Grizzly Athletics names person of the year: meet Jessica Bailey

By Montana Sports Information

Let’s start at the back. Her back. First: figuratively, because it’s under heavy load and doesn’t need us adding any more weight than she’s already taken on herself.

Division I student-athlete who is excelling on both sides of the hyphen. Pre-med. Franke Global Leadership Initiative Fellow. Global Grizzlies member who spent four weeks last summer on a service trip to Tanzania. Teaching assistant for an anatomy course in UM’s biology department.

Literally? It’s v-shaped, or what you would expect from eight years of swim training with the Rapid City Racers and having hundreds of granite-faced climbing opportunities out her back door in the Black Hills.

But what really stands out about Jessica Bailey’s back is the tattoo. Inked into her skin high on the right side, it’s maybe five inches across and three inches tall, sizeable but not at all ostentatious.

It’s made up of two elements. In the background: a sketching of the iconic Needles, the rock pillars near Rapid City that draw climbers from around the world. In the fore: three ponderosa pines, one for each of the three children of Lee and Cheri. One for Alyssa, one for Jessica, one for Curtis.

The tattoo, which all three siblings have, links them — inks them — for life to both family and place.

Trees and her beloved Black Hills come to mind when profiling Bailey. There is Bailey, the runner. The health and human performance major. The Global Grizzly. The future doctor. Each its own story.

But looked at individually, they would get in the way of appreciating the entire package that makes her the 2016 GoGriz.com Person of the Year. Forest for the trees, if you will.

But you also can’t know Bailey without going deep. Why is she running at Montana, or even running at all? Why is she pre-med and one of the brightest students on campus? And where did all that compassion come from?

So maybe those trees need to be examined after all. Maybe the expression needs to be flipped: trees for the forest. They are all around us now, and they tell the big-picture story. Can you see them?

The Trees, Part 1

Can you see Tamara Gorman? She’s the one holding her phone back in 2013, reading a text from Bailey that says she might want to join the Stevens High School cross country team, a never-raced-before newcomer reaching out to the best prep runner in South Dakota.

The two are longtime friends and swim teammates on the Rapid City Racers, but without Gorman convincing Bailey, who turned her back on the pool as a junior after the sport had lost its appeal, to try running as an alternative, Bailey isn’t a Grizzly and this article never happens.

That fall, Gorman would cross the finish line at the International Triathlon Union (ITU) Junior World Championships in London in first place, the first American to win the race and be named world champion.

When she returned home, she once again became teammates with Bailey, this time on Stevens High’s cross country team.

But only because Bailey decided to put swimming on the shelf. Alyssa, who would go on to compete at North Dakota, got the family started in the pool. Jessica began when she was in fourth grade. Curtis dove in at the same time.

“My sister clearly loved it the most out of all of us,” says Bailey. “She swam more religiously than I did. I maybe wasn’t the most disciplined swimmer. I thought I would do it as long as it was fun.”

Junior year, a new coach. Exit: fun. Enter: Gorman.

“I tried to convince her to do cross country, because I knew she’d be good at it,” says Gorman, who runs at Minnesota and is one of USA Triathlon’s top prospects to represent the U.S. in the sport at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

“She hadn’t run her whole life up to that point, but knowing the work ethic she gained from swimming, I told our coaches she was going to be good. She puts her best into everything she does.”

The Trees, Part 2

Can you see Montana then co-cross country coach Vicky Pounds, sitting at her desk, shaking her head while reading another unsolicited email from another underqualified runner who thinks she has what it takes to succeed at the collegiate level?

Jessica Bailey? Steven High School? Rapid City? What had she ever done?

With Gorman leading the way, Stevens won the 2013 South Dakota Class AA state cross country title. Bailey was her team’s No. 5 runner, finishing 23rd overall. With a total of one state-level race on her resume, without a single time to report from the track, Bailey contacted Montana.

“We get hundreds of kids reaching out to us every year, and Jessica didn’t even have walk-on-level marks,” Pounds recalls. “She came to campus and did a tour and met with me, and we talked about the times she would need to reach on the track. And then, honestly, I forgot about her.”

The Trees, Part 3

Farther back in the forest now, before running, before swimming. An old-growth section. Can you see the life flight transporting the 2-year-old from Vermillion, where the Baileys were living, to Sioux Falls? Onboard is Jessica, who had a bacterial infection in her throat.

Things escalated quickly. Scarily. The hospital in Vermillion didn’t have the resources, so she was whisked off to Sioux Falls, where she would be on a ventilator for a week, in the hospital for two.

It precedes her bank of memories, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen or have long-lasting effects. Does surviving that make someone stronger, no matter their age? Not afraid of any challenge that might present itself later in life?

Or can you see the fourth grader, knowing she wants to talk to her friend who is in a coma two states away after surviving a car-semi collision, but not knowing if she has the right words to say?

Turns out she does. Because of her life-threatening injuries, Hannah wasn’t able to join the one-sided conversation, only listen, but her spirits were so noticeably lifted hundreds of miles away in Wisconsin that her mom asked Cheri if Jessica could call back every day. So she did.

Those words — here’s what’s happening at home, here is how excited we are for you to get back, here are all the things we’re going to do when you return — knowing just what to say, did they come naturally? Remember: she was in fourth grade.

Can you see the high schooler, after the guy she was dating went to Falling Rock but failed to follow climbing’s No. 1 rule before he started to rappel to the valley floor: Double-, then triple-check everything?

He hadn’t run his rope through both sides of the belay device. He leaned back, 100 feet above ground and nothing to stop his freefall. Another air flight, 24 fractures of the spine, a fractured tibia.

How do those collective experiences impact a girl? Is it environment or predestination — after all, both her grandma and father are physicians — that routes her toward medicine, toward a life of service, toward healing?

She is noncommittal in her answer, perhaps never having considered it before. Her parents are faster to reply, more certain: the latter.

“It’s always been about someone else for her,” says Cheri. “Jessica has always wanted to give back.” Says Lee, an emergency room doctor, “You can help a lot of people and make a difference in this profession, and I think Jessica sees it that way.”

But why wait to get an MD attached to your name before you start making a difference?

A year ago at this time, the Montana cross country team was in a state of upheaval. Makena Morley, whose presence on the team had finally put a spotlight on the long-overlooked program, was departing for Colorado on less than good terms. Collin Fehr was taking the fall and stepping down as coach.

Pounds and Fehr had been co-coaches. Now everything to do with the distance athletes was on the shoulders of Pounds, who already had other coaching duties with the program’s sprinters. It was a time when a captain needed to show her best stuff.

“As all that was going down, Jess came to me and said she was willing to do anything I needed her to do,” Pounds says. “Captain things, like helping with communication and setting up practice times.

“She wasn’t angry at the situation. Anything I asked of her, she was like, Okay, no problem.”

The Trees, Part 4

Can you see Bailey, the wedding planner? It’s what she wanted to be in middle school. Like many phases of the early teen years for most people, it didn’t last long, so let’s forget the entire wedding-planner stage and move on. The world is going to be a better place because she did.

The Trees, Part 4 (redo)

Sticking with environment: Are good students created over time or does it come naturally to some?

Can you see the family in Vermillion, at the dinner table, books everywhere? Alyssa arriving after her parents’ freshman year of college, Jessica three and a half years after that?

Lee is in medical school at South Dakota. Cheri, who will become a real estate agent, is in graduate school. The girls are surrounded by parents who are learning, striving, pursuing.

“I had Jessica when I was just starting graduate school, so she’s always been around education,” says Cheri. “Education is kind of an expectation in our family. She’s seen that all the time.”

How much of it is inborn for the Bailey children? Or how much of it is learned behavior? Alyssa, a biology major at North Dakota. Jessica on the pre-med track at Montana. Same for Curtis at Montana State, now in his freshman year.

Through two years at Montana, Bailey has 17 A’s or A-minuses on her academic transcript. Her parents never demanded those types of grades from their kids. Not once.

“She’s very driven. She has a very driven personality,” Cheri adds. “It doesn’t surprise me what she’s accomplished. If she puts her mind to something, she is going to do it.”

The Trees, Part 5

Do you see Pounds back at her desk, getting another email from Bailey, updating the coach on her latest times?

She finished eighth in the 3,200 meters at the Class AA track and field meet in the spring. Yawns all around. Perhaps if it had been Gorman who was reaching out. She won the race in a time nearly 50 seconds faster than Bailey’s. Even their teammate Emily Person ran nearly 30 seconds faster.

Still not interested. Until Bailey’s coach sends an email to Pounds, first raving about the person, then explaining that his athlete had been a swimmer and had just started running, so use that prism to look at her times. Consider the upside and what she might develop into.

Besides, Bailey was going to attend school at Montana, whether she was on the team or not. There was some tepid interest from Montana State, but the decision came down to South Dakota and Montana, Vermillion vs. Missoula. The latter rarely loses those head-to-heads.

Alyssa swam for a year and a half at North Dakota, then gave up the sport when her favorite coach departed, leaving her just a regular student on campus. Her message for her younger sister: Choose the school where you’re going to be the happiest, even if you don’t make the team.

Pounds softened, at least enough to offer up a walk-on spot. “I’m very glad her coach emailed me,” she says.

The Trees, Part 6

Do you see Bailey running on the UM Golf Course? It’s her first year at Montana, the fall of 2014. She’s redshirting, so she’s competing unattached at the Montana Invitational, her first collegiate race. She’s ahead of some of the Grizzlies’ top seven.

Cheri remembers it. She was standing there, within listening range, when Pounds asked, part perplexed, part excited, Who’s that redshirt?

“It’s been fun, because ever since Jessica started running, it’s been, Who is this girl? Where did she come from? It’s been really fun to watch,” says Cheri, who’s been in on the secret, though it’s becoming less and less of one every time her daughter races.

Under the eye of Pounds and Fehr, Bailey that fall went from project to getting pinned with a more encouraging p word.

“We could see she had potential. Collin did some VO2 max testing, and Jessica’s was crazy high. So we knew the engine was there,” says Pounds. “It was just about training it and being consistent and progressing.”

The Trees, Part 7

Do you see the cadaver lying there? Bailey didn’t the first time she entered the biology lab to ask lecturer Heather Labbe if she could be elevated into the honors section of the class she was taking.

“I opened the door and wasn’t expecting to see it,” she says. “It’s a little creepy.” Her dad imparted his wisdom. Think about it as science, he said, not personal. Still, “it took me a while to not think too much into it.”

There is a lower-division anatomy class offered at Montana. Bailey bypassed it last year and went right for 365 and 370, the type of course numbers that give the average second-year student night sweats.

Bailey so impressed Labbe that the lecturer was left wondering why Bailey didn’t apply to be one of her teaching assistants for the same upper-division class this year.

Why? Seventeen other credits in the fall, plus cross country workouts and road trips, weights, GLI, Global Grizzlies, then 16 more credits in the spring, with indoor and outdoor track seasons that stretch from early January through May’s final exams.

There are only 168 hours in a week. Still, Bailey shoehorned a few more hours of responsibility into her schedule.

Labbe convinced her to be one of her TAs for the lower-division anatomy lab. It’s worth a single credit to Bailey, not much of a return on the investment. Unless you look at it differently, like a learner.

“I figured it would be a good way to keep the material fresh so it doesn’t drift away,” she says.

The Trees, Part 8

Can you see the confused look on Bailey’s face when Fehr suggests she try the steeplechase during her first outdoor track season? She is still mostly new to track. Did she miss something along the way? There is a distance race that has hurdles? And what, a water pit?

“I hadn’t heard of it, but Collin thought I should give it a try,” she says. Her first race, she barely broke 12 minutes. “Freshman year was kind of rough. Collin told me it can take a while to get used to it, to kind of get it down.”

All it required was work. Some extra speed training, some improvements on the hurdles, learning to land in the water pit on one foot instead of two. But what is work to Bailey but something to accept, then attack?

Last spring she broke 11 minutes in her first race, then went sub-10:50 at Oregon’s Hayward Field. At the Big Sky Conference Championships in Greeley last spring, an adjusted time of 10:40 and a fifth-place finish in a league known for the quality and depth of its women’s distance runners.

Regionals are a very real possibility this May. And off in the distance: Kara DeWalt’s school record of 10:11.44, her Holy Grail. “I’ve thought about it a lot,” says Bailey, which usually means it’s going to happen.

Someone who isn’t at all shocked by any of this: Gorman, who knows something about setting and achieving goals. Her big one: Do what Gwen Jorgensen did last summer in Rio and give the U.S. back-to-back golds in triathlon when Tokyo rolls around in 2020.

“(Jessica’s success) might be a surprise to some people, but not to me, not knowing her work ethic and knowing how big a role that plays in getting you where you want to go,” she says. “If you set goals, you’re going to reach them if you keep pushing toward them.”

The Trees, Part 9

Can you see the 10 members of last year’s Global Grizzlies class, hustling all over town to set up fundraisers at some of the most popular restaurants and breweries in town (eat here on this night, and 15 percent goes to us!) to help offset the costs of their service trip to Tanzania last summer?

Bailey had hoped she would be able to run for the Grizzlies when she arrived at Montana. But she was certain she was going to get involved in something bigger than the normal student life. It runs in the family.

Her dad has made mission trips to Haiti. Alyssa has been to Nicaragua. Jessica grew up listening to church groups tell of the difference they were making — to others and to themselves — around the world. All of it stuck.

The summer before her first semester, at freshman orientation, in the folder each student was provided, a pamphlet for the Global Leadership Initiative. Then: that first autumn, a representative for Global Grizzlies stopped by a class and shared what they do.

The fire was already burning. Now it had found some fuel.

A student organization based in UM’s Davidson Honors College, Global Grizzlies has two purposes. Bring aid to developing countries as humanitarian ambassadors for the university, and give students the experience of a new culture while helping them gain compassion for the world.

Bailey had no pie-in-the-sky perspective of what she could do on her first mission trip. Like everything about her, hers was sensible. “You can’t save the world, but you can try to make situations better for people. I just want to help other people. I feel like it’s what I’m meant to do.”

She applied for Global Grizzlies, which has a pre-med emphasis, her sophomore year, went through the application and interview process, and got selected. She would be in the next group to go out and represent the university in a global setting.

It’s one thing to personify your school by wearing a uniform at a cross country race or track and field meet. It’s another to do the same thing while impacting lives on another continent.

The Trees, Part 10

Can you see the Global Grizzlies? They are in Tanzania now, late last May, for their four-week stay in Arusha. They were given one day to get orientated, exchange their money, learn where the markets are, pick up a few useful words of Swahili, then one day to tour the hospitals where they’d be working.

Then it was total immersion. Bailey registered newborn babies and administered immunizations to pregnant mothers, worked in vaccination and outpatient clinics, helped in a delivery room and went on rounds with the doctors. It was no tourist trip.

“So much about it was not learning about the differences between the two systems but accepting the differences and still making it work. In the U.S., we have automatic everything. It was cool to see how they made fewer resources and less technology work,” she says.

So many stories, so many experiences, so much enlightenment, so much perspective. A jumpstart on her career.

The baby born with underdeveloped lungs and put on oxygen. Then, as so typically happened, the power went out. Solve the problem.

A mother, also named Jessica, who delivered, as they often do, without a drop of pain drugs. And yet, just a single moan throughout the entire process. Afterwards, Jessica, who delivered Helga, told Jessica how weak she’d been, the one moan proving it.

The girl who had cut her thumb, which was now severely infected. There was nothing done to numb it. The doctor just cut it open and started removing tissue and cleaning it out. Some moaning, but in the end, total appreciation for the treatment she had received. Thank you, doctor. Thank you.

“The big thing I took away is that there is no perfect way to practice medicine. It made me want to have more of a personal relationship with patients. I don’t know if there is any way to truly treat someone unless you can talk to them on a personal basis,” she says.

“In the U.S., it seems like so much about medicine is business. Get patients in and out. In Arusha, everyone called each other brother and sister. It seemed like more of a personal relationship. More time was spent between patient and doctor.”

Twenty-eight days of service and no way of tracking the impact of the 10 Global Grizzlies. But at least one life was changed.

The Trees, Part 11

We’ve reached the last of them. And the youngest. It sprouted just last fall. But check the roots. It’s the same variety as the rest, with the potential to grow into something special.

Because of her limited background, Bailey’s confidence as a runner can be as thin as her race resume. Here is how that can show itself: killing it in workouts, when there is no pressure and nothing is at stake, then failing to bring the same thing on race day, when everything is on the line.

In Montana’s workouts last fall, Bailey was always running alongside the team’s other top athletes, Reagan Colyer and Emily Pittis. In races, she let them go, settling for what she thought was more of her place in the hierarchy.

“In races, I’d be behind Emily and Reagan and think, This is where I’m supposed to be,” she says.

At the team’s first outing last fall, Bailey ran No. 4, coming in more than 30 seconds behind Colyer on a short, four-kilometer course. Two weeks later she was No. 3 and still settling. And Pounds knew it.

Before the Montana Invitational, the coach asked Bailey to try a new approach. Run with Pittis and Colyer from the start, and let’s just see what happens.

Here is what unfolded: Bailey led the team for the first time in her career, finishing third overall and ahead of both Pittis and Colyer. A breakthrough, more mental than physical.

It’s the type of story that warms the heart of Montana track and field coach Brian Schweyen. He knows the success of his program each year isn’t going to come from bringing in a bunch of top-end recruits, like Tamara Gorman, because they can be difficult to attract. Instead, he needs Jessica Baileys.

“Athletes have to realize that the potential that lies deep within them is endless,” he says. “If you go out and believe that this particular spot is where you belong, then that’s where you’re going to be stuck.

“But if you go out and truly believe something, you’re going to have a very good shot at achieving it. I think Jessica is starting to see and believe beyond what she thought was ever possible.”

Two weeks later, the cross country team’s new Big Three was separated by just three seconds at the Inland Empire Championships at Lewiston, Idaho.

Two weeks after that, at the Big Sky Conference Championships at Moscow, Idaho, Bailey led Montana again, finishing 12th overall and helping the Grizzlies to a pleasantly surprising fifth-place finish, two spots higher than where they were picked by the league’s coaches.

“It was super important,” says Pittis. “Jessica was always there in workouts and runs, so we knew she could be racing up there. I think it was just a mental gap she needed to get through. When she did, having that pack of three of us in the front to work together was huge.

“Jessica is the hardest worker I know, no matter what area you put her in, school or athletics. She’ll take any challenge and step up to it. It’s really inspiring. She takes every challenge, no matter what it is, and goes past it. She’s a big role model for all of us.”

So, we’ve finally cleared the last of our trees. Now do you have a better view of the forest? Now can you see a student-athlete in full?

Here’s an idea: Maybe another tattoo on the other side of her back. This time mountains as the background, with a lone tree in front. It would go against her nature to be singled out or go solo, but for 2016 it would be appropriate. Jessica Bailey stands alone as the GoGriz.com Person of the Year.