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Harvard All-America Maksim Korolev will run at Stanford. Photo courtesy of Harvard Athletics.
Recipe for a Contender
Courtesy: David Kiefer  
Release: 07/30/2014
WITH ONE PHONE call, the Stanford men’s cross country team became a national championship contender.

It happened last spring when a nervous Maksim Korolev called Chris Miltenberg, Stanford’s Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field. Suffice to say, the call went well. Now, Korolev, the third-place finisher at the 2013 NCAA Championships while running for Harvard, is headed to Stanford for his final collegiate season.

He joins a Cardinal team that returns first-team outdoor track All-Americans Jim and Joe Rosa, and Michael Atchoo, and the top three finishers from the 2014 U.S. junior national cross country championship. Indeed, the Cardinal now looks loaded enough to make a run at its first NCAA title since 2003. Jim Rosa was fifth at NCAA's, giving Stanford two top-five finishers heading into this season.

However, Korolev leaves an important chapter of his life behind at Harvard, where he earned a degree in human developmental and regenerative biology last spring. In California, there is no way to duplicate training on tracks so cold and frozen that only a thin trail cuts through the snow to the tartan surface. It was on mornings like these that made Korolev one of the finest collegiate runners in the land.

He also leaves behind a city that will always remain a part of him. It was a place where he observed the worst and the best of human nature, through the lens of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Korolev still had a year left of eligibility in both cross country and outdoor track and field, which is why he has come to Stanford. Ivy League schools only allow athletes to compete within a four-year window. Korolev’s window shut last spring. To use his final season of eligibility, Korolev needed to go elsewhere.

“I never took a visit,” Korolev said. “But it was an easy choice. Coach Miltenberg is a really good coach -- I’m excited to be coached by him – and I love Silicon Valley. I’d like to get into the tech industry and do something significant.”

Korolev will work toward his master’s in management science and engineering. His undergraduate degree was focused on research techniques, particularly with stem cells, in relation to the aging process. His career path could incorporate both worlds, regeneration and computer science.

From a running standpoint, Korolev sees this as a transition year between college and the pros – a gap year of sorts that will better prepare him to take the next step in his competitive development.

* * *

KOROLEV'S JOURNEY TO Stanford began in Kazakhstan, where he was born. Korolev, who is half Russian and half Tatar, moved to the U.S. at age 7 with his mother, Almira, a chemist.

“Kazakhstan had a lot of bad influences,” he said. “It’s harder to be successful there.”

Korolev didn’t know any English when he arrived, but completely immersed himself into American culture to the point where he forgot his native Russian, though college language courses have helped him re-learn much of it. When Almira became an American citizen, Maksim gained U.S. citizenship as well.

Korolev played soccer as a youngster, and loved the feeling of chasing the ball up and down the field as much as dribbling, passing, or shooting. When his middle school cross country was looking for runners, Korolev was inspired.

“A sport where you basically run? I wanted to do that,” Korolev said.

The Missouri Gatorade Cross Country Runner of the Year as a senior at Harrisonville High School, Korolev hoped to attend Stanford and phoned the Cardinal distance coach at the time, but received a tepid response.

Instead, the 6-foot-5 long-strider came to Harvard, set two school track records, captured the Ivy League and NCAA Northeast Region cross country titles and earned the highest NCAA cross-country finish in school history. His track bests are 29:13.80 for 10,000 meters and 13:42.56 for 5,000.

Armed with three All-America honors, Korolev’s path to Stanford was much simpler this time around. He admitted to feeling a bit nervous when he first contacted Miltenberg, though his Harvard coaches already had been in contact with Stanford’s second-year coach. Still, Korolev half-expected a response similar to his first four years earlier. Quite the opposite.

“The whole time he was talking about team goals,” Korolev said. “It was super exciting. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy cross country more than track, because of the team aspect. I definitely think we can do very well.”

Though he earned second-team indoor All-America honors by placing 13th in the 5,000 and 14th in the 3,000, he was admittedly out of shape. A bad case of shin splints limited him throughout the indoor and outdoor track seasons.

However, Korolev has returned to training and expects to continue building throughout the season. Stanford’s focus is nationals, and that’s when Korolev expects to be back to peak condition.

Korolev loves to run. In fact, his Harvard coach, Jason Saretsky, forbade Korolev to run more than 100 miles a week. Korolev has warned Miltenberg about what to expect.

“I’m used to a coach-athlete relationship where I’m always trying to do more,” Korolev said. “I told Coach Milt, ‘Please don’t take this personally. I want to do more. I’m always trying to do more.’”

In response, Korolev began cycling to supplement his running. His typical workout routine might a 100-mile week, 3-4 hours a week of cycling and some time in an altitude tent, which he places over his head sometimes before he goes to sleep.

“I don’t know how much it helps, but it definitely helps me mentally,” he said.

*  *  *

ON THE AFTERNOON of April 15, 2013, Korolev headed early to practice when he noticed a crowd watching a television in shock.

Just across the Charles River from Harvard’s Cambridge, Mass., campus, the finish of the venerable Boston Marathon had been interrupted by two explosions. Pressure-cooker bombs left in backpacks near the crowded finishing area detonated 12 seconds and 210 yards apart, killing three and injuring or maiming an estimated 264 others.

As a Boston resident and member of the city’s running community, Korolev was stunned.

“It definitely affected me on a personal level,” Korolev said. “Why would anyone try to destroy such a beautiful event?”

Korolev and other members of the Harvard track team had left for the Mt. SAC Relays in Southern California when the next jolt occurred. While eating in a local restaurant, they began to receive messages, texts, and tweets about the murder of an MIT police officer by the suspects, and about a massive manhunt and subsequent firefight.

It was then that assistant coach Priscilla Bayley left the table to take a phone call and returned ashen-faced. The terrorist brothers lived a block from her home and her husband had called from the house reporting gunfire and explosions as a showdown ensued with police.

The tense moments dissipated and all was well with the Bayley family, though neighbors told stories about the bullet holes they found in the walls of their houses.

“Everyone has come out stronger because of it,” Korolev said. “’Boston Strong’ is an extremely powerful and accurate representation of how Boston handled the events. The way Boston came together afterward was amazing and more than restored my faith in humanity.

“There will always be unfortunate events that occur, but people will always stand strong, overcome them, and come out that much better. It’s something that translates perfectly in running as well. I myself have had my own fair share of unfortunate races, injuries, etc., but I consider those events to be the most strengthening.”

And, in turn, Stanford cross country has been strengthened as well.


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