Dillon Gilpin walks the halls of Evanston High School's sprawling, two-story building, stopping every few feet to talk to friends in between classes.
With his red backpack thrown over both shoulders, Gilpin moves with the confidence of someone who knows where he’s going.
On this particular day, the next-to-last of April, the Evanston senior isn’t wearing his usual attire of jeans and a T-shirt. Instead, he sports black slacks, a long-sleeved gray dress shirt and a burgundy-and-gray patterned tie for a class debate.
The other students in Matt Petersen’s American government class are dressed similarly -- the boys in slacks, dress shirts and ties; the girls in skirts. The only thing that distinguishes Gilpin from the other students is that his right sleeve is pulled up past his elbow, with only the nub of his right arm sticking out.
Dillon Gilpin was born without a fully formed right arm. Doctors were unable to explain why, and ultrasounds taken when Liz Gilpin was pregnant with Dillon showed no signs of the deformity.
“We were all surprised,” said Liz, while sitting beside Dillon in their living room. “The doctors don’t know what happened and they were never able to explain it.
“My initial feeling was the fear of the unknown. Obviously, it was something I had never experienced before so we were kind of afraid for him."
Dillon, 18, is the youngest of Liz and Von Gilpin’s three children. Ryan, 31, and Jessica, 23, were both born without any physical problems, which made Dillon’s underdeveloped right arm even harder to explain.
But Liz and Von made the decision early on to treat Dillon no different than they had their other two children.
“We just decided from the get-go that it wasn’t going to make a difference,” Liz said. “When he was a baby he hated being swaddled, he hated being confined.
“From the time he was born he never slowed down and he was determined to figure out how to do things on his own.”
Soon, Liz was taking Dillon to work with her at the Evanston Recreation Center. The little kid with one arm shorter than the other took advantage of the opportunities.
He participated in everything from baseball and karate to swimming and basketball. Name an activity and there’s a good chance Dillon was involved in it.
“I played pretty much everything,” he said. “In elementary school basketball was definitely my favorite. I would play every morning -- all the time, really.”
More often than not, Alek Johnson was right there with him. And that's how it was for years; two grade-school-aged kids shooting hoops at the local rec center.
“The first time I met Dillon I knew we would be friends,” Johnson said. “The thing that drew us together was our competitiveness. It was always fun to play him one-on-one because I knew he would push me.
"Even though he only had one arm he was really tough to play against. I think just having one arm really motivated him."
Dillon Gilpin spent hours in the rec center gym, honing his own style.
He continued to play other sports in addition to basketball, developing into a standout running back in middle school. He also pitched and played first base in Little League.
Obviously, there were challenges. But that only made Gilpin work harder.
“There were times when I felt discouraged, but I just had to find a different way to do something," Gilpin said. "I always got right back up and found a way to push through. I would get frustrated at times, but that just fueled my fire.”
Gilpin could always throw a baseball with velocity, so he taught himself how to balance his glove on his right arm and then transfer it to his left hand after throwing a pitch, just like former Major League pitcher Jim Abbott used to do. Gilpin was in the fifth grade and already throwing strikes by the time he knew who Abbott was.
The hours Gilpin spent alone on the basketball court gave him time to figure things out. He taught himself how to dribble behind his back, and how to use a hesitation move and a crossover to prevent opponents from overplaying him to his left.
Defensively, Gilpin caused opponents fits.
“I underestimated him at first,” said Natrona County senior guard Parker Browning, who played against Gilpin for three years in high school. “You felt like you could get around him because he didn’t have the length, but he made up for that with quickness and determination.
“He never backed down from a challenge.”
During his junior season, Gilpin was one of the key players off the bench for the Red Devils.
“Whenever he stepped on the floor it was go-time,” Evanston boys basketball coach Roy Barker said. “We always stuck Dillon on the other team’s best guard.
“He loved basketball and he wasn’t going to let the fact that he had just one arm hold him back. He played with a tenacity and fire that I wish everybody on the team had.”
It’s the final class before lunch and Dillon Gilpin is putting the finishing touches on a paddle he made in beginning cabinetry.
He makes some final cuts with the band saw, using his left hand to push the paddle while his right arm serves as a guide. Later, Gilpin uses a hand sander to smooth out any rough edges.
Wearing safety goggles and with his tie tucked into his shirt, Gilpin moves freely around the open shop area. Other students are sanding hope chests or other large-scale projects, but Gilpin has already moved past that. Earlier in the semester, he crafted a box to store shoes. His mother proudly points it out in the entryway of their house.
This is the first semester Dillon has ever taken a woodshop class.
“I kneeled down in front of Dillon on the first day and told him, ‘I’m going to treat you like you’ve got two good hands unless you tell me different,’” industrial arts/shop teacher James Reynolds said. “And that was the only discussion we ever had on arms or legs or body parts.”
Track practice at Evanston is hectic. The high school houses the town's only track-and-field facility, and on this day there are close to 100 middle school and high school athletes running around the track or working on various field events.
Gilpin and juniors Brady Olson and Jace Richards do three-lap repeats. Gilpin, wearing blue shorts and no shirt, runs fluidly. His left arm moving in rhythmic motion, his light brown hair barely moving as he pushes himself to exhaustion. Five times they complete the three laps around the track, with Gilpin finishing well in front every time.
“All runners face adversity,” Evanston track and cross-country coach Ryan Berger said, “but Dillon has the drive to push through it. He finishes the fight, pushes through it and looks for the next challenge.”
Running has become Gilpin's main sport and he qualified for the Wyoming State High School Class 4A Boys Track and Field Championship this weekend in all three of his individual events -- the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs.
He decided not to play basketball this past winter. Instead, he ran indoor track. Three years earlier, Gilpin gave up football for cross-country.
Neither decision was easy, but Gilpin was unwavering in his commitment to both the cross-country and track programs.
“I knew that running pushed me,” he said. “I remember watching guys run cross-country when I was in middle school and thinking, ‘Those guys are crazy.’ And then toward the end of my eighth-grade football season, I just decided that even though I was doing pretty well in football it would be better for me if I ran cross-country and track in high school."
Despite never having run distance before, Gilpin developed into one of the state's better runners. Over time, Evanston's boys cross-country team improved.
It wasn’t an immediate transformation, however. Evanston finished 10th out of 12 teams in Gilpin’s freshman year, placed eighth the following year and then fifth. This past season, it all came together for the Red Devils, who not only finished third at state but also won the West Regional championship. It was the first conference title for the program in 25 years.
“I was at a volleyball game and I looked in the corner of the gym and saw our boys cross-country banner and it had ‘1989’ on it,” Gilpin said. “I remember thinking, ‘We have to get a 2014 on that.’ When we got to regionals we knew we were going to get it done. It was a good way to end, because all of our hard work had paid off.”
Dillon Gilpin’s bedroom is in the basement of his parents’ modest two-story house. A welcome mat with “Dillon’s Man Cave” printed on it sits at the bottom of the stairs. Sports posters and pictures of family and friends cover the walls while trophies and other awards occupy a significant space on his shelves, spilling over to the top of his dresser.
In a few months, he’ll leave it all behind when he travels on a two-year mission for the Mormon Church. Gilpin admits that faith plays a big role in his life.
“The church has taught me principles that have guided me through life,” he said. “And it has given me faith that allows me to do things for the right reasons. A lot of my inner drive comes from the church.”
Tears well in Liz Gilpin’s eyes when she thinks about not having her youngest son around the house. But Liz knows it’s what Dillon wants to do. And Liz has faith in her son.
“He’s just such a great kid," she said, smiling through her tears. "And he really is an inspiration to everybody.”
When he returns from his mission, Dillon plans to attend college, most likely at Black Hills State University, where he plans to major in education. Gilpin, who coached a youth basketball team this past year, aspires to be a teacher and coach.
Eric Stemle, an English teacher at Evanston, believes Gilpin is a natural fit to do both.
“We do a lot of presentations in class and his are always unique because he wants to be different," Stemle said. "The last one he did was about movies and he spoke for about 10 minutes. After he was done, I told him, ‘I don’t know what you’re planning on doing with your life, but you’re already a really good teacher.’
“And that’s what he wants to do; he wants to teach and he wants to coach and you can just see that in him because he relates really well to people. He’s very driven.
“I’d like to be his agent, because he’s going to do well in whatever he chooses to do.”
It’s a Friday night in Evanston and most of Dillon Gilpin’s friends are at the movies or home playing video games.
Gilpin and Alek Johnson, meanwhile, are at their second home -- the rec center basketball court.
“We would play on Friday nights when there was nobody there,” Gilpin said. “We would play one-on-one for hours. We’d say, ‘One more game.’ Then we would finish that game and say, ‘OK, one more game.’ That would keep going until we closed the place down.”
This weekend, Gilpin will compete as a high school athlete for the final time.
All those years of practice, of getting knocked down and getting right back to his feet, will be left on the track at Harry Geldien Stadium.
“My high school career went really fast,” Gilpin said, “but I definitely feel like I made the most of it. It’s kind of sad sometimes, but I know there are better things coming.”
Regardless of where he finishes he has already left his mark -- on the Evanston running program and the overall community.
“Dillon is going to be missed, without a doubt,” Berger said. “It’s been awesome to watch him grow from this little kid when he was a freshman to a young man who is a leader on this team. The young guys on the team watch the way Dillon leads and they say, ‘I want to be like that guy.’”