As Ben Chong sped downhill and into a sharp turn during a cross-country ski race at Wirth Park in Minneapolis, he hit a patch of ice and crashed.
His ski pole broke, jeopardizing his chances to finish fast enough to help his St. Louis Park team qualify for the state meet.
Alongside the trail, his heartbroken father watched as Chong struggled to get up. Nearby, a woman said something about one less skier in the competition.
And then an extraordinary act of good sportsmanship rose from the sidelines.
Doug Hubred, assistant Nordic ski coach at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, was standing at the bottom of the hill, cheering and tracking his own son and other members of his team, hoping they could finish in the top tier.
Armstrong and St. Louis Park were in a tight race that would decide which teams earned a spot at this week’s state championship meet. Wayzata High School was out ahead in the Feb. 1 section race. St. Louis Park and Armstrong had to battle it out for the remaining spot for state.
Seeing Chong with a broken pole, Hubred immediately handed him a spare. The Armstrong assistant coach had the extra pole in case his own team’s skiers needed one on an icy trail that brought many of the competitors down.
“I’m a middle school teacher, so I work with kids all day long,” Hubred said. “Sometimes you see a kid having a hard go, and you just need to step in.”
With Hubred’s help, Chong, a senior, was back in the race.
And when it was over and the points were tallied, the St. Louis Park varsity boys team had won second place and a spot at Thursday’s state meet at Giants Ridge in Biwabik. The Armstrong boys finished two points behind their rivals, finishing third and out of the running for state.
It wasn’t until after the results were posted that Chong’s father, Alex, realized his son had benefited from an unusual act of kindness.
During the race, Alex Chong assumed it was one of the St. Louis Park coaches who handed the ski pole to his son. He later learned it came from a competitor.
“I was in disbelief,” he said in a thank-you note that he, his wife and son wrote to the Armstrong coach that was posted on the Minnesota State High School League’s Facebook page. “Here your team was neck and neck with SLP for that second-place spot for state. You could have easily watched like the rest of us, feeling bad for the skier who fell but solidifying your team’s advance to state. Instead, without hesitation, you chose to extend kindness to a kid who at the moment needed a helping hand.”
Alex Chong said he wonders how many others would be so selfless and do the same.
“Of course, we’d all like to think we would do the right thing,” he said in the post, which is making its way around social media. “I would sure hope so, but I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that you did an honorable thing that day, which made a difference in a kid’s life, beyond the results of his race. Our family and especially Ben will not forget your kindness.”
Returning the ski pole, Ben Chong expressed his gratitude to Hubred. “You saved my race,” he told him.
It was a race when seconds mattered, and Hubred never hesitated, even knowing that his own team and his son, who also is a senior, also were determined to get to the state meet.
“It was the right thing to do for a racer,” Hubred said. “I wanted our kids to win not by a technicality but by their performance. … So no, I don’t regret it.”
There’s never a wrong time to do the right thing, he told Ben and Alex Chong.
Make no mistake — the Armstrong boys team was disappointed that its season ended earlier than it had wanted. “There were tears,” Hubred said. “They were so close to going.”
Wondering whether the team was upset that he helped a competitor during the race, Hubred asked his son’s opinion.
“No, Dad,” Clayton Hubred told his father. “You did the right thing.”
As Ben Chong prepared to race at state, Alex Chong felt a tinge of sadness that the Armstrong boys wouldn’t be racing. It’s bittersweet, he said.
“I really think this coach is a hero,” Alex Chong said. “He was just a true gentleman. He saw a kid fall, and I think he could feel that pain. He just wanted to do the right thing. We need more heroes like that.”