By Sean Collins
Nobody in collegiate track and field history has ever won three individual titles in one NCAA Indoor Championship meet. Senior Lawi Lalang, one of the best distance runners in collegiate history, will look to be the first.
For Lalang, distance coach James Li and Director of Cross Country and Track and Field Fred Harvey, this plan took months of strategy and training. In 2012, Lalang won NCAA Indoor Championships in both the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters. That meet consisted of two races in two days. For the 2013 NCAA Indoor Championships, Lalang upped the ante and tasked himself with running three races in two days. He ran the preliminary round of the mile on day one then followed up on Saturday with the final of the mile and the final of the 3K. He earned first-place finishes in both races.
“I talked with Coach Li first,” Lalang said. “Then, we both talked to Coach Harvey and he told me that he thinks I’m capable of doing it. He just said, ‘go for it.’ Then I felt, okay, I can do this.”
Looking at all the success he had the two previous meets, Lalang, Li and Harvey decided to do all three this year. The mile, 3K and 5K equates four races in two days.
“It’s definitely an awesome opportunity for Lawi,” Li said. “I definitely weighed this a lot. I wasn’t pushing this on him, that he should do this. It is a lot of races; it’s going to be difficult. But, he wants to do it. Obviously, it would be a tremendous achievement if he pulls it off. It will also help the team tremendously. In the end, I’m very supportive of this and very confident.”
The inception of this idea was not during the 2014 season, rather way back in 2012.
“Actually, I’ve had this plan since my sophomore year,” Lalang said. “But, I didn’t know what it would be like so we decided not to just yet. We decided to just do two races each year and then maybe my last year we would do all three. Everything has lined up well so here we are.”
Lalang, the seven-time NCAA Champion (one cross country, four indoor and two outdoor), enters the final meet of the season ranked No. 1 in the mile, No. 1 in the 3K and No. 1 in the 5K.
“If there is a person who can pull it off,” Li said. “I think it would be Lawi and it would be this year. If you look at him and how strong he is as a runner, compared to the competition, he is arguably the best there is, in NCAA history for distance runners. You can bring up all the biggest names from the Pac-12 and NCAA, he is up there.”
Lalang set the collegiate record in the mile at this year’s Millrose Games. The senior from Eldoret, Kenya clocked a personal-best time of 3:52.88. The second-best time in the country this year is 3:55.86. His time of 7:44.20 in the 3K came at the UW Invitational and was a meet record. The second-best time in the country is 7:47.20.
Finally, Lalang’s 5K time of 13:41.58 is No. 4 in the country on the year. That time was good for first place at the MPSF Championships. Lalang said after the race, “We just came in and wanted to run as easy as possible and it felt good.”
Despite his No. 4 ranking, it would be unwise to sleep on Lalang in that event. He holds the collegiate record in the 5K as well as the mile, running 13:08.28 at the Millrose Games in 2012.
“It won’t be easy,” Li said. “There are some good runners out there and depending on how the race goes and depending on how he feels. It’s not a sure thing he will pull it off.”
Lalang will lead the No. 5 Arizona team into the competition but four other strong competitors join him. Senior Nick Ross has led the country in the men’s high jump for the entire season. Freshman Jordan Young broke the school record in the weight throw three times this year and is No. 7 in the country. Juniors Jovon Cunningham and Pau Tonnesen both have had strong years, as well. Tonnesen is No. 14 in the heptathlon while Cunningham is 13th in the triple jump.
“We have a strong team,” Li said. “If you think about how great Nick has been this year, Jordan has been good this year along with Jovon and Pau. I think everybody has a chance to score and if we do that, our team will do really well. What I always want to do is put Lawi and all my student-athletes in the best situation for the team, as well as for them individually. If we can bridge those two, the team’s interest and his development, that’s ultimately what we want to do. For him to do this, it really says how much he wants to contribute to the team.”
In 2012, the men’s team earned a third-place finish overall and brought a trophy back to Tucson. In 2013, the UA men tied for sixth place. This year, Lalang would like to get a team trophy one more time.
“The team means everything to me,” Lalang said. “Doing this for the team, it feels good.”
Complacency is not something in Lalang’s vocabulary. Training with Li and volunteer assistant coach Bernard Lagat, who just won a silver medal at the age of 39, he sees greatness every day.
“Of course, that’s something I strive for,” Lalang said. “When I’m running, at my level right now, I want to be the best. Getting this chance is really great for me. If I’m going to pull off the triple this weekend, I’m going to be the first person in history to do that. I’m going to leave something behind me, with my name, saying, ‘Lawi Lalang tripled, he was the first one to do it.’ That’s history and that it was what I want to do.”
Li was able to find Lalang in Kenya and lure him to the University of Arizona. He arrived without any competitive running experience whatsoever. Looking at him now, to say the two have formed a great partnership is quite an understatement.
“I am really lucky to be able to be part of this guy’s NCAA career,” Li said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep working with him for a long time, like I’ve done with many of my athletes. Obviously, I’m very blessed and proud of how far he has come and how often he has come through for us. Coming from someone who, let’s face it, nobody even knew about him in Kenya. He is not only one of the best in the NCAA but one of the best in the world and in Kenya. We know Kenya is a tremendously strong distance running country. He’s come a long way and improved so much. Looking at his times over the years in the 1,500 meters, mile, 3K, 5K and even 10K, it’s remarkable.”
For his final collegiate meet on an indoor track, might as well make history on the way out.
“If there is one person who could attempt it, even think about it, it’s Lawi Lalang,” Li said.”