It was Feb. 12, 2000 and spectators were standing in the Evanston Township (IL.) High School fieldhouse for a better look. Runners paced back and forth anxiously along the indoor track. Junior
Kevin had never before lay down after a race. Not during his freshman year at Evanston Township High , when I trained with him as a senior. And not during his sophomore year when he helped Evanston to its first Illinois state title in the 4x800-meter relay with one of the top 10 times in the nation. Kevin addressed his aches in silence, and always, always, standing up. "I love being sore," he once told me. "It feels like you did something."
But on that day, Kevin flopped to the dusty, green rubber track. It was the first sign of his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic disease that is the most common killer of young athletes during exertion, and which causes the wall of the heart's left ventricle to enlarge. The left-ventricle is the heart chamber that takes oxygenated blood from the lungs and squeezes shut violently, sending it careening through the body. It's the strong man of the heart, and no one could have guessed that Kevin's strong man was sick, least of all me.
From the first time I ever ran with him, I knew he was a rare talent. I was running 50-60 miles a week in the summer before my senior year, and he was an incoming freshman who had hardly begun training. And yet, I still could not shake him on our first run together as we flew along the rock-strewn shore of Lake Michigan. I remember his arms cutting smooth arcs through the air. Each of his steps was identical, as if his knees were linked by a metal bar, one like the side rod that connects the churning wheels of a locomotive. He raced me to the last step that day, as he would many other days, leaving both of us doubled-over and searching for air. Initially, it annoyed me that a freshman would dare push the pace in practice, but Kevin had a passion for racing, and it often didn't matter whether it was the state championship or just another day by the lake.
Kevin's father still cannot accept that the heart that pushed his son to a state championship could have been diseased from the very start. Rupert still remembers the little boy he carried on his shoulder in Jamaica, the boy who would chase his father's soccer ball around for an hour without tiring. "I don't believe it was a heart problem," Rupert says. "Something else must have happened."
Kevin's younger brother,
For Gwendolyn, there are still good days, and days where all she can do is sit around and think about her boy, and his now-dark computer, and how he would read for hours in the bedroom that she has not allowed anyone to change or inhabit.
I visit the fieldhouse every year. The penned messages are gone, washed away so that the races can go on, the same way Kevin's teammates had to wipe clean our hearts so that we could go on. The messages are gone, but Kevin's sweat, his dreams, and his frightening death, are still down there, somewhere, beneath the paint.