From the Caribbean to Grace: Cole Wilkerson working to characterize his new residence | Preps

POCATELLO — The medal hung pristinely from Cole Wilkerson’s neck. The black and red ribbon had no creases. No folds. No lackadaisical effort in its donning. The medal itself was centered like the equator over Wilkerson’s gray singlet, the Bob Conley Invitational logo hanging just over his belly button. Outward-facing, of course. As it should be.

With a water bottle in his left hand and a cooldown run imminent, Wilkerson beamed as he explained how that medal came to be. Of what it entailed. The third-place finish in the varsity boys small-school race, with schools much bigger than his Grace High competing. The 16:30 personal record, shattering his old one by 22 seconds. And his best result on the Portneuf Wellness Complex course, edging out his 17th-place state finish at the same setting in 2019.

“I thought it was awesome. It was the most calm my mind has ever been. I was just meditating and just thought of what I truly wanted to do, and that’s to represent Grace High School and my town. I just said Grace from right there,” Wilkerson said, pointing to about the two-mile mark of the course, “all the way to the finish. I just said, ‘Grace. Grace Grace. Grace.’ That’s it. That got me through.”

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If the principal of Grace High or the mayor of the 924-person town said that, you might think even they were being a little overzealous about their small town. Coming from a sophomore at the high school, it’ll catch you off guard. One might think this is a bond forged from birth, a kid and a town connected by 16 years of existence. Nope. Try one and a half.

“The last month of the season his freshman year, he ran, I think, the fastest boys time in Grace history in a 5k at state last year — as a freshman,” Grace cross country coach Jeremy Smith said. “I’d say this year, he has the chance to go under 16 (minutes). At the start of last year, he wasn’t breaking 20.”

For a little while in August, Smith was desperate. Scared his best runner wasn’t going to be back, he only half-jokingly told Wilkerson his basement was open if he ever needed a place to stay.

But, let’s back up.

There’s something about seclusion that’s enticing to runners. Especially in the west, where trails feature mystifying mountains and arbor-laden terrain. Somehow those aren’t the pictures Wilkerson remembers.

His early images of running aren’t the fondest.

He was still a young kid in grade school when his father, Lee, would take him out running at any hour of the day. That last part is something Lee grew accustomed to while a part of the BYU Ranger Challenge team when he did ROTC in college. Runs occurred sometimes at sunrise, sundown, 2:38 p.m., didn’t matter. And, the biggest point, no one fell behind — by whatever means necessary.

Lee Wilkerson continued to place those ideas into his sons. He’d often bring along his oldest son, Grant, his middle boy, Cole, and, sometimes, his youngest, Jonah, for an every-other-day run that could be on the Boise River one day at 6 a.m. and in the mountains outside of their house in Davenport, Washington, two days later at 5 p.m.

Often, Cole fell behind. One time, running thorough the rolling farm hills of Yakima, Washington, he was so far back that he accidentally veered off onto the wrong trail. With the sun going down, Lee and Grant backtracked for more than an hour until they found him. Other times, Lee would use an old Ranger trick. He’d grab Cole’s arm and drag him along, acting as almost a human treadmill that forced his youngest to keep up.

“That’s called the pull,” Lee said. “You can just grab their arm and help them. It takes energy to climb hills and stuff, and so you’re providing the energy if you’re pulling on them.”

“He’d pull me. He’d push me. He did everything,” Cole Wilkerson said. “In seventh grade, I didn’t really do any sports and I was just sort of going through the motions. I was working with my dad for the summer and he said, ‘You’re going to run. You’re going to keep your life in balance.’”

On his death bed in Boise, Washington State Air Surgeon Robert St. Clair called his neighbor and mentee and asked him to visit. Lee Wilkerson obliged. Just before St. Clair passed, he told Lee that he wanted him to go to medical school.

Just like that, Lee was determined to follow the path that St. Clair, a former Air Force Colonel took, which was an odd one. St. Clair went to medical school in the Caribbean, a cheaper option than in the States, and graduated when he was 42.

Lee decided to do the same.

Along with his wife, Carrie, Lee Wilkerson moved his family to family to Saint Vincent and the Grenadines a little over two years ago, just as Cole was about to head into eighth grade.

For Cole, this wasn’t the tourist spot that people pull up to and wonder aloud, “I think I could live here.” There may be immaculate teal water and luxurious beaches on the outskirts of the island. Inside, though, was hell for a young kid.

“I lived in a secluded place with bars on the windows and everything. And I just went into a depression zone there,” Cole Wilkerson said. “It was worse than quarantine, I can tell you that.”

This may be the point when one would think that, perhaps, the isolation and depression in the Caribbean forced Cole into a desire and love for running. That the joy of lacing up his shoes and jogging around a foreign island brought the tranquility he so desired.

False. Even if he wanted to — which he didn’t — Cole was too scared to run.

“Me and my family were about the only white people there and there was lots of rudeness to us,” he said. “It was hard to make it.”

“I could see (my kids) coming home angry, upset that we lived there and couldn’t have the friends and sports they normally had,” Lee added. “And they weren’t always, how do you say, appreciated.

“There had been a tourist on the island that had earlier killed a Black man … It, obviously, caused a racial problem.”

After a semester of doing online school, Cole went to a local Christian school while Jonah enrolled at a private school. Though his grades were good, that didn’t quell the ire of his classmates, who despised the White kid in their class.

It all came to pass around May 2019.

Cole was walking home from nearby basketball courts one night — one of his few happy places on the island after impressing the locals with his skills. He was strolling alongside a tall wall, in the shadows with only the sidewalk separating him from the road. A man, big and drunk, began chasing him and shouting obscenities at him. He caught up to Cole and inched toward him, shoving the White kid into a wall as he told him to leave the island.

“I said a little prayer and, all a sudden, this bike comes out of nowhere and hits him. He just started yelling at the guy on the ground, ‘You leave him alone,’” Cole said. “But the man, he was going to kill me. And this man, this kid — I don’t know who. He came out and saved my life.”

Three days later, the Wilkersons were on a plane off the island. They landed in Ft. Lauderdale, kissing the soil as they touched down in America.

Cole has been adamant to Lee that he plans on running in the Olympics. It’s a crazy dream, both know that. But, before Lee would write it off, he thinks of himself.

“I’m a Native American dude in Canada, and when I told people in Canada I was going to become a pilot in the Air Force,” Lee said, “they laughed at me and said, ‘Dudes never leave this Indian Reservation. You’re never going to leave either.”

As Lee speaks, it’s clear he’s passed down some sort of dreamer mentality to his son. There’s no fear to put out into the world your goal because, Lee believes, history has dictated that their family is bound for greatness. Sometimes that requires going to a random far-off island for med school. Sometimes it means wanting to run a sub-16 5k as a sophomore.

After that, even the Olympics don’t sound too crazy.

The genetics Lee is referring to when he speaks of the history of triumph is a Native American heritage that spans generations, tracing back to both the Nisga’a and Gitxsan tribe, which has land in the Canadian region of the Pacific Northwest, where Lee grew up.

Cole’s great-grandfather was known as Le Em Laha or “Walking on the Sky,” and, as Lee pointed out, “You earn that name.” His other great-grandpa was called “Hammon Gatla,” a name referring to the greatest warrior in all of Canada, Lee said.

“Cole, he’s going to live up to the name of Hammon Gatla,” Lee said. “And, if he does, he’ll run like the wind and nobody will stop him.”

Perhaps. But, up until August, Cole didn’t know where that was going to be.

When the Wilkersons returned from the Caribbean, they trekked back to Idaho. They still had had family in Rexburg but wanted to move, ideally, to a small town that held traditionally conservative American ideals. Every few days, they’d all hop in the car and venture to a new Idaho town, fitting in a fishing venture if they could, too.

Eventually, their car came through the canyon of southern Idaho and they turned into Grace. It checked every box. Only problem was, there were no houses. Lee hopped out of the car at every chance, talking with any fresh face and asking if they knew of any available houses. There was a lot of head shaking.

Weeks passed. Finally, a farmer agreed to rent them a house. Carrie got a job teaching at Grace High. Cole went on to set all sorts of cross country records as a freshman there. And he was just gearing up for track season when the pandemic hit.

Renting was no longer an option. The Wilkersons went back and lived at a house they had in Murtaugh as they sat in limbo. And while quarantine raged on, Cole ran. He built up his mileage in the land around southern Idaho, knocking out about six miles a day.

It was looking to be an incredible sophomore season at whatever school he went to. Then a plantar wart the size of a quarter developed on his foot. Doctors said it was too massive to remove right away, telling Cole that his days running were probably over for the near future.

“It was the scariest thing ever,” Cole said. “I said, ‘I can’t quit. Do whatever.’”

The doctor could only wait. Lee, though, could do more. He found a metal rod and heated it until it glowed red. Then he pressed it against his son’s wart and branded Cole’s foot, a procedure repeated about 20 times over the summer. Eventually, its size reduced.

Running was back in the picture, a vital piece in the balance of happiness.

“For me, running has always been a way to manage my stress,” Lee said. It’s a relief. It’s an avenue of helping yourself emotionally, spiritually, mentally. When I’m out running, I’m rejuvenating, rebuilding.”

Soon after, Lee received a friend the family had made in Grace, a local man who drove the potato harvester at a nearby farm.

He said he knew of a house that was available, but not yet on the market. Pronto, they drove down to the small town and purchased, not rented, a home.

It came just days before Grace High began school, which meant Cole didn’t skip a beat getting back to classes or cross country. If Cole was most excited about the permanent move, Smith, his coach at Grace, was probably second.

Runners with college scholarship potential don’t run at Grace, really, ever. Smith knows that. He wants to take Cole to USATF track meets in the summer and have him compete in the decathlon against kids from all over the country. He wants him to try everything and run as many events as possible during track season. And he wants to see Cole win, just as he did in his first race at Grace.

“I won the race by 30 seconds. It was the first 5k of my life and, from then on, I knew I’m going to do this and I’m going to represent Grace like I did today,” Cole said. “I remember crossing that finish line and all the people from Grace, their faces were just so happy and so full of joy. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to do this always.’”

Added Lee: “I think he’s alive in Grace.”

BOB CONLEY INVITE

Three was the magic number at the Bob Conley Invitational, as the top local runners finished third in all four varsity races on Thursday at the Portneuf Wellness Complex.

Pocatello’s Shane Gard barely beat out Highland’s Jared Harden for a top-three spot in the boys Varsity A (4A and 5A) race, finishing in 16 minutes, 2.1 seconds to Harden’s 16:04.7.

Madison’s Will Dixon won the race, with Idaho Falls’ Mitchell Athay second.

“I kind of wanted to take it out easy, so I stayed with Will and whoever else was out there,” Gard said. “I looked at Mitchell and that’s who I have to go after, and of course you have to go after Will. … Through the first mile I felt pretty good, I could start feeling it a little bit. After the first mile, Will kind of took off.”

Pocatello’s Brevin Vaughan was sixth and Preston’s Sam Jeppsen eighth — one-tenth of a second ahead of Century’s Xander Thompson. Jeppsen’s teammate Edison Leffler rounded out the top 10, and the Preston duo helped the Indians finish second in the team standings behind Idaho Falls, with 72 points to third-place Pocatello’s 74 and fourth-place Madison’s 75.

Highland was sixth and Century seventh.

In the girls Varsity A race, Pocatello’s Bailey Bird finished a comfortable third, running 19:11.1. Bonneville’s Alivia Johnson took the title in 18:33.6. Preston’s Angelie Scott was the only other local runner in the top 10, finishing eighth.

Preston was third in the team standings with Pocatello fifth, Highland seventh and Century 10th.

It was more of the same in the small-school races.

Grace’s Cole Wilkerson ran 16:30.7 to finish third behind a pair of Salmon runners in the boys race.

Soda Springs’ Kelson Smith was seventh with Snake River’s Lincoln High eighth.

Their two teams finished next to each other in the standings as well, with the Cardinals third and the Panthers fourth.

Grace was seventh, West Side ninth, Bear Lake 12th and Rockland 14th.

In the girls Varsity B race, Bear Lake’s Elise Kelsey ran 19:20.1 to finish third behind Raft River sisters Karlee and Kaybree Christensen, who finished within a second of each other at the top.

West Side freshman Aubrie Barzee was fourth and Bear Lake freshman Kinsee Hansen was eighth, one spot ahead of Soda Springs’ Jenna Gaines.

Soda Springs nearly edged the team title, finishing with 107 points to Raft River’s 105. Bear Lake was fourth, Snake River fifth, Malad eighth, West Side 11th, Rockland 12th and Grace 13th.