WESTPORT >> Hannah DeBalsi’s pet turtle arrived at her house last winter as a birthday gift.
She named him Virgil. He didn’t live long.
“We think he died of pneumonia,” DeBalsi said. “He was gasping a lot.”
So her mother ordered more. Just one turtle survived — Virgil III. Ironically, some of DeBalsi’s teammates found two more turtles on the Staples High track and gave them to her.
She took them home and named them Otis and Spike.
“I thought they were good turtle names,” DeBalsi said.
As bizarre as the plight of DeBalsi’s turtles may be, it fits perfectly in line with her eccentric persona. DeBalsi calls herself an awkward person.
“When I don’t know people, I’m uncomfortable around them,” she said. “And then once people get to know me, my sense of humor creeps them out, occasionally.”
Her high school cross country coach, Amanda Morgan, said she’s still getting to know her. Fortunately for DeBalsi, who is entering her junior year at Staples, she is better known for her ability to run than for her self-described peculiar mannerisms.
DeBalsi is different than most, but there’s one thing that makes her different from everyone: She heads into the upcoming cross country season as the Connecticut Gatorade Runner of the Year.
In late June, she became the first girl in Connecticut track history to break 10 minutes in the two-mile run. This summer she spent a week in Oregon at the Nike Elite Running Camp for the top 20 high school distance runners in the country.
When people do finally crack the surface on DeBalsi, they find out that, besides her nationally recognized athletic ability, she is just a quirky, down-to-earth 16-year-old with pet turtles.
“I think she’s very curious and focused in a way that, as she gets older, more people also see that way,” Morgan said. “She’s kind of an old soul in a way.”
A Different Path From the Start
Sara Bassett remembers a conversation with her daughter. DeBalsi was in kindergarten. She was remiss because she didn’t understand why the girls wanted to chase the boys during recess. All she wanted to do was run, swing and shoot hoops.
So Bassett discussed with her the possibility of getting the girls to do both; chase boys, then swing. She explained to DeBalsi the concept of compromise in relationships.
DeBalsi wasn’t having it. Her response was very matter-of-fact: she was fine if she was alone.
And so it began.
DeBalsi’s athletic career started with baseball. She played on the boys team with her twin brother, Devon. She was a pitcher and catcher.
Her path has always been different. She’s never been one to conform. This summer, her days have consisted of running and taking driver’s education classes with her brother.
She also has a part-time job at Subway.
Most days she comes home smelling like bread.
“The other day I asked her how work was going, and she gave me this long description of having to clean the toilet,” Morgan said with a laugh. “And I was thinking about how many cross country girls are wondering what Hannah DeBalsi is doing this summer for her training…and also imagine that she’s cleaning toilets.”
A Day in the Life
There’s some hesitation in DeBalsi’s voice. She’s not sure how to answer. She thinks carefully, her blue eyes shift and a sly smile forms on her face before she responds.
The ideal day for her? She would start with sleeping in, but not past 10 a.m., then breakfast. Her go-to meal is oatmeal. Then she’ll run, followed by stretching. Then maybe some social interaction, as she calls it, would ensue. She would then help her mother prepare dinner.
Her ideal day sounds pretty normal, some might say boring. But for DeBalsi, even a day that could be carefree and fun is planned and purposeful.
“Her mind never stops working,” Bassett said. “Even now when she relaxes, she doesn’t like to be idle.”
But there is the 16-year-old side of DeBalsi, too. She’s on Facebook, but not Twitter. This summer she got sucked into Netflix and started watching “Grey’s Anatomy.”
“Last time I watched ‘The Killing’ and it was really depressing,” DeBalsi said. “Every time I ran I was like, ‘Oh God, somebody is going to kill me.’”
Her best friend is Erica Hefnawy. Hefnawy will be a senior at Staples and also runs cross country and track. Her personality is also off-center, so the two immediately bonded.
“If I’m with Erica we just feed off each other,” DeBalsi said. “She’s kind of spazzy.”
She said when they hang out they like to go to Panera Bread and the nature reserve in Westport. They also enjoy watching “Titanic.” They wanted to camp out this summer, but were afraid of the raccoons.
“So much of the time when they’ll tell me the stuff they do, it reminds me of things my teammates and I did,” Morgan said. “I forgot when you’re a distance runner and trying to be healthy and follow the rules, your wild adventures are getting lost on a drive.”
More Than Running
The running joke between DeBalsi and her honors pre-calculus teacher Bill Wash is she’s known as a runner, but she’s a mathematician on the side.
“She’s that good,” Walsh said. “To put it in perspective, at that particular level of mathematics, and I taught 46 students, only two of them earned an A-plus and she was one of them.”
DeBalsi said if she couldn’t run she would most likely go back to one of her first passions, Taekwondo, which she participated in from elementary school until eighth grade. She holds a second-degree black belt. That was the activity where she first learned discipline and structure.
“I really liked the mental aspect of it,” DeBalsi said.
DeBalsi’s parents are divorced and neither of the two was a track star.
“My mom claimed she ran a five-minute mile on the treadmill, but I don’t think treadmills can even go that fast,” DeBalsi said.
DeBalsi’s relationship with her mom is special. Bassett, who teaches at Fairfield Ludlowe, is usually the one to travel with DeBalsi to out-of-state races. She’s sassy and has an infectious smile. DeBalsi said she probably gets her sense of humor from her.
The cover photo on DeBalsi’s Facebook page captures the two moments after she won the national two-mile title in June. Her arms are raised up, head down in exhaustion near the sideline. Bassett is leaning over the rail, holding onto her daughter, kissing her hands.
“Well, she’s like the backbone, you know,” DeBalsi said. “She’s important.”
A Driven Person
It was last December after the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in San Diego when DeBalsi first decided she needed a turtle. Her mother and assistant coach, Malcolm Watson, went to the San Diego Zoo after her race. It was there she laid eyes on a giant turtle.
“Christmas was coming up. I didn’t really want anything, so I asked my mom for a turtle,” DeBalsi said. “She said, ‘No, you haven’t wanted him long enough.’ Then I still wanted it for my birthday two months later.”
Telling that story, DeBalsi’s eyes light up with that same glimmer of fierce determination you see when talking with her after a race she knows she could have performed better in.
“I definitely think running is so conducive to Type-A personalities,” Morgan said. “It’s hard to say if being a runner makes people more Type-A…getting in the habit of logging your miles and making sure of certain splits translates over to the rest of your life.”
At the end of DeBalsi’s kindergarten year, Bassett was told they should consider having her tested before first grade began because she was behind the curve. That summer, Bassett took her to the library where they filled a giant L.L. Bean canvas tote bag with books. The plan was to fill it with books on phonics. But DeBalsi wanted something different.
“She picked multi-syllabic books on animals and geography,” Bassett said. “Hannah sat on my lap for hours on end, painstakingly sounding out each word to the point that I would doze off.”
When school started in the fall, DeBalsi was reading at a higher grade level. Her GPA now sits above a 4.0.
“She did miss more class than a typical kid for her travels,” Walsh said. “But what she would do is, a day or two in advance she’d come in early in the morning and she wanted to have explained the instruction that she would miss while she was gone. When she came back, she was right on schedule. She’s a lot tougher than she looks.”
Before every race, the 5-foot-3 DeBalsi does two forward rolls. She started the ritual because she was told it helps with cramps. She’s never had any.
She also wears two different socks every race. They are usually a bright eye-catching color or pattern of polka dots or stripes.
She said she favors cross country because of the elements and she’s able to demand more from her opponents than on the surface of a track.
“It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost easier to push people in cross country,” DeBalsi said.
Getting Ready for the Spotlight
About a year has gone by and DeBalsi still doesn’t understand all the attention.
DeBalsi holds four state indoor and outdoor individual track records and owns the freshman and sophomore national two-mile records. She may end up the best female distance runner Connecticut has ever seen.
But DeBalsi is keen on the spotlight in which she now finds herself.
“I really don’t know why people want my picture,” DeBalsi said. “Is this like a joke? It kind of makes me uncomfortable. I’m not photogenic either.”
Most days DeBalsi would prefer to go unnoticed.
“She’s not one to really offer something unless it’s clear that no one else knows how to proceed, and then she might sheepishly raise her hand and answer. And be spot on,” Walsh said.
DeBalsi doesn’t want to talk about the college process. That’s still two years away. Coaches can’t officially contact her yet, but that hasn’t stopped the interest from mounting. In a handful of national preseason cross country rankings, her name is a constant.
Her mom jokes she’ll attend a party school. When it is mentioned though, she speaks of academics first, then running.
This fall she’s again the favorite to win conference, states and contend nationally. As the attention continues to grow, DeBalsi will handle it the only way she knows how: with a timid smile, a soft-spoken answer and maybe an off-the-wall story to boot.
“She’s very humble,” Morgan said. “Instead of thinking, ‘I won nationals,’ she’s thinking, ‘What can I do to be even better?’ Her goals are based on the process and not the outcome. That’s something not a lot of teenagers have…that’s something not a lot of people have.”