Kenya's Bernard Lagat had just won the 5,000 meters at the Mt. SAC Relays last Friday night in Walnut, Calif., but he was still worried. Though his time, 13:23.46, was the world's fastest this year, Lagat was lamenting to countryman Benjamin Kapsoiya, his rabbit in the race, his need for more stamina and better pacing in his next big event. "How am I going to do it?" the Washington State senior said. "Back to back! First exam at one on Monday, then the big management exam right after. So much to concentrate on." Lagat had spent all day Friday sheltered in his hotel room, breaking only to stretch as he switched from one textbook, Strategic Management: Competitiveness and Globalization, to another, Modern Systems Analysis and Design.
While Kenyan runners have been coming to the U.S. for decades to study and train, none are currently combining those two pursuits at a higher level than is Lagat, who could end up on the medal stand at this year's Sydney Olympics. The fifth of 10 children, Lagat grew up in Kapsabet, the running hub in the Rift Valley, four hours west of Nairobi. Though his parents were farmers, they stressed academics for their children; Lagat was diligent in his studies, but he also dreamed of being dike Kenya's Olympic legend Kip Keino and thought Bud Greenspan's Olympic film 16 Days of Glory was "so cool" when he saw it with his older sister Mary, once a nationally ranked marathoner.
After taking a few basic college courses at home, Lagat accepted a scholarship to Washington State at age 21 in 1996, though he had never been out of Africa. As a freshman at Pullman he became a compulsive E-mailer and Web surfer, and a fan of fried chicken, Cougars basketball, Cosby reruns and light rap music—"no cursing and violence," he says.
Last year Lagat won NCAA indoor titles in the mile and 3,000 meters and the outdoor title at 5,000. In August he ran a 3:30.56 1,500 in Zurich—only Morocco's Hicham El Guerrouj and Kenya's Noah Ngeny ran faster in 1999—and later that month he renounced his NCAA eligibility to compete at a higher level. Still, Lagat returned to Washington State, where he has a 3.12 GPA in two majors, decision science and management information systems. He plans to graduate on time next month before heading to Europe to train for the Kenyan Olympic trials in Nairobi, July 20 to 22.
Lagat has another goal. He watches Who Wants to Be a Millionaire with his girlfriend, a Canadian-born athletic trainer at Washington State who, he says, rarely misses a question. Lagat has answered without a miss up to the $32,000 level. After what he hopes will be a successful Olympic debut in the 1,500 in Sydney, Lagat wants to hurry back to Pullman so he can make a run at the million-dollar round, if only from his living room. "The cultural differences make it hard, but I can do it," he says "Final answer."