On April 21, 2017, Bennett Shaw of Emory University got on the line to race the UAA 3000 meter steeplechase as an afterthought. To the average spectator, he was the sixth seed in the race, with almost no chance of winning.
We knew differently as his teammates, but most importantly, Bennett knew differently, and he believed.
"I had convinced myself that I could win the race, which was probably a moon shot if you looked at the numbers," he said. "But I didn’t care."
About a year and a half before, Bennett raced the UAA indoor 3000 meter race at the famous Armory Indoor Track. With it only being his freshman year, Bennett felt lucky to make it onto the roster and be on the trip. He had recently made a big breakthrough in the event - running 8:56 and improving on his previous mark by 16 seconds. He was one of the slowest seeds in the race but still poised for a big breakthrough.
The race was a disaster for him. He would run a disappointing 9:16, finishing last by almost 20 seconds to the next worse finisher.
"I had flashbacks of getting dead last at indoor UAAs the previous year in the 3K to motivate me to not let that happen again," Bennett said.
Watching Bennett's race was one of the most exciting parts of my weekend that day, only hours before I myself raced the 10k. Bennett sat patiently in the middle of the group for the first 1500 meters of the race, just where he was expected. He conserved energy as myself and the rest of his teammates watched and cheered anxiously. Two runners had broken away and put a 20 meter gap on the rest of the field, as it seemed like the real race was between them.
But over the course of the last four laps, Bennett would slowly claw away at that gap. Seemingly out of nowhere, he was in third place within striking distance of the leader.
Interestingly enough, I was tasked with taking a video of Bennett jumping over the water barrier every lap, the infamous source of unfortunate falls like these that make you cringe, and also make you eternally grateful that your life can't possibly be that bad.
Thankfully, Bennett has nearly perfect form going over the water barrier, and my job in that race was to film each of his eight water jumps. On the last one, I was filming and realized that Bennett was now in second place, in serious contention to win, and with a fearless intense determination in his eyes that that was possible.
He would get second place, but ultimately still defying expectations, still running 9:22, a personal record of 14 seconds, and galvanizing the rest of his team to follow his example. As a matter of fact, that when I looked back at my video of his last water jump, I realized that I was so fired up that my phone was pointed down, at the grass the whole time.
"Even though I got second, which would devastate some people, I was elated that all of my hard work and sacrifices had not been in vain, and that I could finally contribute to the team as much as I had so badly wanted to," Bennett said. "I also loved seeing my teammates get inspired to raise their level of performance after watching me compete. That part was really special to me."
On our Cross Country team, we runners usually need help motivating ourselves to train harder during the offseason. We're away from our teammates, so often there aren't many fun conversations to be had. For myself personally, sometimes it can take up to two hours of trying to inspire myself before I can get my ass off the couch and go on my run, and I run almost every day.
But Bennett Shaw, our teammate, friend, and captain has the opposite problem. During the summer and offseason training, he works too hard. Having been Bennett's teammate for the past two years, it's difficult for me to describe the sheer effort, grit, and grind that Bennett puts into every run and every practice, day in and day out. It's not just running that he gives everything to after practices, we stretch and foam roll to help our legs and muscles recover - and I can't name any day that Bennett has not been the last person to leave the building.
It's not uncommon to see Bennett at the front of the group during your usual easy run - he's there every time, doing what he does best: leading by example.
There is one fatal and unredeemable flaw about Bennett Shaw: being from the Bay Area in San Jose, California, he likes the Golden State Warriors. One of his favorite players is Klay Thompson, for God sakes. But if there is one athlete I was to measure the person he is to - it's Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook.
Bennett brings a sheer intensity and passion to every practice, every 6 a.m. workout or 8 a.m. lift like it's his last. He is usually the first to arrive and last to leave, and what he does makes everyone else feel obligated to try to measure up to his force of will.
He would rhetorically ask: "'Are you nervous?' Good. Enjoy it. It's the feeling of being alive. If you aren't nervous about what you are doing, go find something that does make you nervous."
"There is part of me that just loves the adrenaline rush and feeling of being fully alive and aware of the feeling of life while running," Bennett said.
However, he pointed to his high school team for how he ultimately derived that part of him. Being on the Cross Country team at Bellarmine Preparatory School, Bennett's team was so talented that he never ran at any championship meet, and was never in the top seven runners who got to go to those meets. The closest he got to the top seven was the fall of senior year where he was the alternate. But they were his friends regardless, and he cherishes those friendships.
"All of my friends were on the cross country team, and most of them were faster and more talented than me," he said. "I always strived to be able to just run with my friends and be able to compete with them, and I had to work super hard to just be able to do that. "
Bennett still takes a lot away from his time at Bellarmine College Prep, a Jesuit high school, whose school motto follows his quest perfectly: "A Man for Others."
"My high school I credit with making me the intellectually, emotionally and spiritually and academically curious person I am today," he said. "I really would not be where I am without all of the teachers and friends I had during high school. "
And now, as a credit to the person he is, he has found the success that eluded him at Bellarmine. On a team of over 200 kids, he lacked personalized attention for his training, and now he is a double Biology and Spanish major at Emory, the captain of the Cross Country team, and a model for every person on the team to follow. Despite setbacks, he has held onto hope and continued putting forth everything into his efforts, and has been rewarded for doing so.
He, however, sees the idea of success differently. One of the quotes Bennett lives by is this one by John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach.
"Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best of which you are capable."
Bennett's mission to be the best he can be has always led to his challenging himself in as many ways as he can. One thing he doesn't talk about much, knowing him for more than two years, is how he learned to speak Spanish: through immersion on his service trip to Ecuador between his sophomore and junior years of high school.
Bennett is fluent in Spanish, having first taken it in second grade, continuing as a Spanish major today, and each summer works construction jobs where he often talks to laborers in Spanish. But his experience in a small rural village, Tigua Ugshaloma Grande, in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, is where he truly learned to speak the language.
On paper, the goal of his trip was for him to be a catalyst for social change in the village, helping teach summer camp two hours a day and then helping the village build a soccer field.
But he always looks back on it fondly.
"The experience as a whole was one of the most heartbreaking, painful, and yet mysteriously spiritually powerful and important moments of my life," Bennett said. " I continue to discover ways to which it has affected me."
One actual flaw that Bennett has (I'll have to admit that being a Warriors fan isn't a real flaw) is not knowing restraint and how to hold back when it's the best option. His instinct is to put everything on the line and give every minute like it's his last.
"Bennett is one of those people who really puts his all into everything he does," said his teammate and roommate, Ian George. "Whether it's his school work, his running career, or even his next Netflix binge, once he gets into something he will do everything to see it out to the best of his ability. "
And during the Cross Country season, this causes him to burn out late in the season, as he will peak in the first couple of races but generally see little improvement throughout the season, and I've witnessed how discouraging that is to him.
At our meeting before Cross Country this spring, he said that what he wants to improve on foremost is holding back and reigning in that instinct.
"The key is not letting those obstacles throw you off of the path that you are on," Bennett said. "Accepting that reality and then learning how to learn from the mistakes you make is truly key for college students and college athletes."
As for what Bennett wants outside of running in his last two years of college, it's standard to what every other college runner dreams of achieving - a 4.0 GPA, winning races and helping our team win championships. But what he wants is to continue to be the best version of himself.
As to who has guided and molded him into this path, Bennett credited his family.
"I most credit my family and my high school for making me who I am today," he said. "My family is very supportive of me and what I want to do, and I really appreciate the freedom afforded to me to be able to live the path in life that I want to, which I understand is not a freedom afforded to many in this world. "
People will see Bennett's accomplishments and leadership and be in awe, usually feeling some determination to "catch up" and follow his example.
But what most won't see is his devotion to other people, and this aspect is overlooked mainly because he doesn't talk about it, and he surely doesn't want to take credit for it.
Before he was named the captain, I would often see Bennett come early every Sunday morning to help fill Powerade into our vans and prepare the medical kit. I have seen him stay late at home meets, hours until after they are over to help our coaches and events' staff pack up. Whenever we have a high school recruit coming to visit Emory, he's usually the first one to volunteer hosting him. Bennett will put everything down and help you with something you need in a heartbeat.
"Having him as a roommate has always helped inspire me to give everything I have to cross country," Ian George continued. "His never-ending dedication is apparent to anyone on the team (and plenty who aren't), and he really embodies the essence of Emory XC ."
It is highly common for materialistic college students to gloat about the how much they helped people on a service trip, to the point where you question whether they're exploiting the experience.
For Bennett, it's often more the opposite: what he learned from the villagers in Ecuador, and how they changed his life.
“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.”
We lost 10 seniors on the team this year who made up the core of our identity. There has been some serious apprehension that our culture might not be the same, that in some way it will diminish.
With Bennett at the helm, I know we'll be fine.