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Miling to the Beat of a Different Drummer Free spirit Gabe Jennings should make plenty of noise at the Olympic trials

July 10, 2000
July 10, 2000

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July 10, 2000

Miling to the Beat of a Different Drummer Free spirit Gabe Jennings should make plenty of noise at the Olympic trials

Even his birth was extraordinary. Gabe Jennings was born inside a
teacherage--a house connected to a school--in a community known as
Forks of Salmon, in the wilderness of Northern California's
Klamath National Forest. Two midwives were present, but Gabe's
mother, Suzanne, delivered her firstborn herself. She pushed
until his head and arms were through the birth canal. Then one of
the midwives who had come from a nearby commune said, "Take your
child."

This is an article from the July 10, 2000 issue

"I reached forward," says Suzanne, "and pulled him out of my womb
and then up to my breast. I think about that moment before every
one of his races."

Gabriel Harmony Jennings entered the world on Jan. 25, 1979. Had
Steve Prefontaine not died in a car crash four years earlier, he
would have celebrated his 28th birthday that day.

Ever since Jennings ran a 4:02.81 mile at the 1997 Prefontaine
Classic as a high school senior--then the fastest schoolboy mile
in 23 years--he has exuded a Prefontaine-like mystique. This past
spring Jennings, a Stanford sophomore, won both the NCAA indoor
and outdoor 1,500 meters, and he's a solid bet to qualify for
Sydney at the U.S. Olympic Trials beginning next week; his
3:37.33 personal best is the second-fastest 1,500 among Americans
this year. Although Jennings's accomplishments don't match those
of Prefontaine, who won seven NCAA titles and at the time of his
death held eight national records, Jennings is as iconoclastic as
Pre was.

"Gabe has a lot of the same qualities as Pre," says Vin Lananna,
Jennings's coach at Stanford. "He sees no limits. As a freshman
the first thing he said to me was 'Coach, I'm a man of extremes.
You should know that about me.'"

Jennings's wardrobe is more J. Christ than J. Crew. Whenever
possible he eschews shoes, socks and underwear--"I don't believe
in laundry," he says--and walks around campus in a long flowing
robe that he purchased in Morocco. He'd rather walk around naked.
"When I go into the music building to practice the harpsichord,"
he says, "I like to play in the nude."

He is a revolutionary, espousing communism and calling Che
Guevara "my hero." Jennings lives at Chi Theta Chi, a
student-operated on-campus co-op where, although he has a room,
he sleeps on the roof. Once a week he cooks for his entire house,
approximately 40 people, and usually serves ugali, a dish made of
heavy white cornmeal that is popular in Kenya. He decided to
major in music even though he was not proficient in reading it at
the time.

As a boy Jennings, the son of an unconventional couple who became
engaged two weeks after meeting each other (and married three
months later), would run or bike the two miles to the schoolhouse
where he had been born. Jim and Suzanne Jennings were the
school's teachers, along with another part-time teacher. There
were usually between 35 and 50 pupils in grades kindergarten
through eight, drawn from the 200 or so people who lived within a
100-mile radius. The family cabin had no TV. They generated their
own electricity using hydroelectric and solar devices. The
Jenningses ate what grew in their garden. "For lunch Gabe and
[his younger sister] Trea grazed," says Suzanne. "They'd walk
through the garden foraging on beans, corn and tomatoes."

Jim insisted on two rules when Gabe and Trea were growing up.
"The children had to learn to swim, because the Salmon River has
Class 5 rapids," he says, "and they had to take music lessons."

Gabe started playing the drums before his fifth birthday and, as
would become a pattern, pursued them with a passion. When his
instructor, who played with a local band, died of a heart attack,
10-year-old Gabe took his spot behind the bass drum and trap set.
"My favorite moment of every gig was when I got to do the drum
solo for Wipeout," says Gabe.

The family moved to Madison, Wis., when Gabe was 13. Jim, who
refers to himself as a Platonist, was seeking a graduate degree
in ancient philosophy at Wisconsin, and Gabe and Trea, 20 months
younger, needed to attend a high school.

At the end of eighth grade Gabe ran in the National Hershey (Pa.)
Track and Field Meet and finished second in the 1,600. The next
year, at the Wisconsin state high school meet, he finished sixth
in the 1,600, while a boy he had beaten the previous year at
Hershey came in second.

"Gabe was a football player his freshman year," Jim recalls, "but
when he finished sixth in the race in that state meet, he asked
the boy who finished second what he'd done to get so much better.
The kid said, 'Cross-country,' and that was it for Gabe with
football." He would win nine state titles in track and
cross-country, catching the attention of several colleges.

Stanford was the most serious suitor, and the most appealing to
the California boy who wanted to come back home but who also was
looking for high academic standards and a good running program.
Lananna visited Gabe in Wisconsin the summer before his senior
year.

Redshirted the fall of his freshman year, Jennings returned that
spring to finish second to Seneca Lassiter of Arkansas in the
NCAA 1,500 outdoor final. In his sophomore year, however, a
variety of training-related injuries truncated Jennings's autumn
cross-country season and wiped out his spring track season. Last
November he told Lananna he was ready to quit running. "I saw
that breakdown coming from that first day," says Lananna. "That
first meeting, Gabe had told me his goals. Everyone here sets
high standards. Gabe's were off the charts."

"I kept reinjuring myself because I'd do everything too hard,"
says Jennings of his lost sophomore year. "I'd do this plyometric
hand cycle in the weight room, and I would try to make it spin
faster than anyone had. Nobody wanted to work out near me."

While recovering from his injuries, Jennings became close to the
team's masseur, Len DeBenedictis. A retired physicist,
DeBenedictis helped Jennings achieve the mental harmony foretold
by his middle name. "Gabe's mental Achilles tendon is his belief
in perfection," says DeBenedictis. "He gets very down if the
world does not work the way it should. I listened mostly. Gabe's
an easy guy to believe in, and I may have even convinced him of
some of the positive points of capitalism."

"I think," says Jennings, "that I just needed to hear that
someone believed in me."

Last spring Stanford's different drummer began serving as the
self-appointed percussionist Pied Piper for the team. Jennings,
who's on schedule to graduate in 2002, brought his claves (i.e.,
percussion sticks) to meets, and after his races he would lead
teammates and fans alike in impromptu jam sessions in the stands
for the final distance events. "It wasn't about winning as much
as it was about celebrating track and field," says Jennings. "It
was about letting all the athletes know that we are in this
together."

"I wasn't crazy about the drum section," says Lananna, "but then
I noticed something. Gabe didn't stop drumming until the last
runners had crossed the line. It didn't matter to him what school
they were from."

A mid-June evening finds Gabe, his parents and Trea, a sophomore
majoring in art at Cabrillo College in Aptos, Calif., in the
backyard at Chi Theta Chi after supper. The family relocated in
1997 to Mendocino, 124 miles north of San Francisco, on the
coast, where Jim teaches philosophy and literature at Mendocino
Community High. Suzanne has also taught language arts at the
middle school and for the past 10 years has been writing fiction,
including novels for children. She's currently working on an
anthology of short stories dealing with pregnancy.

What most families might do after dinner--go for a drive, watch
TV, play a board game--is foreign to the Jenningses. Gabe brings
out some bongos, and soon a drum circle has formed. The beat
draws others from the house, so that soon more than a half-dozen
people are slapping skins. Jim plays the flute and Suzanne shakes
a chime. Chants develop while, a few feet away, a mound of rocks
heats in a small fire.

A half hour passes. The playing stops. Now the entire Jennings
family, along with several housemates, Gabe's girlfriend and
Trea's boyfriend, have shed their clothing, and they enter a
"sweat lodge" tent that Gabe has erected. "Time to sweat," he
cries, shoveling the heated rocks into a pit and pouring water on
them.

"It is difficult," Lananna had said earlier that day, "for me to
understand some of the things Gabe does. With him the ultimate
challenge is to be atypical and to make every moment count. What
a terrible thing it would be for anyone to temper those dreams."

Inside the sweat lodge, people sing. Mother and son sit beside
each other, au naturel. For the young man whose every race is
against the routine, it is all natural.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID GONZALESCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER
"The first thing he said to me was, 'Coach, I'm a man of
extremes. You should know that about me.'"
"I kept reinjuring myself because I'd do everything too hard,"
says Jennings of his lost sophomore year.