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Their legacy goes distance into a Hopkinton elementary school

By Shira Springer, Globe Staff, 4/14/2000

OPKINTON - The master of ceremonies prepared the crowd of Elmwood Elementary School students for the parade of marathoners with a few simple questions.

''Is there anyone who can tell me what a dynasty is?''

A boy near the front of the auditorium shouted, ''A group of people who are very good at what they do for a very long time.''

Good answer. As the annoucer asked, ''Can anyone name a dynasty?'' two images were projected on the back wall of the school gym. The Celtics logo on the right. A pack of runners leading the Boston Marathon on the left. Hands went up immediately with an answer. A young girl spoke up first: ''The Kenyans.''

In the small town where the Boston Marathon starts, Kenyan distance runners define dynasty. The students know all about the Kenyans' domination of the men's race for the last nine years. Most of the children have not even lived long enough to see a Boston Marathon in which the men's champion was from a country other than Kenya. And no other group of runners has left as large an impact on the Hopkinton community as the Kenyans.

In this town, the dynasty the Kenyans have built in running the Boston Marathon takes a back seat to the legacy they are creating in Hopkinton.

''It's fantastic,'' said two-time champion and crowd favorite Moses Tanui. ''The young children are like angels. They motivate me when they call my name. When you talk directly to the children, you get a lot of good questions. They want to know many things about Kenya and what they must do to be a good athlete.''

From the reception the Kenyans receive, it's clear the admiration is mutual. With the theme from ''Rock y'' segueing into a song by the Backstreet Boys, then the sports anthem ''We Are the Champions,'' the Kenyans were introduced individually yesterday to the assembled youngsters. Wearing T-shirts specially designed for the occasion - with the Kenyan flag on front - the students in the second, third, and fourth grades shrieked as each runner walked through a screen of smoke and into the auditorium.

The loudest greetings were for Tanui, defending champion Joseph Chebet, and Catherine Ndereba. For his dramatic entrance, Chebet ran beneath a collage created by the students that depicted animals grazing on a Kenyan hillside.

Each runner was mobbed by the students, as they reached out hands holding miniature flags hoping for high-fives. Before heading toward the podium, the Kenyans walked through the clamoring crowd acknowledging as many students as possible.

''It's very lively and we are laughing and enjoying the day,'' said Chebet. ''I will tell my friends and family about [the students' interest] when I go back to Kenya.''

Added Ndereba: ''If it would not be for the running, I think I would be a school teacher.''

Following the introductions, the marathoners were designated teachers for the day and presented bricks inscribed with their names. The blocks will be placed in a walkway surrounding the Hopkinton Community Playground, which is scheduled to open in the fall. The commemorative Kenyan bricks will be yet another reminder of the strong connection between these runners and Hopkinton.

''It's total diversity,'' said Elmwood principal Ilene Silver of the Adopt the Marathoner program that brings the Kenyans to her school. ''They're talking to people they would never get to meet. It's just really special for us.''

In the hallways and classrooms, evidence of the town's Kenyan connection abounds. A display case at the main entrance features a singlet signed by Tanui, a quilt commemorating the 100th Boston Marathon autographed by the Kenyans who competed that year, a photo of Tanui at the finish in 1996, and other Marathon paraphernalia. The left racing shoe of Chebet will soon be added to the collection.

In a second-floor classroom, third grade teacher Tom Keane displays a table full of artifacts from a small Kenyan village where his aunt served as a missionary. The display includes drinking gourds, clothing, and tools. In the classroom and the corridors that lead to it, student artwork reflects the Kenyan focus of recent lessons.

''For me, it's the best day of the year,'' said Keane, who sported a striped tie in the Kenyan colors of red, green, and black, with the same warrior's shield that appears on the national flag. ''I try to impress upon the kids what an honor it is to have world-class athletes come to our school. It's almost like Michael Jordan coming to the school. [Today's assembly] is like a culmination of all the things they've done and studied over the last three weeks. It's so exciting for the kids.''

''It's very exciting,'' said 10-year-old Bryan Green. ''I like seeing them come in and waving the flags up in the air and having a lot of fun. I've learned a lot today. They're very nice, they can speak English, and I know their national anthem. I've looked forward to this basically all year.''

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