Story last updated at 5/1/2013 - 2:58 pm
She was always the first one in the pool. After receiving chemotherapy for leukemia, which she was diagnosed with when she was 13, she broke state records.
Julie Hughes died when she was 15, in 1985, but the determination, dedication and positive attitude she displayed during her life were such sources of inspiration for those that knew her that the memory of her life is celebrated the third Saturday in May each year with the Julie Hughes Triathlon in Sitka.
Hughes began swimming when she was around eight years old, with the Baranof Barracudas, the swim team in Sitka. Bill Hughes, her father, said it was her idea to swim, and that she took to it right away.
"She was a natural athlete," said Suha Tokman, her swim coach. "Her strokes were very smooth. She had great technique and a very athletic body."
Hughes' mother, Carol, said her daughter was the very idea of the child that every parent wants.
"She was a good student, a good athlete," Carol said. "She was pleasant to be around. She pleased her parents."
Arriving early to the pool every day, Tokman said, allowed them a chance to talk.
"We had long, mature conversations," he said. "She was worried about world peace. I'm originally from Turkey and she'd ask me about the fighting in the Middle East, and she felt badly about the children. She was very interested in the world, geography and history."
Hughes swam hard for about five years. She was one of the top swimmers in her age group. Suddenly, in 1982, when Hughes was 13, her times began to plummet. Carol said she remembers her daughter coming home from practice one day, perturbed.
"She said, 'I'm trying as hard as I can and it doesn't seem like I can swim as long as I used to. I'm feeling really tired,'" Carol said.
She was taken to a local doctor and the possibility of mononucleosis was brought up. Carol was told to take Hughes home and let her rest. But she became more tired and exhausted. Her parents took her to a hematologist for blood work. Hughes was diagnosed with Leukemia, and the family immediately flew down to Seattle.
Before her diagnoses, Hughes, who was an avid reader, had read a story about a young girl that was diagnosed with leukemia. So even at 13, she wasn't ignorant.
"She needed medical attention and knew it," Bill said. "I don't know what other people hear, but you're hopeful. You're hopeful you're going into treatment (and) something's going to work. We all understood the implications, but we knew she'd have the best medical care available. You're optimistic."
Hughes underwent six months of intense chemotherapy before returning to Sitka. She had lost her hair and a lot of weight. But she adjusted, persevered, and in remission, returned to the pool. She swam well her freshman year in high school, 1983 to 1984, but in the fall of her sophomore year she relapsed.
"She knew right away," Carol said. "The chemotherapy was no longer keeping the cancer cells from developing. She had just started her sophomore year."
They returned to Seattle. She was in the best place for someone in her situation, her mother said. She had counselors, a medical team and was around other children in her position with whom she made friends. She was eventually transferred to a cancer research center and underwent a bone marrow transplant, (her mother was the donor), in January 1985.
Bill explained the process as, "total body radiation, like a nuclear event."
As Hughes' body was starting to recover she developed pneumonia.
"Her immune system was too compromised to combat it," Bill said.
She passed away in February, 1985, holding a string of worry beads Tokman had given her.
Tokman likes to recall a particular story from the period when Hughes was in remission. His team, which included Hughes, was returning on the ferry from a victorious swim meet in Ketchikan. They were celebrating and running around the ferry. Hughes accidentally stepped on a man sleeping in the solarium. Scared, Tokman said, Hughes ran away.
"Later he caught up with her," Tokman said. "She had a hood on. He said, 'You're the one who stepped on me,' and she said, 'I'm sorry, I thought you were one of us,' and she removed her hood."
According to Tokman, the man asked if she had shaved her head for a competitive edge. She told the man that she had been receiving chemotherapy. Hughes told the man that her swim team friends called her Bald Eagle, and that she rather liked it. Tokman said they spoke for over half an hour.
"This gentleman was from Oregon, a well known writer," Tokman said. "He was really affected by her, couldn't stop thinking about her, and several years later (he contacted) the Sitka high school principal."
He told the principal he had met Hughes on the ferry and was curious how she was doing. By then Hughes had passed away, and upon hearing the news this man wrote a story about his interaction with Hughes.
"I have it and it's one of my biggest possessions," Tokman said. "No one can read it without crying."
Before she died, and was still swimming, Hughes told Tokman she was interested in competing in a triathlon. The races, which include a swim, bike and run leg, generally in that order, were just gaining popularity. Tokman hadn't found any that were occurring in Alaska. After her death Tokman didn't skip a beat. The 1st Annual Julie Hughes Triathlon occurred that May, in 1985. He thinks it's the longest running triathlon in the state.
"I bought the medals, made T-shirts, got everybody organized, water," Tokman said.
Tokman said that the community was so affected that the triathlon participants included many people who weren't necessarily athletes.
"Her mom and dad became triathletes themselves because of her," Tokman said. "Her dad biked across the United States. He got into biking because of it."
This is noteworthy as Bill is now the owner of the Yellow Jersey Cycle Shop in downtown Sitka.
On May 18 this year, the 29th Annual Julie Hughes Triathlon will take place. Race director Kevin Knox is expecting over 120 participants.
"It's one of those races in Sitka (that) has so much history and so many people love it," Knox said. "It's a great family event and great business event. There are business teams or informal challenges between the businesses. People really have fun with it."
Knox himself is a Julie Hughes Triathlon veteran, competing in his first one when he was 12, and thereafter through high school. He was also coached by Tokman, for around 12 years.
The staging area for the race is Blatchley Middle School. It starts with a five mile run across O'Connell Bridge to Japonski Island and back to the school. After the run leg is a 12-mile bike ride out Halibut Point Road and back to the school. The race ends with a 1,000 yard swim in the school pool.
Typical triathlons begin with a swim, but as it's early in the season, and too cold to throw swimmers into the ocean (which would help spread them out), having the swim leg last is key to minimize over-crowding in the pool.
"You cannot start everybody in the pool," Tokman said. "It would be chaos."
"It ends up working out pretty well," Knox said. "Everybody gets out with a smile on their face."
Per tradition, a medal of honor is given to Carol and Bill, in the name of Julie Hughes.
"I think over time (the race) means something to people who have lost family members to cancer," Carol said. "It's something people do and they feel good about it."
Next year will be the 30th Annual and Hughes' sister, Susan, who directed the race for many years, has a T-shirt from every race. A quilt will be made out of the 30 T-shirts and a festival will take place in town.
Though no one needs an annual reminder to reminisce about loved ones passed, Bill, Carol and Tokman all shared a few words of remembrance.
"We wonder who her husband would be," Bill said.
"And what her children would be like, what she'd be doing," Carol said. "She would be working with youth, I think, maybe as a teacher."
A bench dedicated to Hughes was placed at one of the local harbors.
"Every day I go sit on the bench and talk to (Hughes) ...," Tokman said. "She was a wonderful person and I'm so glad this is going on still."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.