'Nothing she wouldn't do'.
Last October, two surfers in Costa Rica noticed what appeared to be a mother and young son in trouble in the ocean, about 100 feet offshore. As they paddled out to help, they noticed something else: The mother seemed to be holding her son aloft - keeping him safe - while kicking furiously below the water.
Later, one would tell a Sports Illustrated reporter that he told his friend: "They're drowning!"
Most Mother's Day stories come served like breakfast in bed: the warm, fuzzy stuff of computer- generated greeting cards in the hands of a smiling 10-year-old, the ink still wet.
The story of Rhiannon Glenn Hull, a former South Eugene High School and University of Oregon runner, is a reminder that mothers sometimes are at their best not just when their child has skinned a knee on the playground, but in the more powerful undertows of life.
"When I heard that Rhiannon was a South kid coming to the UO, I thought, 'OK, her dad must be a doctor or professor or stockbroker,' " says Tom Heinonen, who coached her in cross-country and track in the late '90s at the UO. "And, for whatever reason, she's chosen us over an Ivy League school."
No. Her dad worked for the family garbage company in Cottage Grove. He and Rhiannon's mom divorced when the little girl was 1. Rhiannon and her mom spent Rhiannon's senior year of high school living in an apartment with no furniture.
"She struck me as someone who'd had a difficult background,"Heinonen says. "Exuberant. Loud. Rough-edged. But she was fun. Those were some of our weaker teams but they were joyful teams, and she was part of that."
Darren Glenn, her father, says Rhiannon was the proverbial strong-willed child - named, incidentally, for a Fleetwood Mac song.
"Stubborn, strong-headed, competitive," he says.
And daring. While on a vacation in California, the family went to a water park with a 70-meter slide.
"One of those where when you come off the top you almost get airborne," recalls Darren Glenn. "She had older siblings and stepsiblings, but she was the only one who did it."
She started running at age 11, with her mother, Karen Ellingson.
"In many ways, the two of us grew up together," Ellingson says. "She also embraced vegetarianism with me."
She was, teammates said, guttier than she was fast. And always up for a new challenge.
"She didn't like to follow directions," her father says. "She'd sneak off and run the Portland Marathon without telling her coach."
After graduating, she married Norm Hull, a young artist from Cleveland who had moved to Eugene; at 6-foot-4, he towered over Rhiannon, 5-foot-2, 100 pounds.
As always, she lived life in fast-forward. The couple's first child, Gianni, was born in Springfield in 2003 - seemingly between Rhiannon's running workouts. No pain meds allowed.
Their second son, Julian, was born in 2005 after the family had moved to Healdsburg, in Northern California's wine country.
She still remained a fitness buff, adding yoga to her repertoire. But, Norm Hull says, "Mother hood changed her dramatically."
Mostly, it changed her perspective on life.
"She went from the focus being on herself and her ambitions to her kids," says her father, Darren Glenn. "As soon as that first child came out, she started turning into the most dedicated, loving, caring, doting mom you can imagine."
Ellingson saw it, too; the way, for example, Rhiannon home-schooled the kids. "There's nothing she wouldn't do for her children," Rhiannon's mother says.
And, in some ways, for other children. She started a business that supplied eco-friendly products for kids. And trained to teach in the Waldorf-based education system, which is how she wound up in Costa Rica: to start a Waldorf kinder garten for expatriate families.
At 33, she and her younger son, Julian, 6, headed to Costa Rica first; Norm, 36, and Gianni, 9, were to join them soon.
On Oct. 28, Rhiannon and Julian went to a beach frequented by world-class surfers. But hardly anyone was in the water on this overcast day - until mother and son took to the surf to bounce in the waves.
Some speculate that they stepped off a sand ledge into deeper water. Whatever happened, a riptide soon had the two in its clutches. It would be nearly half an hour before the two surfers saw them and came to the rescue. An exhausted Rhiannon kept Julian afloat the entire time.
With a final surge of energy, she pushed Julian onto the board of the just-arrived surfer. He was saved. The young surfer turned to grab Rhiannon. But she was gone, lost to the sea.
As her mother said, there wasn't anything Rhiannon wouldn't do for her children.
To learn about the Rhiannon Joy Hull Foundation, go to rjhf.org. Bob Welch is at 541-338-2354 or firstname.lastname@example.org.