The family moved to Madison, Wis., when Gabe was 13. Jim, who refers to himself as a Platonist, was seeking a graduate degree in ancient philosophy at Wisconsin, and Gabe and Trea, 20 months younger, needed to attend a high school.
At the end of eighth grade Gabe ran in the National Hershey (Pa.) Track and Field Meet and finished second in the 1,600. The next year, at the Wisconsin state high school meet, he finished sixth in the 1,600, while a boy he had beaten the previous year at Hershey came in second.
"Gabe was a football player his freshman year," Jim recalls, "but when he finished sixth in the race in that state meet, he asked the boy who finished second what he'd done to get so much better. The kid said, 'Cross-country,' and that was it for Gabe with football." He would win nine state titles in track and cross-country, catching the attention of several colleges.
Stanford was the most serious suitor, and the most appealing to the California boy who wanted to come back home but who also was looking for high academic standards and a good running program. Lananna visited Gabe in Wisconsin the summer before his senior year.
Redshirted the fall of his freshman year, Jennings returned that spring to finish second to Seneca Lassiter of Arkansas in the NCAA 1,500 outdoor final. In his sophomore year, however, a variety of training-related injuries truncated Jennings's autumn cross-country season and wiped out his spring track season. Last November he told Lananna he was ready to quit running. "I saw that breakdown coming from that first day," says Lananna. "That first meeting, Gabe had told me his goals. Everyone here sets high standards. Gabe's were off the charts."
"I kept reinjuring myself because I'd do everything too hard," says Jennings of his lost sophomore year. "I'd do this plyometric hand cycle in the weight room, and I would try to make it spin faster than anyone had. Nobody wanted to work out near me."
While recovering from his injuries, Jennings became close to the team's masseur, Len DeBenedictis. A retired physicist, DeBenedictis helped Jennings achieve the mental harmony foretold by his middle name. "Gabe's mental Achilles tendon is his belief in perfection," says DeBenedictis. "He gets very down if the world does not work the way it should. I listened mostly. Gabe's an easy guy to believe in, and I may have even convinced him of some of the positive points of capitalism."
"I think," says Jennings, "that I just needed to hear that someone believed in me."
Last spring Stanford's different drummer began serving as the self-appointed percussionist Pied Piper for the team. Jennings, who's on schedule to graduate in 2002, brought his claves (i.e., percussion sticks) to meets, and after his races he would lead teammates and fans alike in impromptu jam sessions in the stands for the final distance events. "It wasn't about winning as much as it was about celebrating track and field," says Jennings. "It was about letting all the athletes know that we are in this together."
"I wasn't crazy about the drum section," says Lananna, "but then I noticed something. Gabe didn't stop drumming until the last runners had crossed the line. It didn't matter to him what school they were from."