Francis Parker School (CA) cross country phenom Kenan Pala has been passionate about running since his Lancer freshman year. But the Yale University-bound senior has an even greater devotion to addressing homelessness and finding ways to inspire others to find their niche within the community service dynamic.
Pala capped his final season in the Parker Brown and Gold by capturing the 2021 California Interscholastic Federation Division V Boys Cross Country Championship in a time of 14 minutes, 51 seconds - which he said was years in the making.
"My preparation for my senior season began all the way back to my freshman year," he said, noting he finished fourth in the event as a sophomore and the pandemic eliminated the competition during his junior year. "That's just how my mindset is for athletics. It's always about looking at it from a long run perspective - putting in the work three or four years in advance, so by the time the event comes, you can be confident you've done everything to prepare. The elevation training, training in windy conditions and on rough terrain. It all came together my senior year - winning the state championship in (Division V) record time."
In addition to his exploits during the state cross country competition, Pala finished second at the prestigious 2021 Eastbay Boys Cross Country Championships, which was run at Balboa Park in San Diego, California, just 10 minutes from the Francis Parker School campus. He clocked a time of 15:14.80 and is also nominee for All-USA TODAY HSSA Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Pala said he took a circuitous route to running.
"I have four dogs," he said. "And one of them needed some behavior training. We got in touch with a behavioral therapist for dogs and I learned the therapist's son was running triathlons. At the time, I was really interested in triathlons and took that as a sign to try triathlons. That was around seventh grade. I did triathlons for two years, but hated the swimming portion. It took me two years, but I decided to cut out the swimming and cycling and decided to just run. Going into my freshman year of high school I solely focused on running."
Francis Parker High School Head Cross Country Coach Kevin Yaley said it is a pleasure to be in the presence of Pala and the rest of the Lancers squad.
"They are great kids to be around," he said. "There's a great sense of joy and camaraderie that takes place at every practice. There's a lot of wonderful traditions that these kids have had passed down to them overall the years. That type of atmosphere attracts kids that otherwise maybe wouldn't think they are that much of a runner, but they come out and get hooked. There are kids who, during their freshman year, struggled to complete a two-mile training run, and by their junior or senior year, they're part of a championship team."
Pala said his approach to the sport from the neck up sets the tone for how he performs physically.
"I am a huge proponent of mindfulness," he said. "You can ask anyone on our cross country team or track team. Running is deceiving. We think it's just a physical sport because all we see is the body moving, but if you don't go into the race feeling confident and in control, it's going to go horribly. When your mind gets the best of you, you lose control of your body. Mindfulness is something I stress in my training daily. That comes through meditation and breathing exercises every day."
Running, Pala noted, has provided motivation to excel in other aspects of his life.
"Whenever I went through a bunch of injuries my sophomore year, and I wasn't running, it really impacted me outside of the sport," he said. "I wasn't performing my best in school; I was just on my bed all day watching television. Having a sport and taking it seriously, requires you to keep yourself in check - keeping you physically and mentally sound. It's my escape if I'm overwhelmed, stressed at school or something happens. I can go on a quick four or five mile run and it will clear my head."
With regard to interests outside of running, Pala shared insight regarding his entree into community service and his inspiration for starting Kids4Community as an eighth-grade student - a nonprofit operated by kids for kids.
"Kids4Community started with me on a run," he said. "I was in the sixth grade and I was just leisurely jogging on a local beach with my dad. And we came across a sick baby seal. I noticed how the seal was getting a lot of attention from park rangers, runners and joggers like myself. And the same day as we were driving home, we drove by a homeless man, who, like the seal, needed help, but people were moving on right by him. I observed how people went out of their way to treat a seal, but acted is if a human in need was invisible. I wanted to raise awareness."
Pala said one of the organization's first activities involved gathering friends who were passionate about the homelessness, who proceeded to shatter the Guinness World Records entry for the largest cereal box mosaic.
"We took 5,000 cereal boxes and laid them out as a canvas in the school gym - 2,983 square feet, to show the City of San Diego how many cereal boxes you would need to feed the population of the San Diego homeless community for one meal," he said. "The idea was to get youth involved in the community. During my time here at Parker, we've raised over $1 million for the homeless and hunger community, disaster victims, low-income students and low-income families. We've made tens of thousands of care packages, served meals and put together a 5K series to raise funds for homeless shelters. It has never felt like work to me. I always make sure the things I do don't feel like work, because if I do, I'm not going to enjoy them."
Continuing the community service theme, Pala has been appointed to the San Diego Youth Commission and is also affiliated with the Lucky Ducklings Youth Advisory Board.
"The Lucky Ducklings is a youth run branch of the Lucky Duck Foundation in San Diego," he said. "The purpose is to utilize the connections and resources the Lucky Duck Foundation has to tie in a youth perspective. Our focus is youth homelessness and it is entirely youth run. We just capped off an innovation challenge where we had different schools and clubs put together various ideas on how they could tackle a local homelessness issue facing the city. And the winners, which have yet to be decided, receive funding for that innovation per the Lucky Duck Foundation."
Pala said the San Diego Youth Commission involvement stems from his goal of spurring youth activism.
"There are a lot of great community organizations in San Diego that do things for the underserved," he said.
Pala offered the following regarding his decision to pursue his next scholastic and athletic chapter in New Haven, Connecticut:
"I've known since I was in middle school that I wanted to pursue a career in business and finance," he said. "I wanted to go to a school that excels in both athletics and academics, so that I could be a true student-athlete and excel at both. What stood out to me at Yale was the emphasis on doing both. After talking with the coaches and athletes at Yale, I really got that feeling of and rather than or. I could be a student and an athlete, not a student or an athlete. And that is what sealed the deal for me."
Yaley said Pala is the same person on and off the cross country course.
"When you have an elite athlete, irrespective of the sport, there's the possibility of that person thinking in some way they are more important than the rest of the team," he said. "Kenan never sees himself in that way. It's just the opposite. He sees that as an opportunity and responsibility to be more supportive than anyone on the team. He does it on the cross country course, as he does in his daily life. The Kenan you get in cross country is the Kenan you get when you're sitting with him in an economics class or in a social setting."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kenan Pala is a team-focused elite cross country athlete