Chris Derrick was the last player off the bench on his eighth-grade summer basketball team. He was pencil thin, about 115 pounds, and lacking the hops to make his presence felt on the court.
One day, a parent suggested he join her son on his high school’s cross country team at Neuqua Valley in Naperville, Ill. The parent also emailed the coach, Paul Vandersteen.
“She said, ‘I don’t necessarily think he’ll be a good runner for you, but he’s a great leader,’” Vandersteen said.
Derrick, 21, quickly developed into one of the country’s finest distance runners and today Stanford’s decorated senior is vying for a national title in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Track and Field Championships in Des Moins, Iowa.
But Derrick was upset when his parents first told him they were sending him to Vandersteen’s summer camp eight years ago.
“I’d never run further than a mile. I was very worried,” Derrick said.
Shortly after his first practice, he told his parents that he thought he’d found his sport.
“The interesting part of that is that we didn’t know he’d found his sport because he wasn’t a very talented runner,” Vandersteen said. “He knew it before we did.”
Derrick was only the seventh-best freshman on his team, but he blossomed over the summer prior to his sophomore year. What separated him from the crowd, in Vandersteen’s eyes, was his intelligence, work ethic and meticulous attention to detail. He structured his sleep habits, his diet and spent hours in the gym working out essential muscles, like his abs and hip flexors.
Vandersteen said Derrick carried himself with such integrity it motivated his teammates because they didn’t want to let him down.
“He was like a coach that was part of the team,” Vandersteen said. “We were like partners, I’d talk to him like I’d talk to a fellow coach.”
In his senior year, Derrick led the team to a national championship while being named the 2007 Gatorade National Boys’ Cross Country Runner of the Year.
He hasn’t missed a stride at Stanford. In four years, he’s a 13-time All-American and one of only six male runners who’s finished in the top 10 at the NCAA cross country championships all four years. In April, he set an American collegiate record in the 10,000 meters at Stanford’s Payton Jordan Invitational and he’s a favorite to represent the U.S. at the 2012 Olympics in London this summer. The only thing that’s eluded Derrick at Stanford is an NCAA title; he was runner-up at the cross country championships last fall and then twice more last winter at the NCAA Indoor Championships in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters.
“It’s really important,” Derrick said. “I’m so involved with pursuing that, I can’t really quantify [what it would mean].”