Lalang An Underestimated Phenomenon

By Iman Hamdan

Being 9,545 miles away from home. Countless hours on campus spread out between classes, practicing, training, and conditioning. Balancing the long road trips with homework and projects due throughout the semester. This hectic lifestyle is all worth it when an NCAA Championship title is added to the mix. This sounds all too familiar to Arizona cross country and track and field runner Lawi Lalang.

This Kenya native graduated from Emining High School, holding records in the 1,500-meter run and 3,000-meter run. These are insignificant accomplishments in comparison to the impact Lalang has had on the collegiate running world now that he is in the United States.

Lalang is competing at the Millrose Games in New York City on Saturday, running in the 5,000-meter race alongside teammate Stephen Sambu and former Washington State Cougar and Olympian Bernard Lagat.

In December 2009, Lalang's brother, Boaz, introduced him to Arizona head cross country coach James Li.

"I watched him do some training and I was really impressed," Li said. "Even though his times at that point, at least, weren't that impressive, he just looked like a really strong runner. I also found out that he is a very good student. In Kenya, it's not that hard to find a good runner but to find a good runner that is also a good student is much harder."

This combination sold Li on the idea of bringing Lalang to the University of Arizona to run cross country and long distance races on the track. Ironically, even the coaching staff underestimated Lalang's potential as a new recruit.

"Early on when he came to the U of A campus and started running, we didn't have a clue of how good he really was going to be," Li said. "Plus before he came here he didn't really train that much, so I was thinking he was out of shape. But then during a workout on the baseball field he was running so hard and so fast that he totally dusted everyone. That really impressed me and made me realize that he is going to be special."

With virtually no formal training, Lalang only had the summer to prepare for the 2011 cross country season. This time crunch would not hinder his record-breaking cross country collegiate debut that included the Pac-12, NCAA Regional and NCAA National titles, in addition to numerous course records.

"It felt really great to win," said Lalang. "I was really happy because that was one of my dreams."

As an underclassman, Lalang does not have the tangible role of team captain. Instead, he is seen as the silent leader of the team, commanding respect simply from leading by example.

"As a competitor, I've never met someone with that much drive and determination," said Lalang's teammate and friend Sam Macaluso. "He's not cocky but he has a confidence about him that is nothing like I've seen."

Macaluso is a new addition to the team, as well, which is the basis of his friendship with Lalang. As time went on, their friendship grew stronger and now they find themselves constantly joking around and sharing goals with one another.

Lalang's drive and determination are his most admirable qualities but they can also be his downfall. Li said he finds himself frequently having to hold Lalang back to ensure he does not overwork himself. With these values deeply instilled in his life, it is no surprise that Lalang carries them over to his academic career. Lalang is majoring in physiology in hopes of going into medical field.

In his spare time, Lalang said he enjoys hanging out with his teammates doing a variety of activities - watching comedies, cooking Kenyan food, listening to music and playing volleyball.

Lalang and his teammates also partake in community service projects. The team often takes time out of its schedule to visit, interact with, and feed families in need.

After his collegiate career comes to an end, Lalang hopes to one day become an Olympic runner. With his astonishing success as a collegian, this dream doesn't seem too far from becoming a reality in the near future.

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