Zane Robertson was nearly finished with his workout before he looked like anything but an ordinary distance runner. Robertson was training with a group of Americans who were preparing for the U.S. Olympic Trials later this month, and through nine 200-meter repetitions on the track at Sinagua Middle School, he ran in the middle or even back of the pack, allowing the others to control the pacing.
But on the 10th and final effort of his workout last week, Robertson -- a New Zealander who hopes to make his country's Olympic team headed to London -- showed why he is one of the most-watched athletes in track and field. In the fading, late-afternoon Flagstaff sunlight, Robertson's silhouette was lean and fluid, his running form seemingly Kenyan in its movements.
That's because it is. When Robertson was 17, he and his twin brother, Jake, left their family and friends in New Zealand and moved to Kenya to train with the best runners in the world. Now 22, the twins' gamble looks to have worked.
Last year, Jake qualified for the World Track and Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea, where he made the final in the 5,000-meter run. In Zane's first-ever race in the United States this year, he clocked 3 minutes, 56.13 seconds for one mile at a meet in Walnut Creek, Calif.
In an effort to continue to build on the strong aerobic base he built at altitude in Africa, Zane is spending a month in Flagstaff in preparation for an Olympic-qualifying attempt at 1,500 meters at the Adidas Grand Prix in New York City on June 9.
Training in Flagstaff, Robertson is eager to point out, is far easier than his first years in Kenya. Soon after their arrival in Africa and still adapting to a new culture and the more intense training, the twins' manager at the time told them he didn't see the results he was looking for. He told them to go back home to New Zealand.
"If anyone gives up," Robertson says, "that's the point to give up."
Instead, Jake and Zane rented out a small, concrete room where they shared a single foam mattress and dedicated themselves completely to training two and three times a day, even through Kenya's post-election riots in 2007 and 2008, when more than 1,000 Kenyans were killed in tribal violence.
The results were slow in coming, but in 2011, Jake ran 13:22.38 for 5,000 meters, the second best time by a New Zealander that year. And last week, Zane ran 3:36.53 for 1,500 meters in Palo Alto, Calif., just over a second slower than the standard needed to qualify for London.
Those races got the attention of Athletics New Zealand, the country's governing body for track and field. The federation agreed to fund the twins' training, including the trip to Flagstaff, to allow Zane to chase the 3:35.50 Olympic A-standard. Should he run that time or faster, he would almost certainly be chosen by New Zealand's selection committee to represent the country at the Games.
His rented house in Flagstaff, a far cry from the single-room cube in Kenya, is a sprawling resort home overlooking a golf course.
"It's a baller crib," he jokes. "Like MTV."
With the financial burden of paying for his training lifted, Zane Robertson seems to be finally able to focus simply on his goal of making an Olympic team.
"These guys made a pretty big commitment when they were young, and it's paid off," says Stephen Willis, who will help coach the New Zealand distance runners in London. "From my perspective, anyway, I'm really supportive of what they've done."
On the final interval of Robertson's workout in Flagstaff, the group of American runners stopped at the 200-meter mark as prescribed. Robertson, however, continued on around the turn and into the home straightaway. As he sprinted toward the finish line, a chain necklace caught the light. On it hangs a pendant in the shape of Africa. The pendant, he says, he will wear in his race in London should he qualify.
"I've lived in Africa for a while now," he says. "I feel like it's part of me."