This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun.
Headline: Ex-Lumberjack runner shows you can’t give up on a dream
Brandon Leslie ran away from alcohol before it was too late. But not before his life took a major detour.
Leslie arrived on the NAU campus in 1995 with impressive credentials as a distance runner, including a third-place finish at a prestigious national meet his senior year of high school. He was another prized recruit for longtime coach Ron Mann.
But Leslie, who struggled making the adjustment to college, was back in his hometown of Gallup, N.M., within a year. No longer a student. No longer a Lumberjack harrier.
In a 2004 article in the Washington Post, Leslie, who grew up on the Navajo Nation, explained how he took a wrong turn after leaving Flagstaff.
“I drank a lot when I came home,” he told the Post. “I didn’t crave it but I just like to socialize. I guess I just saw a lot of windows opening and I chose the wrong ones to go through.”
Mike Daney helped steer Leslie, whose family had endured many hardships because of alcoholism, in the right direction. A junior college coach from New Mexico, Daney pushed Leslie to get back into shape. Then he earned a scholarship to Adams State (Colo.).
Leslie received eight All-American accolades at Adams State, a Division II school. Since 2001, he’s been a noticeable figure on the national running scene. And he placed 21st at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 10,000-meter race.
But that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning.
Today, Leslie competes at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan, in the men’s 12-kilometer race.
“Oh, man, it means a great deal to me,” Leslie said by phone from his Albuquerque, N.M., home before flying overseas.
Leslie acknowledged he’s worked hard but wasn’t always in the best of shape, wasn’t always completely prepared to excel.
He now is.
Leslie moved to Flagstaff last August and stayed here until October, working with Joe Vigil, NAU Center for High Altitude Training’s senior coaching consultant. It was part of 71/2 months of what he calls the hardest training he’s ever done.
Now he knows it was worth it. Leslie completed the USA Men’s Half-Marathon Championship in January in 1 hour, 3 minutes, 10 seconds, placing fourth and setting a personal record by 21/2 minutes. At the USA Cross Country Championships in New York City in February, Leslie placed seventh in the open 10K race in 35:42 to earn a spot on the U.S. team for the world championships.
It was an exhilarating accomplishment.
“At the finish line, it was like, ‘Wow, man,'” Leslie said, laughing. “Just being on the podium with these guys and looking around, I was like, ‘Wow, look at where I’m at.'”
Along the way, Leslie, who turns 30 on April 20, has made sacrifices, scraping by on what he admits is meager prize money and coming to Flagstaff for training without his wife, Nelvina, his 11-year-old stepson, Cody, his 10-year-old son, Brandon Jr., and his 2-year-old daughter, Haley. They remained in New Mexico.
But don’t think for a second that Leslie feels it wasn’t worth it.
“I want (my kids) to know that you have to go places if you want to better yourself,” he said. “You have to make sacrifices if you’re willing to be good and competitive. That’s what I want them to realize when they’re older.”
As our conversation came to a close, I asked Leslie to reflect on what his being in Japan means to him.
“It represents a lot,” he said, pausing to collect his thoughts. “I get the chills now that you’ve said that because a lot of people say, ‘Oh, man, you’re going up there to represents the country. How does it feel to represent the U.S. at the world championships?’
“I do feel greatly that I’m going to do it, but it means a lot more to me to represent all Native American people. … To be able to carry my tribal flag (in Japan) and display it shows people that I’m Native American and I’m proud of where I’m at now.
“Running has gotten me these opportunities to come here. My tribe has supported me. They’ve seen something now that they don’t want to let go. They’ve jumped behind me and they want me to continue this until 2008 (the Beijing Olympics) and beyond that.”