By Bob Kelley, retired RLC Sports Information Director and 2012 Hall of Fame inductee
INA, Ill. (April 1, 2019) - Try to put yourself in the plane seat of 18-year-old Boaz Kiplagat Lalang, who was leaving Eldoret, Kenya in 2007 headed for worlds unknown, i.e., Ina, IL. Imagine a mindset spinning at warped speed. His goal to become a top-notch middle-distance runner paramount, the only real certainty.
A Bucket List, though? Highly unlikely the aspiring world-class athlete would have even heard of such a thing at that point in his young career, let alone taken the time to compose one.
A mind-boggling year later, his experiences / achievements / accomplishments included . . .
- • Warrior red T-shirts worn proudly by many of the Rend Lake College faculty, staff and fellow students proclaiming, “Boaz and Brent: Putting the INA in ChINA.”
- • A Southern Illinois community tuned in intently to watch and follow online the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in particular happenings in Bird’s Nest Stadium.
- • “Boaz Lalang Day,” the September 3, 2008 celebration on-campus which served as a Welcome Home to a returning hero, a favorite son.
It is time to add another bullet point to that heretofore unknown Bucket List . . .
- • Induction into the Rend Lake College Sports Hall of Fame, Class of 2019. Another “Boaz Lalang Day,” of sorts; yet another Welcome Home for a favorite son. The 20th Annual occasion is set for Saturday, April 20, at 5:30 p.m. in Jim “Hummer” Waugh Gymnasium.
RLC’s World Ambassador will share the evening with another native Kenyan distance runner and proud All-American, Pasca Cheruiyot Myers; ultra-successful Alumni Coach Darin Lee, who recently completed his 30th season calling signals from the high school sidelines with 632 victories and a .694 winning percentage to his credit, and the 2012-13 Men’s Basketball Warriors coached by Randy House, National Junior College Athletic Association Division II National Champions at 30-3 and Great Rivers Athletic Conference Champions against nine D-I rivals.
Lalang’s HOF inclusion with other well-deserving individuals and team had more to do with events and successes leading up to all of the above. Consider the Year of Boaz 2008 . . .
- • A six-time National Junior College Athletic Association All-American in the Winter/Spring. Even better than that: A six-time NJCAA National Champion. Six events, six times finishing in front of all-comers.
- • Lalang made his NJCAA Indoor Track and Field National Championship debut memorable by winning the 800-Meter Run, 1000M (2:28.88) and Mile (4:05.91).
- • He also anchored the victorious Distance Medley Relay Team, following in the footsteps of freshman classmates Ben Cheruiyot, Travis Taylor and Aaron Dixon to beat the clock at 10:04.89.
- • For his efforts, he was awarded Indoor “Athlete of the Meet” honors, to the surprise of no one.
- • As a direct result of these efforts above and beyond, with the help of others, “Coach of the Meet” Brent McLain, Lalang and the Warriors brought home their first (and only) NJCAA Indoor Track and Field National Championship Team trophy.
Those sharing the victory stand included Elkanah Kibet (first, 5000M (14:38.78); second, Mile and 3000M) and Cory Holman (first, Pentathlon; fourth, 60M Hurdles; fifth, High Jump). In addition, Ben Cheruiyot (second, 5000M), 4 x 800M Relay Team members Robert Kapsoiya, Travis White, Jeremy Whitaker and Dixon (second); Raymon Parker (third, 200M; eighth, Long Jump); Dixon (fourth, 1000M; fifth, 800M); Taylor (fourth, 600M); Markus McCown (Fourth, Shot Put); Andre Townsend (sixth, 60M Hurdles), and James Freeman (sixth, Shot Put).
Rend Lake College compiled 133 points, outdistancing runner-up Barton County (KS) with 86 and third-place Butler County (KS) with 66 in Eastern Illinois University’s Lantz Indoor Fieldhouse.
- • A couple of months later, Outdoors, he covered 800M (1:46.58) and 1500M swifter than anyone in the NJCAA Finals.
- • See No. 4 in this series of bullet points – “Athlete of the Meet,” again.
- • A week before his 19th birthday, Lalang toppled a 23-year-old fieldhouse record and posted the fastest 800M collegiate time – all levels – with a winning 1:47.82 February 1 at the Indoor Indiana University Relays. It was the eighth-best time in the world.
- • The following week, in the prestigious University of Arkansas Tyson Invitational, he did likewise with his winning 4:58.34 Mile.
- • Need more? Lalang was a NJCAA Track and Field Coaches Association Academic All-American and helped the Warriors garner Academic Team of the Year distinction with the fourth-best composite grade-point average (3.26).
Lalang had been set to sign with Cloud County C.C. (KS) before one of his former training partners, Kibet, convinced him RLC was the place to be.
“I feel that I have been exposed to another world. I am finding different things about myself,” he told RLC’s Nathan Wheeler.
“I like Coach McLain,” the gifted protege said of the former Alabama standout. “Sometimes he gets mad, but I understand him. He is the right coach for the right runner.”
“Right now,” he echoed those sentiments to Becky Malkovich of The Southern, “I can say I am better because of the kind of training Coach McLain gives me. I’ve done my best and I hope to improve on that.”
“God put something in him he didn’t put in regular people,” McLain told Malkovich. “He was built to run. He eats, drinks and sleeps running. He always does more than he is asked to do and I have to watch him to make sure he doesn’t do too much. He is 100 percent dedicated both on and off the track.”
Those back home were taking note. He was extended an invitation to Kenya’s Olympic Trials.
“And it is just that dedication that prompted faculty, staff and fellow students to contribute to a travel fund to pay the expenses Lalang will incur by traveling back to his homeland for the Olympic Trials,” continued The Southern.
The cost of an airplane ticket was equivalent to the average annual earnings of an entire Kenyan family.
“ ‘If I had to use one word to describe Boaz, it would be ‘disciplined.’ I joke with him that he is one of the few people I know trying to break a world record, run in the Olympics and can still get his classwork done on time. He has the best excuse ever not to do his work, but he always turns it in on time,’ Lalang’s English Instructor, Brandi Johnson, said with a laugh.”
Lalang earned a spot on the Kenya team in early July. He won his semifinal during qualifying in Nairobi before finishing second in the finals in 1:45.21 behind former World 800M Indoor Champion Wilfred Bungei with a time of 1:45.06. World Champion Alfred Kirwa Yego followed in 1:45.49. That trio joined 33 other Kenyans in China.
With Coach McLain and his wife, Dr. Deedra McLain, providing support in person, compliments of a generous gift package provided by the RLC Foundation, Lalang qualified as one of 24 semifinalists after preliminaries the previous day reduced an original field of 58.
Brent and Deedra did not get to spend much time with Lalang in China, but they did get to show their support, along with sharing well-wishes from others. They recalled tears in his eyes as he read messages of support.
“They didn’t send me to Beijing to sight-see. They sent me for that one moment, when Boaz knew that his Rend Lake College family was with him,” McLain said.
And his 1:45.87 clocking was the seventh fastest overall from three semifinals on August 21 meant to reduce the field to eight for the finals. Unfortunately, it was not good enough by Olympic standards. He finished third in his heat, nipped at the wire by .02-second by Canadian Olympic veteran Gary Reed in 1:45.85. Nabil Madi of Algeria won in 1:45.63.
The top two in all three semifinals were automatic qualifiers, with the two-fastest among 18 other participants also making the grade for the finals. Timewise, Lalang beat both Heat 1 winner, Kenyan teammate Bungei (1:46.23), and Heat 1 runner-up, Yeimer Lopez of Cuba (1:46.40), but they advanced by placing 1-2 in the slower semi.
Kirwa Yego set a blistering pace to win Heat 2 in 1:44.73, with third-place Yusuf Saad Kamel of Brunei (1:44.95) and fourth-place Nadjim Manseur of Algeria (1:45.54) advancing ahead of Lalang.
Lalang’s extended American family followed his exploits online during his Olympic run and got to see his semifinal the following evening on television. “The McLain Report: From China to Ina” chronicled their experience and allowed for blogging support back “home.”
“He was so close,” a proud coach noted. “He had the seventh-fastest (semifinal) time. They went out and looked good for about 100 meters, and then nobody wanted to take it. So Boaz took the lead. Eventually everyone slowed down for about 100 meters.
“Then they ran a great last lap, faster than any other heat. If someone (else) would have taken (the pace in the middle of the race), he would have been fine. But it was a great race for him.”
The McLains “were sad for about five minutes, until we started thinking what an accomplishment it was and the fact he has so many years of his life in front of him.”
With his sophomore season approaching, the guest of honor told a “Boaz Lalang Day” gathering, “I’m glad to be back home.” “I want to thank Rend Lake College for allowing me to fulfill my dreams.”
But a week before Thanksgiving, there was another newsworthy moment on the Ina campus. Lalang announced his signing with Adidas. The offer to turn pro was one he could not refuse, for the sake of his family back in Africa.
“I didn’t want to turn pro; I wanted to run for Rend Lake College,” he admitted. “But I couldn’t do that to my family. They have given up a lot for me. It took all their money to buy my plane ticket here.”
Commented McLain, “He was given a deal none of us could turn down if we were in his shoes. He is ready . . . and we just have to let him fly.”
In 2010, the Adidas rep was Co-“Outstanding Performer” at the Drake Relays and was representing Kenya when he finished first in 1:46.40 in the 800M Run at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, India and second (1:46.39) at the World Indoor Championships in Doha, Qatar. The following year, he was second (1:46.40) at the All-Africa Games in Maputo, Mozambique.
Personal Records Outdoors all came within a three-month stretch in 2010, between June and August – 800M - 1:42.95 (Rieti, Italy); 1000M - 2:14.83 (Eugene, OR); 1500M - 3:35.80 (Rome, Italy), and Mile - 3:52.18 (Oslo, Norway). He was runner-up at the Rieti Meeting behind the World Record set by Kenyan David Rudisha at 1:41.01.
Lalang set his final P.R. in 2012 in the Indoor 600M (1:18.61) in Moskva, Russia and placed 12th representing Kenya in the 800M (1:49.31) at the 2012 World Indoor Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.
By June 2012, according to Reuters, “Commonwealth Champion Boaz Lalang’s hopes of taking part in this year’s London Olympics crashed miserably as he failed to qualify for Saturday’s final of the Kenyan Olympic Trials in the 800M semifinals hit won by Rudisha, the hot favorite for Gold, at the Nyayo Stadium on Thursday morning.
“The New Delhi winner finished last in the hit much to the shock of the fans who turned up to watch the race even though Rudisha was the favorite. The World Record-holder won the hit in easy style.”
Lalang would later serve as a Volunteer Assistant Coach for the University of Arizona, where younger brother Lawi Lalang was an eight-time National Collegiate Athletic Association Champion, including a Cross-Country title as a freshman, and a 16-time All-American.
FYI – Lalang said at the time, “We run because of the climate there, and because you have to struggle. Running is the best way for us to achieve a better life. If offers us opportunity.”
He worried about his Kenyan family’s safety, surrounded by bloodshed, revolution and political unrest. And yet he told The Southern life in small-town America is not that much different than in his small African village.
“I like it here, especially this (track) program. The people in this area are very good people. They have helped me so much,” commented Lalang, who was living in a cabin at the Baptist Camp on Lake Benton. “It’s perfect here.”