The runners from Kenya started arriving this week in anticipation of Saturday’s 20th edition of the TD Beach to Beacon 10K: Mary Keitany, Joyce Chepkirui, Stephen Kosgei Kibet, Ben Decker.

Yes, Ben Decker.

A Yarmouth High graduate about to enter his senior year at Williams College, Decker, 21, was the top Maine finisher at the 2015 Beach to Beacon. He returned Tuesday night from a second summer spent in western Kenya, where for seven weeks he was an instructor with the Kenyan Scholar-Athlete Program. Known as KenSAP, the program helps gifted but needy high school students in their quest to gain admission to selective colleges in the United States.

“It’s had a huge amount of success,” said Decker, pointing to last summer’s class of 15 that landed at six Ivy League schools, as well as Williams, Wesleyan, Middlebury, Colby, Northwestern, Duke and Swarthmore. “They’re all starting this fall.”

The program targets the most selective colleges because that’s where the largest endowments reside. Nearly all the Kenyan students require full financial aid.

Bates, Bowdoin and Colby all have welcomed KenSAP students. David Chelimo, who recently graduated from Colby with a degree in computational biology, ran cross-country and track at the school. Last month he began working as a quality-control analyst in a microbiology lab for a biotech firm in Boston.

Until KenSAP, Chelimo said he had no experience or formal training in running.

“In my class, only two of us ended up running (collegiately) out of 14,” he said. “Running is one of the things they look at, but academics always rule.”

In Saturday’s Beach to Beacon 10K in Cape Elizabeth, Ben Decker plans to run alongside his father, Byrne. A long cross-country season awaits during his senior year at Williams College, so Decker says he won’t challenge for the Maine men’s lead this year. He won the division in 2015. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Decker even pitched one of the students, Felix Biwott, to Pete Farwell, Decker’s cross-country and assistant track coach at Williams. Farwell’s approval helped Biwott gain admission through the school’s early decision process.

“It’s an interesting pitch to make to coaches,” Decker said. “These kids haven’t run before coming to KenSAP, but many of them come from (Kenya’s) Great Rift Valley, which has been producing the world’s best runners for decades and decades.”

ACADEMICS OVER RUNNING ABILITY

More than a hundred students apply for the program annually, all of them having scored in the 99th percentile of a national exam. They go through a rigorous interview process and then run 1,500 meters. They also are asked about their living situation, what their house is made of, whether they have indoor plumbing or television.

A dozen or so get selected for the residential program, founded in 2004 by Olympic medalist Mike Boit and John Manners, a former journalist who spent three years in the Peace Corps in Kenya after having lived there for a year as the son of an anthropologist.

Manners said about one in five KenSAP students runs well enough to capture the interest of a college distance coach. Organizers are cautious about overselling potential student-athletes, and look for signs of leadership or an intriguing background.

“Usually our kids are strong enough on their own, in terms of academics and story,” Manners said. “But with a college coach, when you say ‘Kenya,’ they get interested.”

Classes in primary and secondary schools in Kenya are taught in English, with the exception of schools in small or impoverished villages where Swahili or a tribal tongue is spoken. The country in East Africa has been relatively stable since gaining independence from the United Kingdom in 1963, although a top elections official was recently murdered ahead of elections there next week. Kenyan elections have turned violent in the past, notably after the 2007 presidential vote that international observers said was flawed. More than 1,000 people died.

The view from a road near the Kenyan Scholar-Athlete Program classroom in Kenya. Last summer’s class of 15 landed at six Ivy League schools and several others in the U.S. Photo by Ben Decker

Decker was one of four instructors helping the KenSAP students, mostly with SAT and essay preparation. A typical day involves waking at 6:30 a.m., going for a run, breakfast at 8, class from 9 to 12:30, class again after lunch from 2 to 4 p.m., another activity (running, soccer, taekwondo), dinner and sometimes a movie.

“They’re very motivated,” Decker said. “It’s amazing to watch how much they improve with the SAT. Seeing these kids put in long days of work day after day and not only not complain, but seek out extra work, it’s really inspiring.”

IDEAL INSTRUCTOR, LIKES TEACHING

Decker joined KenSAP in 2016 after an instructor who was expected to return bowed out in May. Normally the staff is in place by February.

Manners, 71, put out a call to several college distance running coaches, including Farwell at Williams.

Decker was one of two students who responded immediately. Manners received his resume and a recommendation from Farwell. In a phone interview, Decker displayed his knowledge of the program and eagerness to join it.

Fifteen months later, Manners knows he made the right call on Decker.

“If he’s not the best, he’s certainly one of the best summer instructors we’ve had, and this is 14 years now,” Manners said. “He’s very dutiful, alert and just as positive as can be. He has a terrific memory and great math skills and more than that, he’s a great athlete. He has a kind of eagerness and boyishness combined with a mature approach to his work that is just ideal.”

Decker said the students often laughed at his ignorance of Kenyan culture. He said he assumed most of the kids would come from poor families, only to discover Kenya has a fairly stable middle class.

Ben Decker leads a core stretch with Kenya Scholar-Athlete Program students. More than 100 students apply for the program annually, all of them having scored in the 99th percentile of a national exam. Photo courtesy of Ben Decker

“For example,” he said, “all the kids have phones.”

Decker tried to describe to them what it’s like to live in a place with four seasons, or the practice of daylight saving time, or how to use your college ID card in a dining hall.

An economics major at Williams, Decker said his experience in Africa reaffirmed his interest in education, that teaching “is something I’m definitely interested in doing in the future.”

The 15 soon-to-be college students from last summer’s program are due in Boston next weekend for a two-day orientation program that will include KenSAP alumni talking about cultural awareness issues and offering advice on making a smooth transition.

After the orientation, Decker will host two of the students who plan to run – Biwott for Williams and Emmanuel Cheruiyot for Colby – in Yarmouth for two weeks before they report to their respective campuses.

“These are the two kids in the group who are the best runners,” Manners said. “Ben was very close to them. He was close to all the kids, really, but them in particular.”

GRADUATES EXPECTED TO AID KENYA

Over the life of the program, 160 Kenyan students have earned spots in North American colleges, with more than 90 graduates so far, Manners said. About 40 of them are back in Kenya, working. Four completed doctoral programs and 11 are in the process of doing so. Only four failed to remain on track for their degrees.

Cheruiyot will be the fifth KenSAP student at Colby. There have been three at Bowdoin and two at Bates.

“We do expect them all either to go home or,” Manners said, now quoting from his website, “to contribute to Kenya’s development in ways commensurate with the quality of their education.”

“They bring a lot of different character and background and enthusiasm to the team,” said Farwell, who recently bid adieu to KenSAP alumna Yvonne Bungei, an 800-meter runner. “It’s not like we’re recruiting top Kenyan athletes. We’re trying to get outstanding students who might have some potential at running.”

As for Saturday’s race in Cape Elizabeth, Decker plans to run alongside his father, Byrne. A long cross-country season awaits, so Decker said he won’t challenge for the Maine men’s lead.

With his own college graduation looming next spring, Decker isn’t certain about his plans for 2018. Should he be offered a career-related job that doesn’t begin until fall or winter, “I would love to go back to Kenya,” he said, “and do it again.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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