In search of a head start on his high school academics, Sam Guinn applied for an online physical-education class three months before his freshman year. It wasn’t quite what he expected.
The course required Guinn to increase his heart rate to a 140 beats per minute. A run-of-the-mill basketball player clinging to hopes for a high school career, Guinn walked onto his driveway and shot some hoops for a while on a mobile basketball goal.
The heart monitor barely reached triple digits.
“I was a pretty chubby kid,” he says. “And I couldn’t get my heart rate in the target zone. It was a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
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A straight-A student every year of academic life, Guinn worried he was primed to fail a high school class before he even received his first-semester schedule at Blue Valley Northwest.
So he strategized for a Plan B.
“He may get frustrated or mad at himself when he doesn’t do something right, but that only lasts a minute,” says Angela Guinn, Sam’s mother. “Then he says to himself, ‘OK, what’s my plan now? I’ve got to change my strategy.’ ”
The new plan? Run.
Guinn learned the Blue Valley Northwest cross-country team was holding summer workouts. He asked to join. They were fast, experienced distance runners. He was simply trying to pass a class.
But by the end of the summer, he had lost 35 pounds.
He found a new passion, too.
Guinn blossomed into the school’s fastest cross-country runner. He later evolved into a state champion track runner. And now he’s The Star’s Male Scholar-Athlete of the Year for 2014.
The athlete has a room full of medals and a running scholarship to Colorado State. The scholar finished high school with a 4.39 grade-point average.
They combined for one A-plus in physical education.
Guinn didn’t finish dead last in his first run with the cross-country group. But he was close.
That was enough to try out for the fall season. In the season-opening meet of his freshman year, he ran the 12th-fastest time among Blue Valley Northwest runners.
He would improve. And quickly. By the end of the same season, Guinn had surpassed all of his teammates’ times and taken over the school’s top ranking.
“When he came out, I really didn’t think he would be that good,” teammate Seamus Koch says. “We were good friends, but I didn’t know if he would last.”
As remarkable as his surge up the team ladder was, Guinn still finished his first year with a sense of disappointment. He missed the cutoff for Kansas Class 6A state qualification by one spot.
His parents, teachers and classmates saw the silver lining. Nothing, they say, motivates Guinn more than nonfulfillment.
In this case, they were right.
“I told myself at that point that I’m going to get good at this, even if it kills me,” Guinn says.
Guinn, Koch and a group of seniors began training five days later and mapped out a running program for the winter.
The 2010-11 winter included 36.4 inches of snow in Kansas City, more than double the annual average. The running group dwindled to two by November. Koch quit a week into December. Guinn didn’t miss a day.
“Some days it was 10 degrees outside, ice and snow all over the roads, and he would just run through it,” Koch says. “Then he would come back and act like everything was perfect. No big deal. He was just going for a run.”
Guinn gave up on his basketball dreams and joined the track team the following spring, figuring it would better his chances of reaching his goals as a cross-country runner.
The results were doubly fruitful.
In the next three years, Guinn won two Kansas 6A state championships in track’s 1,600-meter run. And he qualified for the state cross-country meet each of the next three years, finishing second his junior and senior seasons.
All while excelling in the classroom, too.
Sherry Unruh has a reputation for being one of the most challenging teachers at Blue Valley Northwest. Perhaps even the hardest. She’s the kind of instructor some students fear and others embrace.
Guinn drew Unruh for his Advanced Placement Literature and Composition class his senior year. His initial anxiety about the class was confirmed when he got a C on his first paper. It was the worst grade of his life, he says.
Guinn never needed to be pushed to do his homework. In fact, it was usually completed by the time his parents, Angela and Richard, arrived home from work. His mom says he was born with some sort of do-what-it-takes-to-get-ahead attitude. He lays out his clothes and packs his lunch the night before every school day.
He reads textbooks during his down time. The current selection is “Touch for Health,” a study of energy inside the body. He finds it fascinating and takes notes as he reads, because, well, “It would be pretty lackadaisical if I were just flipping through it.”
The topics that challenge him intellectually particularly pique his interest. Science. Chess. When he was in the second grade, he asked a teacher for more work, so she placed him in the gifted program.
It’s no wonder Unruh became his favorite high school teacher after she handed him back what she deemed a C-worthy paper.
He fought to meet her expectations. Instead, he surpassed them when he turned in one of the biggest assignments of the year: a second-semester research paper.
“I’m old,” Unruh says. “I’ve been in the business for 42 years. When you’ve been in it that long, you kind of feel like you’ve seen everything a kid can throw down on a piece of paper. In Sammy’s case, it was like I was learning right along with him as I read his paper. It kind of freaked me out, to be honest.”
Guinn’s bed sits in the corner of his upstairs bedroom inside the Overland Park house he has called home since he was 2 years old. On the bordering walls, a glass case hangs above his bed. It includes more than two dozen medals from his high school track and cross-country career.
One in particular stands out.
Guinn recalls almost every detail that earned him his first state championship medal — the product of the 1,600-meter run from his junior season. He led nearly the entire race until Blue Valley senior Colton Donahue took the lead with 100 meters to go. Guinn passed him back with 50 meters left and then held on at the finish line.
The winning margin? Five-hundredths of a second.
“A switch flipped in terms of my confidence,” Guinn says while looking at his medal collection. “I’d been so close but had never reached my goals. It was incredible. That was the best moment of my career, for sure.”
Soon, Guinn says, he will brush aside his high school accomplishments. The grade-point average. The medals. All of it.
A college career — athletic and academic — awaits.
“I don’t want to be remembered for what I did in high school,” Guinn says. “I still have a lot ahead of me.”
BLUE VALLEY NORTHWEST
Ranks 35th in a class of 428 with a weighted 4.39 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale. Won four varsity letters in cross country and three varsity letters in track and field. Placed second in 2012 Kansas cross-country state meet and third in 2013 cross-country state meet. Two-time state champion in 1,600-meter run. Volunteers for Johnson County Comets Track Club. Member of marching band. Principal’s honor roll for four years.
College: Colorado State
Also nominated: Kyle Styve, Sydney Walls