While the geography of Whatcom County has helped amateur athletics thrive, with skiing, biking and water sports putting the area on the map, there's also been plenty of professional sports. Some of the legendary figures in Pacific Northwest athletics made their name in Bellingham — national titles have been won, trends have been set.
But in many ways sports has gone the opposite way of the city; while Bellingham has grown, the influence of sports has declined. Bellingham has played host to minor league baseball, professional basketball, bigtime prize fights - but those are just memories now for fans who were there.
They'll remember one of Bellingham's early sports heroes, "Ferocious" Freddie Steele, he of the devastating left hook. In 1938, Steele lost his National Boxing Association middleweight title when Al Hostalk knocked him out in the first round in a Seattle fight called "The Battle of the Century."
Steele was the best in an impressive line of Bellingham fighters. In 1993, the city's boxing legacy took a twist when 16-year-old Sehome High School sophomore Dallas Malloy defeated former Meridian High cheerleader Heather Poyner in the first female amateur bout sanctioned by USA Boxing.
Two years after Steele lost his title, Joe Martin became part of a group that formed the Bellingham Bells baseball club, which played at Battersby Field. Martin became manager of the club in 1942 and the team went on to win 20 state amateur titles, and twice finished in the top four nationally.
Along the way Martin, the best known figure of Bellingham's storied baseball past, managed several future major leaguers, including Bellingham native Roger Repoz, who was billed as the "next Mickey Mantle," though he never quite lived up to it.
Martin helped bring minor league baseball to Bellingham, and served as general manager of the Bellingham Mariners, which help produce future stars Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Omar Vizquel.
While baseball has been Bellingham's top sport, for two years basketball thrived in the city. In 1947-48 and '48-49, the Bellingham Fircrests were one of the top attractions in the short-lived Pacific Coast Pro League. Led by local legend Gale Bishop, the team packed Bellingham High School and brought such teams as the Harlem Globetrotters and NBA champion Baltimore Bullets to the city.
SPORTS ON THE HILL
The 1950s brought the retirement of Sam Carver from Western Washington University after 42 years at the school. Carver, who graduated from Whatcom High School, became known as the "Father of Western Athletics," at one time coaching six sports. Among the coaches that Carver hired was Charles Lappenbusch, who in 1938 led the Vikings to a 7-0 record, the only unbeaten season in the program's history.
A WWU student broke barriers in 1959, when Bill Wright won the U.S. Amateur Public Links tournament, becoming the first black to win a United States Golf Association event. The next year, Wright became the first black to win the NAIA national title.
In 1973, Ski to Sea began with 52 teams participating. The relay was based on the Mount Baker Marathon, which began in 1911. Today, 400 teams sign up for Ski to Sea, which runs for 82 miles from Mount Baker to Bellingham Bay. Olympians regularly compete in the event, the biggest yearly sporting spectacle in the county.
The 1980s began the tenure of Lynda Goodrich as athletic director at WWU. Goodrich, a graduate of Western, has led the school into the most successful and prosperous time in its history. Under her leadership, Western's athletic funding has gone up, facilities have improved and, in 1999, the school took the jump from NAIA to NCAA Division II.
With 411 wins, Goodrich also is the most successful women's basketball coach in the school's history. During her tenure as athletic director, the school gained its first and only team national title, when the fastpitch softball team won the 1998 NAIA championship. In addition, the 1996 football team, under all-time winningest coach Rob Smith, went to the national championship game.
Prep sports have thrived in the city, with Bellingham High producing a number of state champions, particularly in track and field.
However, Sehome High has given the city some of its top teams recently. The 1996 boys' basketball team, under coaching legend Pat Fitterer, went 30-0, won the Class 4A state title and finished ranked among the nation's Top 25. That gave Sehome its second state hoops title; the girls' team won the Class 3A title in 1983.
The most notable figure in prep sports in the city may be Sehome gymnastics coach Nola Ayres. In her career, Ayres won 22 state titles in 24 years and won the district and league title every year she coached. Ayres compiled a 384-1 match record, and sent many athletes to college on full scholarships. In 1985, the former WWU track athlete was named the nation's gymnastics coach of the year.
The early part of the 21st century gave Bellingham its most historic high school event when, in 2002, Sehome and Squalicum met for the Class 3A state boys' soccer title. It marked the first time that two city schools played each other for a state title. Fans of both schools packed Everett Memorial Stadium and watched the rivals battle to a 1-1 tie in regulation before Brendan Carroll made two saves in a penalty kick shootout to give Sehome a 2-1 victory.