, the middle child, was born with an extra gear.
“I thought I was this perfect mother when I had my first child because we’d lay her down, she’d go to sleep and she’d never have a problem nursing,” Kristi Hunt said. “Then Raylee came along and she was the complete opposite. She would starve all day before taking a bottle. She was climbing out of her crib and was walking at nine months. I was, like, ‘Who is this kid?’ I saw that competitiveness, that stubbornness, that go-getter early, early on.”
That stubbornness showed in the sports Raylee was drawn to. Her older sister, Logan Hunt, has blossomed into an all-state defender in soccer for the Lady Horsemen, while Ryan Hunt has the size to become a future hoops star.
Raylee Hunt, Kristi Hunt said, drifted away from mom and dad’s endeavors to try things that allowed her to break out on her own. In sports parlance, there’s no better way to do that than lacing up the shoes for a run. It’s you against yourself, it’s an activity that doesn’t require much teamwork.
What’s more, it’s something that made complete sense to Raylee Hunt. It came naturally to her. Her long strides and remarkable stamina allowed her to become something of a prodigy at an early age. Her nonstop attitude hath only magnified those traits over the years.
She instantly excellent at track. Same, too, for cross country. She fared well in youth events in New Mexico and around the region, pushing herself against older and stiffer competition.
She has also shown flashes of brilliance in the pool as she finished sixth in the 100-yard breaststroke at the state meet in February. Four girls in front of her were seniors, making her one of the favorites in that event next year. It’s a sport, she said, that allows her to take a break from punishing her feet for a couple of months.
“I really, really like swimming, and I’ve found that I’m kind of good at it,” Hunt said. “It’s all still kind of new, though.”
If we’re being honest, the Hunt kids have something of a Midas touch when it comes to sports. Raylee Hunt certainly has the skills in hoops but is happy to leave that legacy to her mom. She’s solid at soccer but is just fine watching her dad and sister take that spotlight.
Running, though — that’s where it’s at. Hunt torched the field in 3A cross-country championships last November, crossing the finish line more than a minute in front of anyone else. She won five of the eight races she competed in in the fall and only once was she beaten by a girl from New Mexico.
It earned her the Gatorade Cross Country Player of the Year award, following in the footsteps of her mom for winning the basketball award in 1995.
She has already competed in a pair of prestigious track meets since school let out last month. She won her heat at a meet in Alabama two weeks ago and was scheduled to compete in this weekend’s Great Southwest Classic in Albuquerque.
Her mom would like to toss in a handful of off days somewhere between now and the start of Gurule’s preseason cross-country workouts in August, but this is Raylee Hunt we’re talking about.
“I’m not sure Raylee has an ‘off’ switch,” Gurule joked. “She has an internal drive that’s just unbelievable. Some kids who have all the natural ability in the world, sometimes they lack that drive. She has both and, really, that’s not something I have to worry about with her. She’s not one of those kids where achieving the end goal doesn’t mean the end of the world if she doesn’t get there. She just learns from it and moves on.”
All of which takes us back to the moment shortly after the spill in the hurdles. More frustrated than hurt, she found one more gas log to throw onto her fire because, rest assured, the 300 hurdles at the 2023 state meet is now on her radar.
“I love the hurdles, too,” she said, shaking her head as she relived the moment. “But that’s all part of me putting myself in a positive place. I’ll think about what I need to do next time, and I promise the next time I’m out there I’ll be better.”
That promise is what truly sets Hunt on a path that could lead to greatness. In her family, it’s just par for the course.