KENT - When he was in the seventh grade, Ernie Ammons' physical education teacher had all 150 students run a mile and a half "jaunt," something that every student in the Vancouver middle school was required to complete. No one expected Ernie, weighing less than 100 pounds and admitting to not being a very athletic kid, to do well in the race.
But young Mr. Ammons fooled everyone by not only winning the race, but setting a school record in the event as well. "I took off like a bat out of hell and broke the record," Ammons says with a wry smile. "By the end of the year I ran a 5:27 mile in track and I've been running ever since. All I needed was direction in my life."
At the end of Ammons' eighth grade year his family moved near Ocean Park. "Mr. (Joe) Williams heard I was a runner and he bugged me all summer to turn out for cross country. I wanted to play football, but I learned something about persistence from Mr. Williams. He and Mr. (Larry) Holland were huge influences on my life. I still talk with Mr. Holland - he was like a surrogate father to me. I also am thankful for Glenn and Jo Peterson for helping me when I needed it."
Five years later Ammons' list of running accomplishments included a cross country state championship, a state championship in the mile and two-mile, All-American high school honors in the steeple chase, and being the fastest freshmen in the nation in the 3,000 steeple chase. "That All-American trip to Chicago while I was in high school was pretty sweet," Ammons says.
Ammons often rode his bicycle the 12 miles from Rushlight to Ilwaco High School and sometimes he even ran to school. "Running was a way for me to totally relieve stress and clear my mind. I can't say I loved to run, but I did love to compete and to win. Being on that top step of the podium at state was pretty cool. I still do a fun run or two during the summers. Running is a big part of my life."
Ernie holds the Ilwaco two-mile record and was sixth, second and first at state in it. He was third, fourth and first in the two-mile at state and was sixth his junior year in the 800 and also on a state relay team his senior year. He qualified all four seasons for state in cross country and finished second and then first his last two years. He went to state in wrestling twice and finished sixth. Not bad for a kid who ran to school and spent a hefty part of his summers running up and down the sandy beach.
"I still had a lot left in my tank after high school so I trained hard in college," Ammons relates. The results were being the outstanding athlete in the NWAACC 36-team meet for Clark College his freshman year and missing the honor by a point the next season. He was third in cross country and was also a champion 10,000, 1,500, and 3,000 steeple chase runner at Clark.
After transferring to Washington State University, Ernie ran a sub-nine minute steeple chase and finished as high as sixth in the Pac-10 and he was third and fifth in cross country in the conference for the Cougars.
Running "runs in my family," he explains with a smile as Ernie married Tori who twice won the state championship in both the 100 and 300 hurdles at Enumclaw High School. She is a history teacher at class 3A Auburn-Mountainview. She has coached state champions in the school's brief two-year history. Ammons says with pride, "Tori is really talented. We met at Washington State University when we were both on the track team. Our daughters Eva (seven) and Mia (three) are going to be runners, too. They go to all the meets with us and they're always zipping around the house."
There was a period in Ammons' life when he got away from running. "I lost my fire after I graduated from college in 1997. It was like I had been a puppet and all I did was run for a coach. I took a job in a bank in Seattle for two or three years. Then one day I came home and told Tori I wanted to go back to WSU and become a teacher and coach."
With finances tight the couple took some time before Tori realized there was once again no stopping Ernie, so off to WSU they went. Ammons is now one of the most successful high school coaches in the state at Kent-Meridian. Of the 1,700 students in the 4A school, 130 of them turn out for his track and field program where he has produced several individual state champions. Ammons also coaches varsity cross country, where he was honored by KING-5 TV news for his efforts, and is assistant wrestling coach and teaches health, history and physical education.
"I love working in a big school and being able to coach so many talented athletes, but I would love to come back to Ilwaco some day. A couple of years ago it looked like there were openings in history and PE for Tori and I, but they hired someone else."
Ammons says, "The community was always so supportive of me and I want to give something back some day. I remember the stands being nearly full for track meets and Mark Kester taking pictures of me when I won the mile at state and I told him 'I'm feeling really happy' when he asked how I felt. The community motivated me and I had the feeling the whole town was happy when I did well."
Whether Ilwaco sports fans ever cheer Ernie and Tori-coached teams on or see Eva and Mia possibly stand atop a podium themselves remains to be seen. What is for sure, Ernie is passing on the care and love he received "back home" and anyone lucky enough to be under his direction will certainly be blessed. And with the price of gasoline going higher and higher, Ernie can always run to work.