Going into the 2016 track season, there was a sense of inevitability. Edward Cheserek was at the peak of his powers coming off of his third consecutive NCAA cross country title. He had won both the 3k and 5k indoors in 2014, and in 2015 he completed the outdoor double by winning both the 5k and 10k. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that, barring injury, King Ches was going to dominate again.
I remember a feeling of impending doom whenever I watched a collegiate race with Cheserek in it, but that's why every time he lost (which wasn’t often) came as quite a surprise. The way he raced made him seemingly unbeatable. He could beat you in every way imaginable. Whether the race was a sit-and-kick or hot from the start, Cheserek had the speed and endurance to win either type of race. That's why it came to no one’s surprise when he anchored his Oregon Ducks to a win in the DMR immediately after he won the 5k and before he won the 3k. He then followed that up with a pair of victories in the 5k and 10k during outdoors.
This type of supremacy had rarely been seen before and in today's NCAA, it hasn’t been present (at least, not on the distance side of things). It is fair to question whether or not we will see anyone dominate like this again or if it is even good for the sport to have one iconic superstar...
Before we look at the impact of Ches on collegiate distance running, it is important to put into context his dominance. A good present-day example of Cheserek’s collegiate accomplishments is the Death Star that is the NBA's Golden State Warriors. The Warriors have pretty much made the end of the NBA season a foregone conclusion. They are so much better than everyone else, and they have proven that they can win at the highest level no matter the circumstances. The only thing other teams can hope for is an injury to one of their top players.
In retrospect, most collegiate running fans felt the same way about Cheserek. The only chance anyone had was if he was injured or if he wasn’t in great shape, and even then, Ches still would win when he wasn’t at the peak of his powers.
Many people are quick to point out that the Warriors have sucked the intrigue and fun out of the NBA because everyone knows how the story will end.
When that comparison is brought to the NCAA, I disagree.
Even while Cheserek was at Oregon, the regular season was still incredibly entertaining because fast times were run and many races came down to the wire. Izaic Yorks and Sean McGorty’s battle in the mile at the MPSF Championships led not only to a tight finish, but also the fastest times of 2016. Yes, the biggest stories going into every championship race was about Cheserek, but the narrative around him always held our attention. The storylines weren’t necessarily about whether or not he would. Instead, they focused on how much he would win by. Would he break a national record? How many events was he going to run. Who was going to push King Ches to run his best? Every race Cheserek ran in was a must watch because of these different questions.
The point of all this nostalgia is to point out the lack of a similar figure in collegiate distance running today. After the Oregon superstar graduated, it looked like Justyn Knight would take the reins as the overwhelming favorite in our sport and, for the most part, Knight lived up to the hype.
In the 2016-2017 academic year, Knight won the national title in cross country and followed that up with a win in the 5k during indoors (as well as a runner-up finish in the 3k). Unfortunately for him, he failed to win a title during outdoors, finishing 2nd to Grant Fisher in the 5k. After Fisher’s win, many thought that the NCAA would be his, but he failed to win a title the following year and just lost to Morgan McDonald this past fall.
There is still time to see if McDonald can pick up any additional national titles on the track, but he isn't the undeniable favorite like we've seen from others in the past. Since Ches and Knight left, there hasn't been a clear heir to the throne.
This leads us to two crucial questions: Will we ever see anyone like Cheserek again? And do we want another transcendent star?
I’m not sure we will ever see someone as dominant as King Ches, at least not in our lifetime. Winning 17 national titles shows just how massively talented he was throughout his entire career. In today’s NCAA, with so many top-tier athletes, it's hard to imagine one man beating everyone else on a consistent basis.
Just look at guys like Morgan McDonald who ran in the World Championships and James Sugira who ran in the Commonwealth Games. When you take a look at the big picture, things slowly begin to realize how strong the collegiate circuit is. In fact, an NCAA Championship isn't far off from some of the best pro meets around the world when it comes to prestige. There are a vast amount of variables that go into preparing (and then running) in a championship race, making it hard for even the best runners in the world to guarantee themselves a victory. Obviously, I think it is more realistic that we see another Justyn Knight before we see the next Cheserek.
All of that is great, but it doesn't answer our other question: Is overwhelming dominance good for the sport?
My answer is yes.
While races with a legendary figure might seem too predictable, I don’t think there is anything like watching a race where there is a clear favorite and everyone in the field is doing whatever they can to take them down. Just look at Mo Farah in the last two Olympics. Everyone in the field knew that he was the man to beat and many gave him a run for his money. Yet, in the end, Farah would win in thrilling fashion.
Cheserek’s races were must-see television, not just for rabid running fans, but also for more casual fans because they understood his level of talent. This, I think, is an important point to make. As collegiate cross country and track and field fights to gain popularity, a dominant star upgrades the profile of any event he is running in.
While running is not completely an individual sport, it does have individual stars. If you look at other individual sports such as tennis and golf, you can see how these sports have prospered by having one unbeatable standout. Tiger Woods and Serena Williams made every round and every match of theirs an event because people wanted to see them either destroy their opponents or get upset in stunning fashio. Cheserek races were a similar phenomenon, and it would be huge for the growing sport of running to have another collegiate star that the community could rally behind.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t enjoyed this time of parity where seemingly anyone can win a title. Wasn’t it fun to watch Ben Flanagan come out of nowhere to win the 10k last year? Or seeing Sean McGorty barely edge out Justyn Knight in the 5k?
Not knowing who will even be in the top three makes races exciting, but are they memorable? Winning any NCAA Championship is great, but the ones we remember the most are the upsets or record breaking performances.
Patrick Tiernan will forever be remembered as the one to finally beat Edward Cheserek en route to a cross country national title. The race that everyone will remember from Josh Kerr’s career? Winning the indoor mile by blowing the doors off Ches and the rest of the field. To earn a memorable victory often involves taking down an all-time great, or an all-time great winning their first title. Don’t forget how King Ches put himself on the map; he beat another legend (Lawi Lalang) in his first-ever NCAA Championship.
Long distance running needs another historic superstar to fill the empty throne.
And who knows? They might reveal themselves sooner than we think...