Athletes earn awards through excellence in competition. Athletes of distinction are feted for that excellence, but it is secondary to the character and compassion they exhibit and nurture as lives off the podium continue.
Heralded for such achievements on the track, in the pool and beyond, Petersburg High School 2017 graduate Izabelle Ith was honored Sunday at the 2023 Alaska School Activities Association Alaska High School Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Anchorage’s Lakefront Hotel.
“It’s so cool,” Ith said from Anchorage. “I am so excited to be here and to be part of the Alaska High School Hall of Fame. It’s wonderful. It came as such a surprise.”
As part of this year’s 11-member class, Ith, in front of ASAA dignitaries, past award winners and members of the public, was presented with a legislative citation from state Rep. Mike Cronk, a Tok/Northway Republican. Ith’s Hall of Fame plaque was presented by Jo Ann Day, her middle school science teacher who nominated her for the honor.
Day said she could only think of adjectives when talking about Ith.
“Responsible, reliable, respectful, positive, uplifting, kind, adventurous,” Day noted. “I’m sure her friends could tell you about some great times they’ve had together ice skating, camping, boating, hiking and taking road trips but all these things are possible because Izabelle is someone people want to be around… she is everybody’s friend. She is a patient and a kind mentor. She loves adventure, and challenges herself.”
ASAA representative Don Winchester said of those honored: “These are the people that make history in Alaska… these are the people we need.”
Ith’s high school accomplishments alone are worthy of the honor.
She wore a four-time varsity letter for both track and swimming.
In track and field, she was a four-time state champion (2014-17) in both the 100 meter hurdles and triple jump, a two-time state champion ( ‘15, ‘17) in both the 300 meter hurdles and long jump, state runner-up in the 300 hurdles (‘16), long jump (‘14) and 100 meters (’14) and was the women’s 123A State Championship Athlete of the Meet (’17). She was the 2017 Alaska Gatorade Player of the Year for track and field — a first for Petersburg High School — and still holds the record for highest point total at the state championships (scoring 154 out of 160 possible points). She was a four-event Region V Champion (’14, ’15, ’16) and Region V Most Valuable Athlete (’15, ’16, ’17). In swimming, she was a seven-time event placer (50 free, 100 free, 1 meter dive) at the ASAA Swim & Dive Championships and the Region V dive champion (’14).
Yet to know where Ith comes from speaks more of her character and how she achieved Hall of Fame recognition.
“First of all, it makes me very proud that she is such a well-rounded individual who is making a difference in the world,” mother Marketa Ith said. “Izabelle was lucky growing up in a town where so many adults share their passions with youngsters. She was willing to try a variety of different activities, and kept some of them into adulthood.”
When Ith was 9 years old, her father Glen, a U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, passed from sudden cardiac death in March 2008. He was 48.
“My parents from a really young age got me into being outside,” Ith said. “I have pictures of me at one year old in the backpack climbing up Petersburg Mountain. And my dad built by hand our log cabin kind of out in the woods at Frederick Point… I just remember from a really young age, loving to be outside and I loved sports. I would play baseball. We used old cereal boxes as bases in our front driveway, and we would play Wiffle ball out there. We’d go throw Frisbee at the park or he made sure that I knew how to throw a ball and how to catch. We’d go to the baseball field and just play catch. Those are really clear early sports memories for me… and then my dad, he died when I was nine and the community of Petersburg was amazing. I felt so supported by everyone there through my childhood after that really hard time. And then kind of later, probably I was 12, I clearly remember my mom starting to pick up running seriously and kind of since then she really served as my inspiration. She has run multiple marathons. She just finished the Boston Marathon. Her love of love of running, love of sport, has kept me in that community as well.”
Her parents started her in the Viking Swim Club (coach Andy Carlisle) and the Mitkof Dance Troupe (instructor Mindy Anderson) at age 5.
“The cool thing about Petersburg was you could do all these different things,” Ith said. “My friends and I as we got older could just walk after school to swim practice and then dance and do ballet…”
Ith said ballet taught her muscle control and technique that played into track and field, and swimming was a cross training event that aided her movements.
“I remember in the ‘Nutcracker’ being a young gingerbread girl and how we longed to be a snowflake,” Ith laughed.
Ith maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout high school and was valedictorian. She also was a member of the National Honor Society for three years. Her community service was extensive, from helping in the Annual Wearable Art Show to teaching swim lessons for pre-kindergarten students.
In an eighth grade advanced language arts class, Ith wowed teachers with a project in which she explained how she “cast two shadows” — through her school year spent in Alaska as a student, swimmer and dancer, and her summer spent with family in the Czech Republic traveling, hiking and only speaking Czech.
PHS English teacher Beau Ward said, “Izabelle was comfortable in both worlds, and this ability to excel in different domains is one of her defining traits.”
Ith said she maintains deep ties to the Czech Republic, where her grandmother lives in Prague, and to her dad’s family in Germany.
“I’ve been incredibly lucky in the summers to be able to travel over there and even have a couple of years to train there during high school,” Ith said. “And my grandma’s cottage in the western part of the of the Czech Republic, they have some amazing trails there in the rural part and that is wonderful. And this is a part of me that I’ve really held onto and as I’ve grown up, along with my Alaskan roots. I think it’s so cool how I can have a foot in both worlds. Alaska is home, but the Czech Republic is as well in a way.”
While Ith continued in the community dance program and swim club through high school, it was as a middle school athlete that she first took a shine to track.
Then-PHS track coach Brad Taylor, now a hurdle coach in Wyoming, said: “Izabelle is courteous, intelligent, dependable, diligent and a self-starter… no other athlete in the history of track and field in the state of Alaska has accomplished what Izabelle was able to… no other athlete in the past 40 years has worked harder or dedicated themselves more… Izabelle has outperformed what she should have been able to do with the limited facilities that Petersburg High School has.”
The track was a space between the community recreation center and the elementary school where wildlife wandered from the forest and that passers-by used as a thoroughfare.
The track roughly became 250 yards of gravel in an awkward oval on top of muskeg halfway through Ith’s high school career. It was a labor of love for Taylor and a local construction company, and a constant battle as gravel sunk unevenly in the bog. The long jump pit could literally be referred to as a pit. Those who dared sprint along its plywood path and leap into small gravel were awarded with scratches and bruises.
“Training in Petersburg was an adventure,” Ith said. “I remember setting up hurdles in the community center parking lot on the concrete and just doing them in our trainers because we didn’t have anywhere else… and don’t get me started about running around pot holes.”
Ith credited Taylor for his guidance, cross country coach Tommy Thompson for advice on pentathlon, and “I really had fabulous classmates too. It was really about the people because the facility was a challenge…”
Ith commented that when the Vikings track team traveled to Juneau, “the Thunder Mountain track felt like Christmas… we got to put on our spikes there and do real starts out of blocks… In Petersburg, on our track, we would run and avoid pot holes and don’t get me started on the jumping pit. I mean, we had kind of an elevated plywood runway that would jump into a sandbox. But when we traveled to Ketchikan, they had that beautiful track up on the hill, and Juneau’s was wonderful. Those were really cool experiences and we finally got to be on a real track.”
Former Juneau School District teacher and TMHS track coach Scott May marveled about Ith, saying, “I could not understand how she was able to acquire the form and technique that propelled her so far given the lack of proper equipment. While this is a testament to her coaches it also shows that Izabelle was able to adapt and apply what she had learned and rise to the level that she did. I also believe that she fully embraced and truly enjoyed the challenge… she inspired all who followed her, including some of my own athletes.”
Ith also drew inspiration from Thunder Mountain High School 4A state multi-track champion Naomi Welling (a 2016 grad) as the two matched disciplines.
“Izabelle was my closest friend and probably most formative competitor in high school,” Welling said. “Being so isolated in Southeast, we don’t have those opportunities to go and compete against the big schools… She helped push me consistently throughout the season to be the best. And it was just fun. I think it is tricky to have a competitor that can also be a friend but that is exactly who Izabelle is. She just handles everything with so much grace and determination and humility that it was just easy to be a better athlete and a better person around her.”
During travel, Ith stayed with the Welling family. Traveling Southeast Alaska athletes commonly stay with local families.
“They were so kind to me,” Ith said. “And what kind of started out as a competition between me and Naomi quickly became friendship. I think our little rivalry that we had really turned into a friendship over time. She pushed me so much on the track, especially in the jumps and seeing and watching her just run the hurdles… I want to be like that. Having her there was just wonderful, someone else in Southeast who was running a little bit faster than me at times. And having someone right there to push you made all the difference… And then when I got to college that was just a whole different world with indoor facilities and everything was top of the line.”
After high school, Ith competed at NCAA DIII Williams College in the long jump, heptathlon, pentathlon, hurdles, triple jump and 4×100. She was twice selected NCAA All-American on the track, as well as a three-time NCAA qualifier, six-time All-New England team selection, New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) champion, NESCAC Rookie of the Year (’18), and a five-time All NESCAC team selection.
“It was a big jump for me, more so, I would say, academically than athletically, because I felt so supported coming out of Petersburg,” Ith said. “In Southeast Alaska, I felt so supported as an athlete. I had such a good community in the way that Petersburg and Juneau and Ketchikan and Sitka and Haines really cared about sports… swimming and track… just set me up so well. Besides results, youth sports in Southeast Alaska is so important because you learn like so many other things besides the event itself. Our experience traveling to meets on the ferry and learning how to do your math homework on the ferry boat. We were doing some remote school before remote school was a thing. We all had our laptops and we would send in assignments online on Canvas…That whole process. I just felt so prepared wherever I went. It’s my hope that Petersburg and the state of Alaska keep funding these sports and swimming and dance and these opportunities in rural communities because it has made such a difference for me now. It is one of the reasons that I could go to Williams and I feel like I’m surrounded by such a great community that has really kept with me through my early adult years. I still reach out now living in Boston and try to connect with the running community.”
Ith graduated from Williams with a degree in biology and public health. She currently works at Boston Children’s Hospital.
She competes in triathlons and has finished the Hyannis Olympic Distance Triathlon (Sept. 2022) and the Mattapoisett Sprint Triathlon (July 2022) and completed the Cambridge Half Marathon (November 2022). She is also a member of the Boston Children’s Hospital running club.
“No one quite understands what it’s like to grow up in Southeast Alaska besides people that grew up there,” Ith said. “It’s something I try to explain now to my coworkers and it’s challenging. You know, ‘I live on this rural island, only accessible by boat or plane.’ That shaped a lot of the way that I think about my work and the way I can work in a team.”
At Boston Children’s Hospital Ith’s work involves families and inpatient care.
“The cystic fibrosis research team that I work alongside (is) really at the forefront of a lot of science,” Ith said. She is working on a study looking at indoor air quality and breathing outcomes in children ages 6 to 12 who were born premature, she said. “It is so cool in Boston to be at the forefront of a lot of these clinical trials and science because research is the beginning of a lot of medicine and to be real time part of that is just fantastic.”
Ith hopes people remember her Hall of Fame honor as their own.
“I hope they remember that it really does take a village,” she said. “And I felt so supported by the community and that is what I think I owe a lot of my success to. These kinds of things can’t be done alone… it really is the people you surround yourself with. I had a lot of hard-working friends that pushed me every day to do those extra community service things, and I was so inspired by the people around me, inspired by my mother, inspired by my classmates, my incredible teachers… this isn’t done alone. And this award reflects back on the community of Petersburg for sure… this award is shared. I get to be here today, I get to be honored but I am thinking a lot about home today.”