Robert Hatcher is a firefighter in Elizabethton. A decade ago, he smoked everyone in the state twice.
Hatcher won an 800 meters title at the state meet in 2000, and repeated the following year as a senior. He still holds the school record and didn’t lose an 800 race his final two years.
“The second state championship was probably more gratifying,” Hatcher said. “The first time, I didn’t know I was gonna win and if I hadn’t have won it wouldn’t have been as big a letdown, because I wasn’t really expecting to win. I always raced to win, but at the time I’d never run against anybody from West Tennessee and I didn’t know how good they were.
“But the next year … I felt like I kind of had to win. It was more a weight lifted off my shoulder.”
Winning in Knoxville at the Volunteer Track Classic earlier that season was nearly as fun.
“That was the biggest track meet of the season, and my dad and I stopped on the way down and ate at Cracker Barrel and got a paper from the Knoxville News-Sentinel,” Hatcher said. “It mentioned in there probably six or seven guys who were going to contend in the 800 … and then like the last sentence of the article was like, ‘Oh by the way, defending state champion Robert Hatcher is running in this race, too.’ That kind of really fired me up. … I got in the race and ended up – I think the next person was like five seconds behind me and I ended up running my personal best.”
Science Hill assistant coach Mike Dixon helped bring out Hatcher’s best.
“He was only there my senior year,” Hatcher said. “He was pretty cool, and he really knew his stuff when it came to coaching middle distance runners.”
Hatcher, who went on to win a Southern Conference indoor 800 meters and helped Chattanooga to two SoCon cross country titles, also ran cross country for Buddy Thomas at Science Hill.
“We all loved him to death,” Hatcher said. “He’s a good man. Even though cross country wasn’t as much my thing as track was, Buddy, still, by far, was the best man – the best coach – I had through Science Hill.”
Thomas chuckles when thinking of how he nearly turned down Hatcher after he transferred from Unicoi County for his freshman year.
“The season had been going on about a month and I just about didn’t take him,” Thomas said. “But I’d seen his name somewhere in road races and thought, ‘I believe I’ll take him.’ So I just about turned away an all-stater. And Robert’s mentioned that. I haven’t turned one away since.
“Robert really worked hard and he had a lot of talent. He was one of my favorite runners. I’ve always thought the world of him.”
So has Bryson Bowling, who ran track and played basketball with Hatcher at Science Hill. They met while sitting beside each other on the bus en route to Jeff Lebo’s basketball camp at Tennessee Tech before Bowling’s freshman year (he was a year behind Hatcher). Bowling was the best man in Hatcher’s wedding.
“Robert might’ve run middle distance, but he was really fast,” said Bowling, a sprinter/wide receiver who played football at East Carolina. “In fact, if I was gonna get beat, it was probably gonna be by Robert. From the 100 to the two-mile, Robert was fast.”
It’s easy to see how you become fast friends with Hatcher.
“Track’s an individual sport, but the 4-by-4 relay meant as much to me as the 800 individual did at the state,” Hatcher said. “I’d love to have won the 4-by-4. That would’ve been so sweet, and we almost did.”
Hatcher began running because of his sister, Jennifer, who is 4 1/2 years older and was doing road races when he was 7 or 8.
“She ran for Unicoi County and she ended up running a little at Carson-Newman,” Hatcher said. “One day they decided to see how far I could run, and I ran the whole way with her. I just quickly realized I could run, and I never stopped until after college.
“When I was young she did (inspire me). You always have that sibling rivalry, and where I was so young, she was kicking my butt.”
Ankle injuries hampered a taxing college career that included some 60-100 miles of weekly running.
“It took a toll on my body and broke me down really quick,” he said. “The way I run, I ended up bruising my ankle. And I ran on it so long that I ended up killing the bone. I had to get surgery done on it.”
Hatcher couldn’t run a full season after surgery, but helped the talented but thin Mocs to the cross country titles.
“They wouldn’t have won cross country championships without me – and I knew that – because we had a small team,” he said. “We were really good, but at Chattanooga we didn’t have enough money to have any depth. So I was kind of stuck. I had to do that, which was good. It gave you a real good feeling after you pull through something like that. …
“I felt like my body had no limit. Of course, it did, but I was able to push through when most people – I feel like – say, ‘Stop’ or ‘That’s enough’ or whatever. It was either part of me, or maybe I learned that running with my sister and it just stuck.”