If the NCAA published a manual on “How To Be a Successful Student-Athlete,” Lawi Lalang would be on the cover. He could win an NCAA championship in smiling.
The digits of his GPA, 3.50, are almost the same as the time in which he can run a mile, 3 minutes and 54 seconds. How many people do that?
Lalang is the Pac-12’s track Scholar-Athlete of the Year, a Kenyan-born distance runner who completed degree requirements (public health) in 3½ years, all while learning the culture of a foreign country and, incredibly, learning how to run. Before he arrived at Arizona in January 2011, he had basically never run a race.
He called laps “loops.”
And yet he’s won seven NCAA championships.
Lalang is the greatest distance runner in UA history, which isn’t meant to slight four-time Olympians George Young and Abdi Abdirahman but rather put Lalang’s Arizona career in proper context.
“He’s the type of athlete any coach can pray for,” says UA distance running coach James Li, who also coaches Bernard Lagat, America’s top distance runner over the last 15 years.
“I love Tucson,” says Lalang in a delightful Kenyan accent, pronouncing “love” as “LAAV.” If you find a nicer guy, let me know.
Lalang will be an Arizona Wildcat for three more days, celebrate his 23rd birthday on Sunday, and then hire a manager, turn pro, fly to Europe for the 2014 Diamond League season and begin a journey he hopes makes him an Olympian, a world champion and flush enough to go home to Eldoret, Kenya, and, among other things, help people gain access to clean drinking water.
The last three days of Lalang’s Arizona career could be the best.
He will run the semifinals of the NCAA 1,500 meters tonight, the much-anticipated finals of the 5,000 meters Friday and the 1,500 meters Saturday at Oregon’s hallowed Hayward Field.
That’s the equivalent of a college quarterback playing his final game at the Rose Bowl.
Each of the 11,000 fans in that revered Oregon stadium will be praying to see Lalang get beat. The Ducks’ Edward Cheserek and Mac Fleet are public heroes in Eugene, on the scale of a Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon at McKale Center.
Cheserek will run against Lalang in the 5,000 meter finals; Fleet, last year’s 1,500 national champion, is gunning for Lalang in Saturday’s nationally televised showdown.
Lalang does not stop smiling when asked about the reception that awaits him at Hayward Field, but he does interrupt a reporter’s question.
“It will be tough,” he says with emphasis, pronouncing it “TOFFF” in his Kenyan accent. “But I pretend they are cheering for me. It will be the best race for me. But TOFFF.”
The NCAA 5,000 meters race is viewed as something of a holy event by those in the sport. It has been won by Steve Prefontaine, Sydney Maree, Marty Liquori and by UA and Tucson-connected All-Americans Bernard Lagat, Martin Keino and Marc Davis.
Lalang won it last year, easily, but Oregon’s Cheserek was not in the field, nor was Texas Tech’s Kennedy Kithuka. That threesome is as good as it gets in college distance running. Lalang, Kithuka and Cheserek are all NCAA cross-country national champions.
“It’s going to be the race of the entire meet,” says Li. “It’s not a given that Lawi will win even though he’s in good shape and has been running very well.”
Here’s a clue about how good Lalang is: The NCAA record for 5,000 meters is
13 minutes 20 seconds, set 33 years ago by Villanova’s Maree. Last summer, running as an amateur in a Diamond League meet in Monaco, Lalang finished in 13:00.95.
“When I saw the two zeroes, I went ‘Awww,’ but then I realized it was my personal best, and that I hadn’t done anything like that before,” says Lalang. “Someday, my goal is maybe to run as fast as Lagat’s American record (12:53.60). Or maybe even run under 12:50.”
A year ago, Lalang won the NCAA championships in the 5,000 and 10,000. He has chosen to switch from the 10,000 to the 1,500 this week because, frankly, the 10K requires almost 30 minutes and can wear down an elite runner’s legs for a few weeks.
In a meet of this caliber, every ounce of energy will count. Last month, Cheserek gave Lalang the race of his life in the Pac-12 championships; Lalang had to break the Pac-12 record, 3:36.34, just to beat Cheserek by a step.
Lalang smiles at the memory.
“You must be at your best, but so must Cheserek,” he says. “It showed me that, yes, I can.”
At Arizona, Lalang’s legacy will be more like “yes, he did.”