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Olympic teen accepts the pull of the long distance run

First, Kenyetta Iyevbele had to be convinced that she was a better middle- and long-distance runner than a sprinter. Then, she had to be told that there was actually a sport in which people ran a 5-kilometer foot race over rugged, natural terrain.

Since then, she has become one of the area's best cross-country runners.

Iyevbele, an Olympic High junior who won the 1,600-meter title at last spring's state outdoor track and field meet, recently won her second consecutive Queen City 3A/4A Conference championship.

Iyevbele, a track and field state champion, was scheduled to run in Saturday's 3A Midwest regional meet at McAlpine Greenway Park and was a favorite to qualify for this Saturday's state meet at Tanglewood Park in Clemmons.

Iyevbele came to Olympic from Quail Hollow Middle School, a two-time MVP of her track and field team. She competed in the sprint events, hoping to do the same as a high school athlete.

But Olympic track and field coach Craig Bollinger saw something different in Iyevbele – her tall, slender build, the strength in her legs, and, perhaps most importantly, her desire and self-discipline to train.

Bollinger allowed Iyevbele to continue competing in the 400 meters, an event for which she qualified for the 3A state meet, during her freshman year. But he bumped her up a length, too, adding the 800 meters to her repertoire.

Encouraging the progression to long-distance, Bollinger suggested to Iyevbele that she run cross country during her sophomore year.

But she was not familiar with cross-country-style running, and its 3.1-mile course did not appeal to her. But Iyevbele never let on to anyone that she didn't really like cross country.

She won the conference meet with a time of 20 minutes, 9 seconds. A nagging hip injury – “growing pains” – says Iyevbele, slowed her in the regional and state meets. Olympic girls cross country coach Christy Kunkle said she referred Iyevbele to a chiropractor, who helped her get on a good exercise routine.

In the winter, Iyevbele was a member of Olympic's first indoor track and field team. At the 3A/2A/1A state meet, she placed second in the 1,600 meters and fourth in the 1,000 meters.

Iyevbele continued to embrace her transformation to the longer distances, winning the 1-mile race at last spring's 3A state meet. She also finished fifth in the 800 meters.

Iyevbele admits that she feels added pressure to do well with cross country because of her track and field success.

“It's hard and it makes me feel more nervous,” said Iyevbele. “But it's more encouraging. I try to never hold back. I try to give it my all.”

This fall, Iyevbele has the added inspiration of an ailing mother, Tanjia Gladney. A seven-year survivor of breast cancer, Gladney, 38, learned recently that the disease had returned.

As the Olympic team held preseason camp in the N.C. mountains, Iyevbele learned the news.

Kunkle offered to take her home to Charlotte, but Iyevbele declined, believing that her mother would want her to stay with her team.

“It's a lot on someone her age to handle,” said Kunkle, “along with course load and her running.”

Iyevbele says her mother is undergoing chemotherapy treatments and that her cancer is “80 percent gone.”

She said she draws inspiration from her mom's tribulations.

At the conference meet on Oct. 15, Iyevbele won with a time that was more than a minute faster than last year's conference-winning time.

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