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She gave her last ounce of strength to save her child and then slipped beneath the waves, a testament to super-human stamina and a mother's sacrifice.

Five months after drowning off a Costa Rican beach, the life of Rhiannon Hull of Healdsburg continues to inspire others. Hull, 33, was swept out to sea after a heroic struggle in which she held her 6-year-old son's head above water and handed him to a surfer who came to their rescue.

Her boy, Julian, was placed safely on the surfboard. But in a matter of seconds, before she could be reached, she vanished into the sea. Her body was found two days later.

"I'm still puzzling over how she was able to keep him afloat," her husband, Norman, said last week.

The mother and child, who had been playing in the water, may have struggled as long as a half-hour against a riptide that pulled them into deep water.

Looking back, Norman Hull said it's as if his wife, an accomplished distance runner, yoga instructor and spin cycle instructor, had been training for that day her entire life.

"She was focused on being in perfect physical condition all the time," he said.

At 5 feet, 2 inches and 100 pounds, she "had amazing upper body strength, first to paddle and then the ability to hold him out of the water and not give up," he said.

The story of Rhiannon Hull was the subject of an in-depth Sports Illustrated story last month that brought widespread attention to her life, and death.

Hull grew up in Eugene, Ore., where she competed on her high school's track and field team and developed into a top cross-country runner at the University of Oregon.

"She could have been a world-class marathoner," Hull said of his wife, who liked to run twice a day and favored the half-marathon distance.

"The woman wasn't tired after 13.1 miles," he said.

They met in Eugene at Joggers Bar and Grill through mutual friends and were married for about nine years.

They had been buying, fixing up and flipping houses in Bend, Ore., and had lived briefly in other cities before discovering Healdsburg and moving there in 2007.

Her death has resulted in the launching of the Rhiannon Joy Hull Foundation, <a href= "http://rjhf.org/">rjhf.org.</a>,to help pay for families to send their children to alternative schools and also benefit local track programs.

One aspect involves enlisting runners and cyclists to raise money in local events to "Run for Rhi" (pronounced "Ree"). The money will go to scholarships to help pay school tuitions, including at Summerfield Waldorf west of Santa Rosa, where Rhiannon's boys are enrolled. She also was finishing a four-year teacher training course there.

Proceeds also are likely to go to the Santa Rosa High school track team.

Norman Hull works part time for the foundation as well as at Capture Gallery, a fine arts gallery in Healdsburg.

LaMarion Spence, a Healdsburg entrepreneur who is helping launch the foundation, said people talk about the sacrifices made for children, but "none are as great as this one."

The foundation "is to make sure the legacy of Rhiannon goes on," he said.

Hull had gone to Costa Rica six weeks before her death to open a Waldorf School kindergarten in Playa Avellanas on Costa Rica's Pacific Ocean side.

She took her 6-year-old with her and the plan was for her husband and their other child Gianni, 8, to join them a short while later.

Hull said he had spoken with his wife by phone, just 15 minutes before she went into the water.

"She was happy. She was in a good mood," he recalled.

His eyes teared up as he spoke of his wife's ebullient personality.

"If there's one word to describe her, it was &amp;&lsquo;joy,'<TH>" said Don Basmajian, director of teacher training at Summerfield Waldorf who would learn Rhiannon's middle name was Joy.

"She had these big blues eyes, sparkling like stars," he said. "And yet, she was a power house; a really strong person, strong ideals."

Basmajian said Hull was a natural teacher, even though he had to be persuaded to allow her to enter the first year of the teaching program because she joined it late.

She home-schooled her children.

"She was really dedicated to her own children and other children as well. She said she wanted to the training for &amp;&lsquo;my children and all the children.'<TH>"

"She said &amp;&lsquo;I want to bring a new impulse to the world,'<TH>" he said. "Those are the words she used."

Basmajian said it was moving to watch Hull train students in track and work with girls who could barely run a lap.

"It was really inspiring to watch. The girls looked up to her and they ran," he said.

What particularly awed him was the first time he saw Hull run when she challenged a boy in long jump.

"She was a world-class runner, the way she moved," he said.

Norman Hull said his wife wanted to ensure her children had a quality education even though it was financially challenging. That's what led her into teaching.

"She felt if you wanted to make a change, that's where you started, was with the children, she always said that," her husband said. "Instead of complaining about something out in the world, like politics, she wanted to instill things in children that make the world a better place."

In the days and weeks after her death, Hull found out how much people cared.

"I live in one of the best towns in America. As soon as this happened, I found out how many friends I had," he said.

About 300 people showed up for Rhiannon's memorial, to support her grieving husband and the couple's children.

"The community came together," he said.

"I didn't cook a meal for six weeks," Hull said because of the food well wishers provided.

Enough donations were made to finance the two boys' tuition this year and into next.

Norman said his sons are doing well.

While they are sad, he said, "our kids are amazing and resilient. They're adjusting well."

"Gianni told me I don't have to be sad when he saw me crying in the hotel" in Costa Rica, Hull continued. "He said it's just her earth body doesn't work anymore and I'll see her again."

Julian talked about how his mother became a mermaid.

"He would ask questions like, &amp;&lsquo;Are mermaids always in the dark? I don't want Mommie to be in the dark all the time,'<TH>" he said.

Hull said that through the foundation website he is already getting emails from people who were inspired to make changes after reading about Rhiannon's life.

One woman said it gave her the courage to quit her job and home school her children.

"There's a lot of inspired people, me being he first," Hull said.

"It assures me it's worthwhile what we're doing," he said of starting up the foundation.

"It's not just a Band-Aid for my emotions," he said. "My wife's life mattered and will continue to."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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