By Kate Dowling
When John Gage decided he wanted to move back to Washington state after a few years in Palo Alto, California, he decided not to fly, drive or even take a train. He walked: 2,650 miles in 100 days along the Pacific Crest Trail, sometimes clocking as many as 42 miles in a day.
“I was moving back from California to Washington so why not hike it, since I was going anyway?” Gage said.
Not the mode of transport most would choose, but perhaps not surprising considering who Gage is — a star athlete and Stanford graduate who used to wow Pirate fans with his 3-point shots and slick maneuvers on the basketball court.
Now back on the island, Gage met a reporter at a coffee shop to talk about the last decade or so of his life, a period that entailed college, a few interesting jobs and his epic journey back to Vashon. He folded his 6’ 9” frame into the small chair at the coffee shop, holding a cup of coffee that looked like part of a child’s tea set in his hands. Soft-spoken and relaxed, he smiled often and easily as he talked.
Gage moved with his family to Vashon when he was 2 years old. He played soccer at a young age and enjoyed tossing the basketball around. His family did not watch much television, he recalled, and in fifth grade, when faced with the choice of losing his Saturday morning cartoons to play basketball, cartoons won out. He played soccer in middle school on Sundays and was still able to get his cartoon fix on Saturdays.
Gage’s growth spurt, however, changed the course of his athletic life. As he put it, “My height ended up making the choice for me.” In eighth grade, where Gage was both the youngest in his class and the tallest, he gave up soccer for basketball and began practicing obsessively on a small cement pad with a hoop in front of his house.
“I would be out there for hours, rain or shine. I have great memories of that,” Gage recalled.
Then came high school, where Gage joined a basketball team that was one of the tallest in the 1A league — players ranged from 6’5” to 6’9” — and where his discipline, athleticism and height paid off.
As a junior, he led his team to the state championship and was voted the 1A State Tournament MVP, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. It was a heady time. Team members were close-knit, and the island embraced them. When the Vashon hoopsters won the state championship in 2009, cheering islanders turned out in droves to welcome them home.
As a senior, he established a single-season school record for blocked shots (89) and an average 18.8 points per game. He served as team captain and was voted Best Teammate. He was a three-time league MVP. He was also awarded the State 1A Player of the Year by the Washington Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Association.
Gage graduated from Vashon High School in 2010, one year after leading the Pirates to the State 1A Basketball championship. But Gage was more than an athlete. He was also a stellar student, with a GPA that placed him in the top six of his graduating class. He also took his grades seriously.
“Academics is the best way to compete against yourself,” he said.
Coaches from big-name schools started to woo him in 10th grade. By 11th grade, he accepted a scholarship to Stanford, a university he was drawn to not only for its basketball program, but also its high academic standards.
There, playing against future NBA superstars such as Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard, Gage was recognized for his on-court contributions as center/forward, first off the bench, playing on average 15 minutes a game. He also excelled academically, becoming a three-time Pac-12 All-Academic First Team honoree.
Time management, he said, became a religion. Skills Gage learned at Vashon High School from Andy Sears, the basketball coach, and Mike Zecker, his most memorable and challenging teacher (with Gage making note to include his Stanford classes in that characterization), enabled him to stay focused. He graduated in 2014 with a degree in economics and computer science.
Gage went to work for a wealth management firm in Bellevue until he was tapped to join a three-person tech start-up in Palo Alto that was developing on-body camera technology. He loved the challenge of wearing many hats at the tiny firm — leading the support team and working on code, quality assurance and analytics.
“I learned so much from that experience. They took the time to teach me aspects of business that I would not have learned otherwise,” he said.
But after a few formative years at the start-up, Gage said he felt the tug to return to Vashon and the Pacific Northwest. So on May 14, he donned a backpack and began his trek along the Pacific Crest Trail, starting his journey at the South Terminus in Campo, California, and ending it at the North Terminus on the Canadian border in north-central Washington on Aug. 18. It wasn’t easy. By Gage’s own calculations, his trek entailed 489,418 feet of climbing and 488,411 feet of descent, with an overall elevation gain of 1,007 feet. He encountered snow, ice and rain, got bitten by countless mosquitoes and of course suffered from blisters, sunburn and sheer physical exhaustion.
He’s now enjoying life on Vashon — resting, reconnecting with his family and friends and contemplating his next challenge. What will it be?
“I can see myself on a mountain, Mount Rainier maybe,” he answered.