Francis Parker School (CA) cross-country phenom, Kenan Pala, has been passionate about racing since his freshman year at Lancer. But the Yale University-bound elder has an even greater dedication to fighting homelessness and finding ways to inspire others to find their place in the dynamics of community service.
Pala capped off his final season in the Parker Brown and Gold by winning the 2021 California Interscholastic Federation Division V Boys’ Cross Country Championship in a time of 14 minutes and 51 seconds – which he says has took years.
“My preparation for my senior season started in my freshman year,” he said, noting that he finished fourth in the event as a sophomore and the pandemic wiped out the competition in his freshman year. . “That’s exactly how my mindset is for athletics. It’s always about looking at it from a long-term perspective – putting the work in three or four years ahead, so by the time the event is coming, you can be sure you have done everything to prepare. Training at altitude, training in windy conditions and on rough terrain. It all came together in my last year – winning the championship of State in (Division V) in record time.
Adding to his exploits at the state cross country meet, Pala finished second at the prestigious 2021 Eastbay Boys Cross Country Championships, held at Balboa Park in San Diego, Calif., just 10 minutes away. of the Francis Parker School campus. He clocked a time of 15:14.80 and is also nominated for All-USA TODAY HSSA Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.
Pala said he took a circuitous route to run.
“I have four dogs,” he said. “And one of them needed some behavioral training. We contacted a behavioral dog therapist and I found out that the therapist’s son was running triathlons. At the time, I was really interested in the dogs. triathlons and I took that as a sign to try triathlons. It was around seventh grade. I did triathlons for two years, but I hated the swimming part. It took me two years, but I decided to quit swimming and cycling and decided to just run. Going into my freshman year of high school, I just focused on running.”
Francis Parker High School cross country head coach Kevin Yaley said it was a pleasure to be around Pala and the rest of the Lancers team.
“They’re great kids to be around,” he said. “There’s a great sense of joy and camaraderie at every practice. There are a lot of wonderful traditions that these kids have passed on to them over the years. That kind of atmosphere attracts kids who otherwise might not think- be not that they’re that much of a runner, but they go out and get addicted. There are kids who in their first year struggled to complete a two-mile practice run, and to their junior or senior year, they’re part of a championship team.”
Pala said his approach to the sport from the neck down sets the tone for his physical performance.
“I’m a big believer in mindfulness,” he said. “You can ask anyone on our cross country or track and field team. Running is deceiving. We think it’s just a physical sport because all we see is the body in motion, but if you don’t go into the race feeling confident and in control, When your mind takes over, you lose control of your body Mindfulness is something I emphasize in my daily training This comes through meditation and breathing exercises every day.
Running, Pala noted, motivated him to excel in other aspects of his life.
“Any time I had multiple injuries in my sophomore year and not racing, it really affected me outside of the sport,” he said. “I wasn’t doing my best in school; I was just on my bed all day watching TV. Playing sports and taking it seriously, forces you to control yourself – to keep yourself physically and mentally healthy It’s my escape if I’m overwhelmed, stressed out at school or something’s going on I can do a quick four or five mile run and it’ll clear my head.
As for interests other than running, Pala shared her perspective on getting into community service and being inspired to start Kids4Community as an eighth grader – a nonprofit run by children for children.
“Kids4Community started with me on a run,” he said. “I was in sixth grade and I was 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 me.. And the very day we were returning home, we ran into a homeless man, who, like the seal, needed help, but people were just walking past him. watched how people scrambled to care for a seal, but acted if a human in need was invisible. I wanted to raise awareness.”
Pala said one of the organization’s earliest activities was to bring together friends with a passion for homelessness, who then broke the Guinness World Records entry for the largest cereal box mosaic.
“We took 5,000 boxes of cereal and laid them out like a canvas in the school gymnasium – 2,983 square feet, to show the city of San Diego how many boxes of cereal you would need to feed the population of San Diego homeless community for a meal,” he said. “The idea was to involve young people in the community. During my time at Parker, we raised over a million dollars for the homeless and hungry community, disaster victims, students at low income and low income families. We’ve done tens of thousands of care packages, served meals and set up a 5K series to raise money for homeless shelters. I’ve never had the l 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 theme of community service, Pala was appointed to the San Diego Youth Commission and is also affiliated with the Lucky Ducklings Youth Advisory Council.
“The Lucky Ducklings is a youth-led branch of the Lucky Duck Foundation in San Diego,” he said. “The goal is to use the connections and resources that the Lucky Duck Foundation needs to link from a youth perspective. Our focus is youth homelessness and it’s run entirely by youth. We just completed a challenge of innovation where we brought together different schools and clubs with various ideas on how they could tackle a local homelessness issue facing the city. And the winners, who have not yet been chosen, receive a funding for this innovation by the Lucky Duck Foundation.
Pala said the involvement of the San Diego Youth Commission stems from its goal of stimulating youth activism.
“There are a lot of great community organizations in San Diego doing things for the underserved,” he said.
Pala offered the following regarding his decision to pursue his next academic and athletic chapter in New Haven, Connecticut:
“I’ve known since I was in college that I want 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 in both. What stood out to me at Yale was the emphasis on both. After talking with coaches and athletes at Yale, I really had this feeling of and rather than or. I could be a student and an athlete, not a student or an athlete. And that’s which 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, in any sport, that person might in some way think they’re more important than the rest of the team,” he said. “Kenan never sees himself that way. It’s quite the opposite. He sees it as an opportunity and a responsibility to be more supportive than anyone on the team. He does that on the cross-country course. country, as he does in his daily life. The Kenan you get in cross country is the Kenan you get when you sit with him in an economics class or in a social setting.”