FAYETTEVILLE -- When Josphat Boit told John McDonnell about his goals beyond the University of Arkansas, the 33-year veteran coach told him being Kenyan may actually be a disadvantage.
Cracking the elite ranks of Kenyans who dominate the world class distance running circles is a tall order, McDonnell cautioned.
"He wanted to be a professional athlete," McDonnell said. "I said, 'You know being a Kenyan is a knock against you because there's so many great Kenyans. You'll have to be outstanding.'
"And he said, 'I want to be outstanding.'"
That, McDonnell said, was "just what you want to hear."
Boit has been everything McDonnell has wanted and more in his first season without either of his 2004 Olympic finalists Alistair Cragg and Daniel Lincoln, who combined to win 11 NCAA track championships from 2001-04.
Boit, a junior transfer from Cowley (Kan.) Community College, has won all three races he's entered this year, including a sparkling 29 minute, 22 second performance at the Chile Pepper Festival in Fayetteville on Oct. 16.
He's earned three straight Southeastern Conference Athlete of the Week honors and will be a heavy favorite to take top honors again Saturday when No. 3 Arkansas hosts the SEC Cross Country Championships.
"It's really going better than I thought it would," said Boit, a 5-foot-7, 127-pound native of Eldoret, Kenya. "I didn't expect to make a name so fast."
It was the names of Arkansas and McDonnell that drew Boit to Fayetteville after coming to the U.S. from Oslo, Norway, where he lived with his older brother and ran the 5,000 meters in 13:17.2 as a 17-year-old in 2001.
He started surfing the Internet looking up the best running programs in the country and naturally McDonnell and his 39 NCAA titles caught his eye.
"He immediately tagged us as the place to go," McDonnell said, then chuckled, "which was fine with me."
Boit's three-year old time is just off Cragg's school record of 13:16.98 set last outdoor season.
He has "unlimited" potential and should challenge several of Cragg's times under a more rigorous program than Cowley. While McDonnell sees an athlete similar to Cragg in Boit, he didn't expect to get the same kind of leader.
McDonnell saw the evidence after a recent hill workout when several of his runners sought out Boit to thank him for helping them get through the tough session.
"It's amazing," McDonnell said. "Some of the guys after it was over went over to Josphat and said, 'Thanks for helping us going up the hill.' He talked to them going up the hill. For a kid that's just arrived, that's great team camaraderie.
"He's not afraid of those guys, so he's willing to talk to them and try to help them hang on. They all respect him, so for him to just talk to them means a lot to young guys. That builds a team atmosphere you need.
"I didn't think Josphat would be the type of kid who would come in right away and do that."
Boit has helped to fit in on the team after joining former junior college rival turned roommate Marc Rodrigues, who was a boyhood friend of Cragg's in South Africa.
Boit and Rodrigues have immediately claimed roles as two of Arkansas' top three runners and have also continued a leadership tradition McDonnell believes must flow from the top.
"That's what (Cragg and Lincoln) did," McDonnell said. "That's good. It's been handed down. That's what you have to have to have a great team. It starts to come down from the upperclassmen. Good athletes can't be selfish.
"If they are, you're not going to have a great team."
McDonnell has coached several Kenyans in his career and said they, like Cragg and Lincoln, have an uncoachable toughness and a willingness to work not seen in every athlete.
"I think maybe the environment they grew up in, they look at running as a way out of where they are, a chance to make a better life for themselves," McDonnell said. "Kenya is a poor country and they are hard workers. They really have that discipline. They don't mind how hard they have to work to succeed. That's something you cannot coach.
"He's the kind of kid you have to keep back. So was Alistair."
Boit, who started competing relatively late in his high school career, said not making it is not an option for Kenyan runners who need success to survive and give heart to their country.
"It's their job," he said. "If they don't do it, they don't get to eat. I think that pressure makes them do good. They have to work for it, unlike someone who is comfortable enough.
"The world has noticed a small country in Africa only by the good runners. That's a really big thing, especially to the Kenyan country."
Boit, who enjoyed the television show CSI so much he's majoring in criminal justice, sees running much the same way.
"I've enjoyed it and it is like a job because it pays for my scholarship," he said. "It's paying for my education and it's fun to do."
When asked about his chances of becoming the first Arkansas runner to claim an individual NCAA cross country title since Godfrey Siamusiye took two straight from 1995-96, Boit gave a smile and a tilt of the head that said, 'Slow down, man.'
"I try to take each day by itself," he said. "I try to go step by step."
Boit also said "the most important thing is to win and lead the team," something he can continue this weekend in Fayetteville and beyond when Arkansas goes to Indiana State Nov. 22 for the NCAA Championships.
A win there would be a good start toward placing his name alongside guys like Cragg and Lincoln in the Arkansas history books.
"I still have a long ways to go," he said. "I'm not even close to where those guys are. But it's a nice start.
"I hope I keep on going."
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