EMMITSBURG -- Next Monday, most of the men and women competing at the NCAA Division I cross country championships at the University of Tennessee will be thrilled just to be in Knoxville.
Count Peter Rono out.
"I consider the NCAAs to be just another meet," said the Mount St. Mary's College junior, whose resume does not include an NCAA Division I title. He did rule Division II track and field in the 1,500 meters in May 1988, but that accomplishment became irrelevant four months later when Rono stunned the running world by winning the Olympic gold medal in Seoul.
Little has gone right for Rono since he became one of the youngest Olympic 1,500 champs ever, and his victory last Saturday at the IC4A cross country meet was actually one of his highlights since that memorable run at Seoul. The gold medal has been a curse at times, but the prospect of getting another is what drives the 23-year-old from Kenya the hardest.
"The Olympic Games are everything," Rono said. "People don't remember what happens in between."
Here's what has happened to Rono in between:
* In his own words, "I celebrated too much, told myself I needed to rest," after his Seoul success.
* Returning to Mount St. Mary's in the spring of 1989, he lost the NCAA outdoor 1,500 to teammate Kip Cheruiyot by three-hundredths of a second.
* Rono was a marked man that summer, and fellow countryman Cheruiyot had a better go on the European circuit.
* Last fall, a recurring back injury forced Rono out of the NCAA cross country championships at Navy.
* Following the fall 1989 semester at the Mount, he returned to Kenya too late to make a real run at a spot in the Commonwealth Games.
* That was followed by two odd injuries, a separated shoulder incurred when he rolled his car over trying to avoid a stray bull, and some bruises left by a runaway milk truck.
"I didn't get injured too badly in that one," Rono said. "I was lucky."
The string of mishaps has slowed down Rono considerably, but he sees a silver lining. It is a long time between Olympic Games. In 1992, Rono wants to become only the second man to win two gold medals in the 1,500, the other being Sebastian Coe (1980 and '84). Then perhaps he'll try the 5,000 in 1996. He doesn't mind valleys, as long as they lead up to peaks.
Rono is not a man in a rush. Reports filtered back to the Mount earlier this summer that he had turned pro, but he returned in September to resume his studies toward an economics degree.
"The money is a very tempting thing," Rono said, "but it's probably more tempting to someone else. "If I take the money, I might not have enough to pay for school. Right now, I want to get school out of the way. It's a burden. I have time for the other things later. I want to run up until I'm 35 years old."
Rono's life revolves around another shot at the Olympics, and seasons like this serve as a base. "I just run cross country for the buildup," Rono said, but no one will be surprised if he wins next Monday. He is the top threat from the East, but Iowa State's Jonah Koech, another Kenyan who was second last year, leads others more suited to the 10,000-meter distance.
Tennessee's own Todd Williams won the Southeastern Conference over names like Terry Thornton of LSU and Alabama's German Beltran.
* Maryland will be well-represented at the Division III championships at Grinnell (Iowa) College Saturday.
The Frostburg State men qualified with a second-place finish at the Mideast Regional. Chris Lesser, a junior from Salisbury, leads the Bobcats, and he gets help from Vernon Chavis, a junior from Parkville; Jeff Webster, a senior from Westminster; and Chris Godesky, a sophomore from Broadneck.
Mary Washington, in Fredericksburg, Va., won the Southeast Region. Mark Micozzi, a junior from Loch Raven, is the No. 1 runner for the Eagles. Murray Chesno, a sophomore out of Mount St. Joe, and Kevin Hewitt, a freshman from Loyola, are also keys for Mary Washington.
The Mary Washington women also qualified, thanks in part to Audrey Cole, who went to Chesapeake-Anne Arundel.