A business major with a GPA of 3.0, Kennedy is nothing if not a pragmatist. He is interested in a career in corporate law, and his summer reading included Donald Trump's The Art of the Deal. "I like the way Trump gets things done," says Kennedy. He views long training runs as a necessity, not a chance to sight-see. "I don't enjoy seeing the country when I run," he says. "I'd rather look at it from a car. I do long runs because I know they will help me when it comes time to compete."
Although he was the top high school middle-distance runner in the nation in 1987-88 (he ran the equivalent of a 4:06 mile) and easily won the Kinney National High School Cross-Country championship, Kennedy's weekly training mileage was incredibly low: He never exceeded 35 miles a week, and during track season he dipped even lower, into the 20s. "On Sundays," Kennedy says, "our training schedule said 'gentle or rest.' I usually opted for the rest."
When it is pointed out that heavier training—70 miles a week is not unusual among top high school runners—might have made him the first U.S. high school miler to break four minutes since Marty Liquori did it in 1967, Kennedy shrugs. "I was satisfied with 4:06," he says. "You have to realize that the peak age for my interests in running is 26 or 27. I just turned 19 in August. And I'm planning to run until I find out how good I can be." Since going to Indiana, Kennedy has doubled his weekly mileage, to 65. He believes the change may explain his improvement last year.
While pragmatism marks Kennedy's running career, Dekkers's seems propelled by sheer enthusiasm. "I can't remember when I started running," she says. "In primary school we would run, and I could beat the other little kids, boys and girls. And then my dad started running with me." As with Kennedy and his Olympic-veteran training partners, Dekkers's father, Deon, could provide plenty of incentive for her. He had the strength to win the South African cross-country title in 1969 and the speed to run a 4:00.1 mile the same year.
Cape Town was a runner's paradise for Dekkers. For distance runs there was a seemingly endless network of forest trails around the family's home on Table Mountain, high above the city; for speed work there were grass tracks and cricket fields.
Dekkers was 15 when her father decided she needed a real coach. His choice was DeVilliers Lamprecht, who in 1968 had become the first South African to break four minutes for the mile. Lamprecht lived 500 miles away, in Bloemfontein, and sent Dekkers her workout schedules by mail, but the long-distance partnership proved to be fruitful. By the time Dekkers was 17, she had run times that would have placed her near the top of U.S. high school lists in several events: 2:08 in the 800, 4:22 in the 1,500 and 9:31 in the 3,000.
Dekkers knew that because of the international ban on competition with South Africa, her running would be limited to domestic meets. Her only chance to test herself internationally would be to leave her homeland. "I always pestered my father about going to the U.S. when we ran in the mornings," she says. "And he's the sort of person who is very much interested in trying new things. He's very restless."
In 1985, faced with the withering South African economy brought about by sanctions, Deon Dekkers decided to sell much of the construction equipment he owned. He found a market for the gear in Houston, and within three months of first visiting the U.S., he decided to bring his family to this country.
For Michelle the transition turned out to be far more difficult than she had imagined. "When I came over, I stood still," she says, wincing at the memory. "It was awful."
Dekkers grew up speaking Afrikaans and still speaks it at home with her family. She began to speak English at the age of 10. Suddenly, as a freshman at the University of Houston, she was faced with college-level textbooks written in what was little more than a classroom language to her.