“I’m a man of extremes” was the first thing freshman miler Gabe Jennings said to his track coach at Stanford in 1998. “You should know that about me.” His coach, Vin Lananna, must’ve gathered that already, if the athlete’s dress was any indication: long Moroccan robe, skullcap, dark shades, barefeet, with bongos yoked across his shoulders. Or perhaps it’s that Jennings slept on the roof of his residence, even though he had an agreeable room, practiced the harpsichord nude at the university’s music building, and regularly cooked for up to 40 friends, usually serving ugali, a Kenyan dish made of heavy white cornmeal.
Lananna has come to embrace his pupil’s eccentricities, especially since the 21-year-old has become the premier American miler going into the summer Olympics in Sydney. Of Jennings’s many non-athletic activities--playing the drums, emulating the customs of indigenous peoples, and meditating in his “sweat-lodge” tent—each is pursued with characteristic resolve, and is a means of bringing him closer to nature, an ethic fostered by his parents.
Gabriel Harmony Jennings was raised in a style characteristic of the 1960s back-to-basics ideal, in Forks of Salmon, a tiny outpost on the Salmon River in Siskiyou County in Northern California. His mother, Suzanne, actually pulled him out of her birth canal while a couple of midwives looked on. Believing in a child’s innate ability to self-govern, Gabe’s parents encouraged him from infancy to follow his instincts, never dictating to him when to sleep, what to eat, or how to play. This permissive approach to parenting might’ve backfired on a different child, but from as early as four Gabe’s focus was unwavering, even hypnotic. He used to pound on this little drum for hours as if he were attempting to invoke the Great Spirits. “I think Gabe has Native American energy,” his mother muses. She suggests that her son’s lifelong attraction to drumming may in part derive from the family’s involvement with the local Native American population.
The Jennings lived in a cabin without a TV, or electricity. In lieu of grabbing a slice at the local pizzeria (there was none), Gabe foraged on beans, corn and tomatoes in his parents’ garden. From the age of five he ran two miles each way to school, where his parents taught. The school more closely resembled the single-roomed schoolhouse on “Little House On The Prairie” than it did, say, the sprawling suburban campus in “Clueless.”
But as Gabe entered his teens, he yearned for a more conventional lifestyle: he wanted to be a star quarterback at a big high school near a cosmopolitan city. The family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where his father, Jim, sought a graduate degree in ancient philosophy at the university.
His football career never panned out but he did go on to run the fastest prep mile in 23 years (4:02.81). Since then, Jennings’s most impressive victory may have come on July 16, 2000, at the Olympic Trials in Sacramento, Calif., when he dominated the field in the 1,500 meters with a personal record of 3:35.90. (He also captured the NCAA title in the 1,500 meters earlier in the spring.)
Jennings’s shaggy black hair bounces with every stride; the junior music major claims he likes it long because it keeps good time, marking each stride like a metronome. Many have compared him to the late Steve Prefontaine, the iconoclastic Oregonian, who, at the time of his death, in 1975, was the American record holder at every distance from 2,000 to 10,000 meters. Like Jennings, Pre wore his hair long and had an olive-skinned, lithe build that glistened sublimely when he ran. The two runners also share the same birthday, January 25. More important, Pre was and Jennings is a born P.R. guy in a sport that has traditionally—at least in the U.S.--desperately lacked in media exposure.
Witness Jennings’s post-race comments at the U.S. trials to the straightlaced Jim Gray. In what many viewed as a rush of cosmic blather worthy of Dennis Rodman, Jennings credited the full moon for his victory. Later, he held a press conference and spoke as if inspired by haiku: earlier in the day he saw sunlight floating off the leaves; he cried, and new it would be a good day. The reporters were amused, particularly when he went on to explain his journey through life. “Life is in three stages,” he said. “Athletics, that’s the initial stage, to get the body healthy. I’m trying to do that with running. The other two stages are music and philosophy. When I’m 50, I see myself being a jazz musician.”
What the media present may not have appreciated was that Jennings was espousing a classic Greek ideal, observed by the early Olympians. Gabe’s father refers to himself as a Platonist, and has instilled in his son these values—athletics, music, and philosophy—as the ultimate pursuits in life. While Jennings’s may envision himself as the next Max Roach thirty years down the road, his mother pictures him as “a healer” or “a leader” of some kind.
It bears mentioning that the indigenous people for whom Jennings has such deep respect, and perhaps some empathy, too, have produced the finest milers and distance runners in the world. Indeed, Morocco’s Hicham El Gueroj holds the world record in the 1,500 meters (3:26.00) and is favored to win in Sydney—with the Kenyans not far behind. Jennings needs to drop his times radically if he’s to be competitive with this elite class. Even the comparisons to Pre are drastically premature.
These days, being the fastest American miler is kind of like being the best basketball player in Greenland. It’s a major accomplishment, but chances are you’re going to get spanked when you face the world’s best. Still, Gabe Jennings has been a shot of oxygen for American fans of middle distance running. It’s been a long time coming.