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Greg Hansen: UA's Lalang has a real chance to be the best

2013-06-19T00:00:00Z 2013-11-06T12:56:03Z Greg Hansen: UA's Lalang has a real chance to be the bestGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 19, 2013 12:00 am  • 

As Lawi Lalang ran the homestretch at celebrated Hayward Field, winning the NCAA 5,000 meters championship June 8, Nike co-founder and distance running godfather Phil Knight stood and applauded.

"One of the first things Phil said when we spoke was how impressed he was with Lawi," remembers UA athletic director Greg Byrne, who was in Eugene, Ore., to witness Lalang's NCAA victories in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. "Phil mentioned that Lawi had become part of some great company."

Great company?

Lawi Lalang has now won seven NCAA distance running championships. That matches Oregon's fabled Steve Prefontaine and surpasses other Duck legends, from Galen Rupp to Alberto Salazar, and goes beyond Pac-12 legends Henry Rono and Bernard Lagat.

Here's a better perspective: Lalang probably has a better chance to catch and surpass the record 11 NCAA distance running championships of Washington State's Gerry Lindgren than Tiger Woods has to overhaul Jack Nicklaus' career victories in major golf championships.

"Winning those races in Eugene was basically, for Lawi, a walk in the park," says retired UA track coach Dave Murray, who established Arizona as a one of the world's leading distance running hotspots from 1967 to 2002. "Based on what he's done, no question, he's right up there with the very, very best we've ever had, if not the best."

If not the best?

I've known Murray for 25 years, and he doesn't deal in hyperbole. He carefully measures decimal points and centimeters, befitting a man selected to the Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2008. But he knows. Arizona has never had a male distance runner like Lawi Lalang. Not even close.

Think of it this way: Lalang's seven NCAA titles include one in cross country, four indoor championships and two he added this month in Oregon.

Yet in the distinguished history of UA distance running, all others have combined to win eight: two by Robert Cheseret, Marc Davis and Martin Keino, and one each by Matt Giusto and Aaron Ramirez.

Do you realize how difficult it is to win even one NCAA title in a distance event? Former Arizona All-Americans Thom Hunt, Tom Ansberry, Stephen Sambu and four-time Olympians George Young and Abdi Abdirahman never won an NCAA title.

Since arriving on the UA campus from Eldoret, Kenya, in January 2011 without ever having run an organized race, Lalang has gone beyond just being the latest standout from the world's most fertile distance running region.

At the NCAA indoor finals in March, he won the mile and the 3,000 meters in a 45-minute span. Incredibly, he ran the mile in 3:54 while trying to conserve energy.

"Most people can't do that," Murray said with a laugh. "That's when people really began to take notice of Lawi."

Discovered in Kenya by UA coach James Li, Lalang probably has six more chances to win an NCAA championship: the 2013 and 2014 cross country finals, the 2014 indoor mile and 3,000 and the 2014 outdoor 5,000 and 10,000, the latter four of which he is defending champion.

That gives him a margin for error to surpass Lindgren's 11 titles.

Li, whose rise to prominence came after recruiting and coaching Olympic medalist Lagat, first at Washington State and now in Tucson, has scheduled Lalang to run in Europe this summer. Lalang can't accept prize money, but he can accept money for expenses to participate in world-class meets, which will challenge him much more than NCAA competition.

Imagine how much faster he can get.

"If Lawi were an American, he'd be gone by now because someone would've put a big paycheck in front of him," says Murray. "But because there are so many great Kenyan distance runners, and he's still so young, there's no hurry to turn pro."

Even more intriguing, Lalang has some notable goals remaining at Arizona - goals that mean as much as surpassing Lindgren's 11 NCAA titles - before he begins training for the 2016 Olympics or turning pro.

He is deadlocked with the two greatest female track and field athletes in UA history, Amy Skieresz and Meg Ritchie. Skieresz won seven NCAA distance running titles from 1996 to 1998, and Ritchie won seven NCAA championships in the shot put and discus from 1980 to 1983.

How's that for irony? A three-way tie at the top.

Lalang's countdown to No. 8 begins now.

Contact columnist Greg Hansen at ghansen@azstarnet.com or 573-4362. On Twitter @ghansen711

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