The night before, Stevens sat in his bedroom, lined with medals and first-place plaques. “Oregon,” he said, calm and sure, “that’s the school for me. I want to run for Oregon.”
The state meet took place on a hilly, windswept course in Reno where Stevens watched runners from the biggest schools race first. He paid particular attention to the winner, Nathan Carlin, a senior from the Las Vegas area who posted a formidable time of 16 minutes, 29 seconds.
Then it was Stevens’s turn. He stood at the starting line, thin and solitary next to the teams from other small schools. Wearing the same purple uniform he had worn since freshman year, he glanced at his parents and friends. His eyes tensed. He nervously fiddled with his black, shoulder-length hair, which was swept into a ponytail.
Stevens did not just want to beat the field in his race. He knew he needed to better Carlin’s time to stand out to recruiters. “I’m not sure I can,” he thought.
He prayed for strength and toed the line. A beat passed. The starter’s gun pierced the air. Stevens surged to the front, over the crowd’s fervent cheers. “That’s Ku, the Indian kid from the reservation,” he heard one spectator say. “Oh man, he’s fast!”
Stevens struggled for breath and pushed with every step. Faster, faster. He kept on, around a bend, across a straightaway, dirt to gravel to grass. One last lap. Up and down a rocky hillside. Pain arced across his body, but he sprinted forward, grimacing, head tilted back.
Finally, he crossed the finish line. Crumpling to the grass, he heard the public address announcer call out his time: 16 minutes, 28 seconds. One second faster than Carlin.