For Ku Stevens, Running Is a ‘Profound Act’

Watching Ku Stevens fly along the cross-country course in Nevada was like watching a movie play out.

He is the kind of athlete that Kurt Streeter, our Sports of the Times columnist, loves writing about. An athlete simultaneously larger than life and rooted in reality, driven to perform yet motivated by more than the clock or the scoreboard.

Streeter first learned of Stevens after the 18-year-old completed a Remembrance Run, a 50-mile journey over the summer in honor of his great-grandfather’s repeated escapes from an Indigenous boarding school in Nevada.

When Streeter first chatted with Stevens, he was taken aback by the runner’s perspective, maturity and talent, given that Stevens mostly trains alone in the grueling sport of cross country.

In early November, Streeter watched Stevens win the cross-country state title as spectators cheered and were overheard saying things like, “That’s Ku, the Indian kid from the reservation. Oh man, he’s fast!”

Not only did Stevens win — in a league of his own, 59 seconds ahead of 2nd place — but his time was the fastest in the state. He finished his season undefeated in Nevada.

But Stevens would run even if he wasn’t winning, Streeter told me. “He would just run because it’s a profound act.”

After Stevens won the state title, he didn’t sleep in or make plans to hang out with friends the next morning. He woke up to chop wood in his family’s backyard for their sweat lodge. He would participate in a ceremony to commemorate the season, to honor the moment, and to stay grounded as there was more work to be done.

I spoke to Streeter about his article on Stevens, what the sport means to the runner and his family, and how high school cross-country meets are much more meaningful than the miles covered.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Can you tell us more about Stevens’s relationship with running?

So much of what he does is connected to that sense of honoring his Yerington Paiute tribe and Native Americans and first nations and Indigenous people all over. He’s aware of the atrocities and the challenges of the past and the challenges of today. He’s both spiritual and practical and aware of politics. When he’s out running, those are the moments for him to meditate on all of that.

It’s something to get to that level in a sport that is so grueling. You have to love it, and he does. He lives for it: the sensation of being in his body, claiming that space out on the trail.

You can see it in his stride, you can see it in the way he talks about the sport. It’s not drudgery for him. He talks about the pain as something he embraces, enjoys, and wants to be challenged by.

He has all of these big dreams for running. He’d love to run for the University of Oregon but I also think he realizes, who knows if that will happen? He’s definitely putting in the work — running 50 miles to 60 miles or more a week, a ton of it by himself.

I’ve been around a lot of great athletes in my life: from my days as a collegiate and professional tennis player to my current life as a sportswriter. Ku is among the most disciplined and self-motivated athletes I’ve seen.

You’ve said everybody knows Stevens, both on his reservation and in Yerington, Nev. Tell us more about his community and his family.

His family is super supportive; beautiful people. You don’t get a kid like Ku without wonderful parents. But it’s not pushy. Their attitude is, ‘Well, this is what he wants to do, it’s his life, and we’re going to help him fulfill his dream.’

His dad, Delmar, is a runner. The story goes that he was taking Ku out on runs, in those joggers that parents push, from the time Ku was an infant really, and it just went from there. Ku started to walk and then began to run as a toddler. He’d go 20 feet with this dad and then further and further and further, and in that way Ku was always around running because of his dad.

They are a family that really pays a lot of attention to their Native heritage, and they are really connected to trying to keep traditions alive and rooted in that culture — they’ve taught Ku to be that way as well.

Ku Stevens fell in love with running at a young age. By 8, he was running constantly at the side of his father, Delmar Stevens, right. Credit…Sharon Chischilly for The New York Times

The climax of the story is the state meet. What was it like to be there?

I set about trying to focus on that state meet — not knowing at all what was going to happen. I thought Ku would most likely win the small school title, but I didn’t know about this great runner from Las Vegas, Nathan Carlin. He runs in the 5A race for the big schools.

They both basically ran their races alone. And then the fact that Ku ends up with the faster time by one second? It’s something out of a movie.

Everybody could see how light Ku was with his stride. He’s got a beautiful fluidity to his running; that’s something I could see, and I’m far from a distance running expert. But it’s something you can sense immediately — that he’s a little different in his stride and smoothness.

It’s pretty amazing to think of how good he is without having much expertise around him until recently.

You wrote that Stevens hoped to beat Carlin’s time before he started but raced on his own. Had Carlin and Ku — both of whom won with dominant performances — ever crossed paths before or after their races?

I didn’t write about this, but Ku and Carlin ended up meeting each other in this very neat way after the state meet. They had never met and apparently did not know about each other.

There was this great moment of camaraderie and sportsmanship after the race. Carlin came up to talk to Ku and congratulate him. And there was a lot of ‘oh man, you’re awesome’ from both guys. It was a neat moment where they both were respectful of each other’s efforts.

I was really struck by that. It was a cool moment of respect and sportsmanship and honoring the accomplishments of a fellow competitor. You could really see how everybody honors the shared sacrifice and pain that you have to go through in order to be good in cross country.

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