From football to track and field, Spanish exchange student Iker Diaz Montilla excelling at Burke

May 10—BURKE S.D. — Burke High School student Iker Diaz Montilla has been making the most of his only year in South Dakota.

By trying his hand at football and welding and playing on the school's basketball team, the Spanish exchange student has assimilated well into the rural South Dakota community.

But where Montilla has shined brightest is a sport he's grown up competing in: track and field.

The junior exchange student put the state on notice at the Howard Wood Dakota Relays, where he placed fifth in the high jump and sixth in the triple jump among all classes, with marks that rank second and first, respectively, at the Class B level this season.

Montilla's coaches have lauded him as a welcome addition to the school for his athletic ability, his friendliness and maturity. When the time comes, he will be missed when he returns to Spain after the school year.

But first, he'll vie for titles in the high jump and triple jump at the state championships on May 23-25 in Sioux Falls.

"He's a freak athlete, but he's an even better person. He's a great kid." Burke track coach Tyler Uecker said. "Very driven, and he's very knowledgeable about his jumps and his ability."

Born into a family of travelers, Montilla has always been encouraged by his parents to seek out new experiences. So he applied for a scholarship program that sends exchange students to the United States for a year and was accepted.

After getting paired up with a host family, Montilla left his hometown of Madrid, a city of 3.2 million people, and moved into a home just east of Burke, population 570.

"You don't get to choose where you go. They just host you if they like you," Montilla explained. "So this amazing host family liked my profile, and I just wound up here, and I really like it."

Montilla lives with host parents Robyn and Bob Waterbury, along with another exchange student, French native Arthur Jaffray.

He's learned to appreciate the farming-oriented community and has really enjoyed his welding class at school. He said he was surprised how open people are — something he experienced in Spain but not the other places he's traveled to.

"Here, you can talk to anyone and they're nice to you and everything. That's something that I value a lot," Montilla said.

Burke athletic director and head football coach Mike Sebern has gotten to know several of the exchange students the Waterbury family has hosted over the years and has been impressed by their willingness to assimilate into the culture and try new things.

"They just have an adaptability," Sebern said. "Because they're both from places that are a lot bigger, it can be a little bit boring, I think. But these activities give them (something to do)."

One of those new things for Montilla and Jaffray was joining the Cougars' football team in the fall. American football involved a massive learning curve, from putting on the pads and helmet to adapting to the physicality and learning the blocking schemes.

"I didn't know anything about football when I moved, but I enjoyed it ... I was bad though," Montilla joked.

Possessing the size and athletic ability, Montilla played tight end, and worked throughout the season on his hand-eye coordination and blocking. He and Jaffray were instructed to watch college and NFL games on the weekends to learn more.

By the end of the season, Montilla started a few games at tight end and kicked a few extra points, while Jaffray recorded a tackle.

"They picked it up and they had a lot of fun," Sebern said. "Iker made some extra points for us. I don't think he ever got to score a touchdown, but he had some success. They both got to play, and I know that was important to them, too."

After competing for the basketball team throughout the winter, Montilla was eager to start the track season this spring. Back in Spain, he trained year-round for the high jump and is knowledgeable of different training techniques.

Sebern sees this first hand, sitting in his office and watching Montilla go into the weight room each morning before school.

"He goes through a routine of stretching and different types of strength training. The coaches kind of leave him alone because he knows what he needs to do. It's pretty impressive," Sebern said.

Unlike other star high jumpers in the state, Montilla doesn't have a towering frame. At 6-foot-2, he leans on his explosiveness, technique and precision to excel in the high jump.

In the process of competing in high jump, he's found another event he has made his own.

"I was kind of focused more in high jump than the triple jump back in Spain, but here I discovered I was also good at the triple jump," Montilla said. "I just started doing it after basketball. I wasn't really good at it when I started training. I got better."

That improvement was made clear at the Howard Wood Relays on May 3. The week prior, Montilla had jumped 39 feet, 10.5 inches, at the Meet of Legends in Burke. He eclipsed that mark by nearly 4 feet, with a jump of 43 feet,10.25 inches. He also notched a personal best in the high jump of 6 feet, 4 inches.

"I actually didn't expect to place in either event, but I did well in both," Montilla said.

There's a competitive field of jumpers in Class B, including the best jumper in the state at any level, Gregory's Daniel Mitchell, who's jumped 6 feet, 7 inches. Colman-Egan's Jack Mousel is tied with Montilla for second in Class B, while Gregory's Colt Keiser (6-3) is close behind.

Montilla is also first in the triple jump in Class B by nearly a foot, with Northwestern's Ty Boekelheide in second with a 42-10.5.

"I knew that I could compete for a state championship since I saw the level of jumps that they had last year," Montilla said. "But I'm just going to train as hard as I can for the state championship and see what happens."