GIRLS CROSS COUNTRY ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: Hannah Combs, Columbia

NAMPA — Columbia girls cross country runner Hannah Combs was well on her way to making a name for herself.

After posting three second place finishes and earning a medal at state as just a freshman, big things seemed to be in store for Combs.

But an injury last year as a sophomore dashed those dreams. However, even that only kept Combs down for so long.

This season, the junior came back with a vengeance. She racked up five top ten finishes and barely missed out on another with an 11th place showing at state to medal for the second time in her young career.

For her achievements, Combs is the 2016-2017 Idaho Press-Tribune Sports Stars Girls Cross Country Athlete of the Year.

“She means everything to the program,” Columbia cross country head coach J.D. Collins said. “She’s very gifted and works harder than anyone that I know.

“Hannah has worked extremely hard to get to where she’s at today. No question about that.”

On the bus ride home following the first race of her sophomore season, something didn’t feel right.

“All of a sudden my stomach really started hurting,” Combs said. “The muscles in my stomach were tensing up and it felt like they were being pulled in every direction.

“When I would try and run, my stomach would spaz out. I would end up having to swallow air to breath, instead of actually breathing.”

Recurring trips to the hospital ensued. Every doctor that Combs saw was unable to definitively determine what the problem was, much less how to treat the issue. The working theory was that the issue was due to the toxic air Combs had breathed in while running during that summer when there were countless fires.

The doctor’s told her to give up running for the time being. And she eventually did, but only after seeing her times increasingly get higher and higher. In total, Combs ran in only four races as a sophomore and missed the two biggest meets of the season, districts and state.

“It was really rough on me because I love running and I felt like it was a whole year wasted,” Combs said. “I kept thinking all winter long and into track season, ‘what if I never get back to what I was?’”

Combs, though, wasn’t out of the game for long. Despite still being in constant pain, she competed in track and field in the spring, and cross country this season. Pain and all, Combs opened this season up with a fifth placing outing at the Camels Back Classic, the very same race where it all started.

“Hannah is tremendously tough. One of the toughest people I know,” former Columbia cross country coach Lincoln Hagood said. “To be successful in the sport, it’s not necessarily about how much talent you have, but how much fighting through the pain you can tolerate, and she’s certainty capable of fighting through a lot.”

A couple of races into this season, Combs went in to see a physical therapist for some pain in her right leg. The therapist ended up fixing a lot more than that.

“He told me my nerves were all super tight. So he worked on my stomach and my diaphragm and he loosened some stuff up, played with some muscles and then all of a sudden, I could actually breath without lots of pain,” Combs said. “Running was no longer painful, it was fun again.”

Back at full strength, Combs logged three consecutive top ten finishes to close the regular season out and put up a personal best time of 19:15 at the 5A District III Championships. The was good enough for a 14th place finish and qualified her for state.

And at state on Oct. 29, in a loaded field that included the likes of Mountain View’s Lexy Halladay and Boise’s Eve Jensen, Combs crossed the finish line in 11th place, reclaiming a spot on the medal podium.

“When I crossed that line, I was overwhelmed because all my hard work came down to the last race of the season against the best runners,” Combs said. “I was so proud of all my accomplishments and that I had an amazing season and felt I could finally forget that sophomore year.”

Now healthy, Combs will again run track and field for the Columbia girls team this spring. She’ll participate in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter races, before looking to make her final cross country season the best one yet. And Combs doesn’t plan on letting anything else get in her way.

“I’m now physically and mentally ready,” Combs said. “I’m going to keep training all year so that I’m more prepared and I can start off where I ended this year.”

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