SIDNEY — Carter Hughes was 13 years old when he broke his back.
A promising young hockey player, Hughes was checked from behind, fracturing his L5 vertebra. The injury, which relegated Hughes to a back brace for four months, didn’t end his career. If anything, it further strengthened Hughes’ desire, determination and motivation to be the best he could be.
After slowly recovering from the injury, Hughes continued his hockey career in Sioux Falls, S.D., commuting 9.5 hours from Sidney to practice or flying to Chicago for games, before ultimately moving and living with a host family.
A left wing, Hughes had opportunities to further advance his burgeoning career, receiving a tryout invite from the prestigious Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Minnesota, which boasts National Hockey League alumni Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon, among others.
“Even though he didn’t make the team (at Shattuck-St. Mary’s), he said he had to make a decision,” recalled Shannon Hughes, Carter’s mother. “He knew he wouldn’t be able to be in track if he left (Montana to pursue a hockey career). He had to be pretty real with himself and decide what he was going to do.”
The rest is history, or — more accurately — history in progress.
Carter Hughes and his older brother Garrison are rewriting Montana’s track and field record books. Garrison, a senior, is making his name as the best high school pole vaulter ever to come out of Montana. Carter, a junior, aims to be one of the state’s best throwers. The Class A state records in the shot put and discus are both within reach this season.
Garrison already owns the Class A pole vault record, clearing 16 feet at last year’s state meet. He’s gone higher this season, recording the best vault in Montana history at 16 feet, 9 inches. The all-class state record, which can only be set at a state meet, is 16-04, set by Helena High’s Chase Smith in 2015.
With personal-best marks of 58 feet, 6 inches in the shot put and 179 feet in the discus, Carter has the Sidney program records. He’ll attempt to break the Class A records of 58-05 1/2 and 182-07 at the state meet in Laurel later this month.
“We tell them, ‘You can always get better, raise your standards high.’ I think they’re good at re-evaluating their goals,” Shannon said. “They sometimes call Carter the sore winner. Even if he wins, he’s sometimes not happy with how he threw. … It keeps him hungry. He knows he can do better, so he usually tries harder.”
The brothers are as different as their events, but Carter, the quiet, competitive younger brother, still manages to use the sibling rivalry as fuel, chasing Garrison’s standards for two seasons now. Garrison, the gregarious socialite of the two, is well-regarded among Montana’s elite athletes. He offers pointers to other vaulters across the state and works clinics in Dickinson, N.D. during the summer.
“It’s really big just to have him, the sibling rivalry going on,” Carter said. “But at the same time, we’re pushing each other to get better. I’m trying to match him all the time, even though our events are totally different.”
“I guess Carter pushes himself to try to get to where I’ve been. We push each other,” Garrison agreed. “It’s always been competitive back home, Carter’s really competitive. There’s two routes to get to our house from school. If I go one way, Carter will go the other. We’ll try to beat each other to the house on the way home from school.”
The competition doesn’t stop once there, either. From roughhousing to games of “Sting Pong,” a barbaric form of table tennis where the victor gets to pelt the loser’s bare-skinned back with the game’s balls, the brothers have taken their toll on the Hughes household, showing the same determination they exhibit in their athletics to hide broken lamps or conceal accidental holes in the wall. They used to compete at the dinner table, too, though those battles have ceased, according to their mother, who joked that Carter “doesn’t miss a meal, or workout, ever.”
It’s the family meals, especially the ones with the extended family, where the competitive talk really ramps up. Garrison became the third member of the family to sign with a Big Ten track and field program when he inked with Nebraska last fall. Cousin Jess (Herauf) Lehman had an all-American career at Minnesota, where Mike Herauf, Lehman’s younger brother, now competes. Lehman holds the Big Ten heptathlon record and competed at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore.
“That was really kind of the spark in the family, because we weren’t really into track,” Garrison said. “We’ve gotten to watch her twice at the NCAAs, I think that really opened our eyes into track. She was the big track influence in our family.”
“Our whole side of the family is really close,” Lehman said, noting the family frequently gathers in Williston, N.D. at her grandmother’s house for holidays and other get-togethers. “Everyone is very competitive. Sports is usually what takes over the conversation at family dinners. Carter and Garrison, they’ve been such hard workers their whole lives. They’re just some of those kids that have a natural work ethic that you can’t teach. That’s why they’ll be successful in whatever sport they want to do.”
If the Hughes brothers are going to find further success in their events, it will likely be without much coaching from their all-American cousin. As a heptathlete, Lehman sprinted, hurdled, jumped and threw, but she never vaulted. Her younger brother, though, vaulted 15-07 during his senior year of high school to set the North Dakota state meet record in 2017.
“I always joke that — Mike is my brother, he and Garrison both pole vault — they picked the one event that I can’t help them at all with. I’m definitely a spectator. They know what they’re doing,” said Lehman, who actually was wearing that spectator hat when Garrison cleared 16-06, a then-personal-best height, at the Pankratz Invitational in Dickinson last month.
Garrison has since moved the bar up to 16-09 with aspirations of going up to 17-03 by the state meet. He marked a mediocre-by-his-standards 16-05 earlier this month to set the meet record at the North/East Top 10 meet in Glasgow, where Carter also notched two meet records, though he was disappointed with his discus mark of 167-07.
It’s those types of expectations that will likely lead Carter to a college throwing career, as well. Despite carrying a 6-foot, 245-pound frame seemingly built for the gridiron, Carter has declined overtures to play college football. He’s set on throwing weights and the hammer at the next level, even though the Montana High School Association doesn’t sanction the hammer throw.
Carter, with the encouragement from his parents to show initiative, purchased a weight online and began practicing in the empty lot near his house. With minimal experience and his self-taught training, Carter placed second in the weight throw at the Simplot Games in Pocatello, Idaho, marking a throw of 62-01 1/4, finishing behind only the top-ranked thrower in the nation. College coaches are thus salivating over Carter’s potential, creating the possibility that he’ll be the fourth member of the family to join a Big Ten program.
Unlike Garrison, who realized his Division I track and field aspirations early, Carter’s passion has developed more slowly. He had to weigh his hockey options and the strain that might add to his family, but once he saw Lehman’s success — and later Garrison’s — he could easily see a future throwing.
“When middle school came around, at the time, I had nothing going on. I knew Garrison had been in (track) the year before, a couple cousins were having good success, but it was never really something that I had a whole lot of interest in. I was more interested in hockey at the time,” Carter said. “I started realizing I thought I had a good chance to do well (in the throws). I started taking interest my freshman year.”
“Nobody ever compared them, but (Carter) saw Garrison succeeding. Jess, our family would all travel to go to NCAAs,” Shannon said. “He’s pretty goal-oriented. I think he could have (played hockey), but I think he knew this was a better road for him.”
Carter’s young hockey career had already required him to move to South Dakota for a few months, and the demands would only have increased down that path. Living away from home can be difficult on a 14-year-old, but being back with his family in Sidney has been a blessing for Carter, who now gets daily opportunities to compete with his older brother.
Whether it’s Garrison raising the bar in track practice or the duo literally racing home for a game of “Sting Pong,” the competition never stops.
“Garrison’s competitive about the things he’s passionate about. Carter’s competitive in everything,” Shannon said. “They break a lot of my stuff. I’m excited for them to go to college, so I can buy some nice things.”