Back in 2018, Ethan Strand was just a freshman at Vestavia Hills High School. He hadn’t beaten his track and field teammate, senior James Sweeney, all season. Instead, he’d learned from him, soaking up his pointers on training for races. But lo and behold at the state meet that spring when it came time for the 3200-meter race, Ethan turned on his particular strand, if you will, of determination. Before anyone knew it he’d finished first, before James, before junior Bryce Hutchinson. Together, the threesome took home first, second and third places in the event.

In his 26 years of coaching track, 20 of them at VHHS, Brett Huber says he’s never seen a three-peat like that at the 7A level. “It’s just Ethan,” Huber says. “He knows what he wants. He’s very instinctual within a race. He has a good feel for his competition.”

It’s a pattern Huber has seen over and over again in Ethan’s track career—not unlike the 800-meter race at the 2019 state track and field meet. Ethan had only run that event once that season, but Huber watched him “put the hammer down” as he entered the final lap in ninth place. He powered ahead and crossed the finish line at 1:54, taking home first in the state—not long after claiming the state title in the 1600-meter and 3200-meter titles too. As Huber will tell you, Ethan is a “closer.” “He just knows what to do and when to do it,” Huber says. “His attitude is he will not be denied. He’s very purposeful on what he wants to accomplish.”

Going into last fall’s cross country season, Ethan’s sights were set beyond state meets though to the Foot Locker Cross Country Championship National Finals in San Diego, California. And that’s just where he went as the first Alabamian in 15 years to qualify for meet, finishing 29th nationally and sixth in the South at 16:07.09.

There’s no doubt Ethan is an exceptional runner, so it isn’t a surprise that running runs in his family. His mom, Lori, ran track and field for UAB and later coached at Samford University, and his dad, Scott, ran at Auburn and now co-owns The Trak Shak stores. Baby Ethan walked early and was running by the time he was a year old. He was always an active kid.

By age 4 he was begging his parents to clock him running. “Time me!” he’d ask, over and over again. He’d run the basketball court in rec leagues and the soccer field for years, but even before that he was running fun runs as a part of the Mercedes Marathon. “Even when he was a kid at Mercedes, we knew he’d be good, but you don’t know if that’s what he would end up doing,” Scott recalls. “We weren’t going to make him do it.”

Lori says she felt like Ethan was going to be good at whatever he decided to do. “He was determined and he loved to win,” she recalls. “He loved being good at sports. It wasn’t anything Scott or I pushed him to do. He’s been given a special gift.”

Going into high school, Ethan was still determined and still loved to win, only now he was applying it to track with a new level of commitment and training—and his parents couldn’t be more proud not just of his titles but all the more so of the person he’s grown into. “It’s been exciting watching him work so hard,” Lori says. “He’s a good kid. He has a job he enjoys (at the Trak Shak) and makes good grades. I feel like he’s well rounded.”

Both Scott and Lori foresee Ethan surpassing their own running careers. Lori says Ethan is more dedicated than she ever was, and Scott, who competed in multiple Olympic Trials, that Ethan is more gifted than he was. “If he stays healthy and continues to want to do this, he will run a lot faster than I did,” Scott says, noting how collegiate coaches who have watched Ethan are saying he’s “got it.”

What’s “it?” His parents would say it’s his physical abilities combined with his toughness, mentally and physically. If you talk to Ethan about running or racing, you will see his eyes light up. At the end of any race, his smile is big. And Huber says the secret ingredient for a distance runner is to be athletic in general. If Ethan sees the high jump pit open, he wants to see how high he can jump. If sprinters are out, he wants to see how he can sprint.

Whatever “it” is, it’s obvious when you see Ethan run that he’s special, either to the trained or the untrained eye, Huber says. But more than anything, Ethan wants to win. “If you are trying to beat Ethan, he has five to ten strategies, and you don’t know what strategy he is going to pick,” Huber notes. “Once he knows he wants to go after and you are in his way, he’s going to do everything possible to beat you in that race. That’s just the way he operates.”

But running isn’t just about Ethan. Huber says the VHHS junior, who was named the 2019-20 Gatorade Alabama Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year in February, brings an enthusiasm to the sport that spreads to his teammates, and Ethan cares about his team doing their best. Just as James, Bryce and other upperclassmen spurred him on as a freshman, he’s doing the same with underclassmen on the team now. And when he’s not running, Ethan is keeping up with Premier League soccer in England and Auburn football and basketball too—and watching for leaks about new running shoes on Instagram (he admits he’s a “shoe geek”).

No running career is without its obstacles, though, as Ethan learned when he came down with the flu as this year’s indoor state track meet was starting. He had just run a 9:00 minute 2-mile the week before, but he and Huber knew he couldn’t race with a fever. “Knowing Ethan as long as I have, that was the hardest thing he’s had to deal with,” Huber says. “He grew a lot through that. Sometimes there are other things more important the scores on the scoreboard. That will help him a lot in his career.”

And Huber would know. He watched as Trey Hardee, a decathlete who would compete in the 2008 Olympics, rolled ankle in state meet while at VHHS and somehow still placed second in pole vault even though could barely use one of his legs. He also watched Mac McCoy, the 2014 Gatorade Runner of the Year who would go on to run for the University of Florida, work through stress fracture issues, and current Auburn athlete Katherine Ratliff recover after tearing her ACL her junior year on javelin. “We don’t like adversity but you come out on the other side better than when you came in it,” Huber notes.

Going into this spring’s track and field season, Ethan wants to drop his times, especially in his favorite event, the mile. He for sure wants to run in college, but beyond that he says he’ll just see where running takes him. Huber gives a stronger foreshadowing though. “He’s up in the discussion to be one best runners ever in the state,” Huber says. “He’s aligned to do some really special things. We’re trying to get his training right and keep him healthy.”