It all started with a crazy goal, one that even his coach thought should be reduced to a more “realistic” feat at the time.
Maksim Korolev wanted to be among the top five finishers at the NCAA Championships. A year after placing 201st in the field of 245 runners—well behind the top 40 places that allow an athlete to garner All-American status—Korolev came back determined not only to improve his placement, but to put himself amongst the top runners in the nation.
“[Korolev] approached me and said he wanted to be top-five at nationals,” Crimson coach Jason Sartesky said. “I tried to talk him down [and said], ‘Start by being All-American, top-40’.”
After an inconsistent and disappointing junior year, Korolev came into the season determined to make sure that this campaign was not plagued by the same mistakes. His preparation started before the season, as Korolev and co-captain James Leakos underwent an intense training regimen together. The hard work quickly played dividends, as Korolev and Leakos dominated early on in the season with a one-two finish versus Yale, as well as top-15 finishes for both at the Paul Short Invitational.
But after Leakos sustained a leg injury in the final stretch of the season, Korolev was left to lead the team, a role that he quickly embraced. Building on a solid start, Korolev placed second in the prestigious Wisconsin Adidas Invitational in a field full of All-Americans. After dominating the regular-season Ivy League races, the senior would go on to win the individual title at the Ivy League Heptagonal Championships and the NCAA Northeast Regionals, helping the team qualify for NCAA nationals for the first time since 1979.
It was there that Korolev would shine his brightest, despite unfavorable conditions. In addition to a stacked field, the conditions of the course were not conducive to an easy performance.
“It was incredibly muddy, windy, and cold out there, and I think that got to a lot of people,” Korolev said in November. “I remember thinking at one point, ‘Wow, I can see over all of these guys,’ but I still tried to draft.”
With his goal in place, Korolev started the race unfazed, starting strong and establishing himself in the lead pack early on along with about nine other runners. At the 3000-meter mark, Korolev found himself right where he wanted to be—inside the top five. The senior crossed the mark at 8:27.8—just a half-second behind defending champion Kennedy Kithuka, the leader at the time.
Korolev stayed in the front group until just before the halfway mark. At that point, the leaders began to break away from the pack in order to pick up the pace. It was here that Korolev made arguably his most crucial decision. Instead of pushing, he stayed behind and kept himself at a pace that he could maintain while staying within striking distance.
“I just gauged the situation, and I felt like [running with Kithuka] would have pushed me over the edge a little bit.” Korolev said in November. “I was happy with where I was in the top five, so I decided to be a little more conservative about it, rather than do something crazy.”
The maturity that the senior demonstrated in that moment reflected the mentality that Korolev had adapted to help him avoid inconsistencies in his running.
“He really [allowed] himself to get out of most difficulties by not always pushing as hard as he [could] earlier on,” Saretsky said.
This decision proved key for Korolev, as he would never drop from the top four for the rest of the race, clocking in at third place at the 8000-meters mark before unleashing his powerful kick.
With a reserve of energy in tow, Korolev finished out the race with a quick 6:04 2000 meters, the fifth-fastest closing time of all runners.
With eventual winner Edward Cheserek out of sight and about 100 meters left, Korolev found himself within striking distance of Kithuka. Though he managed to reel the Texas Tech runner closer and closer, Korolev just ran out of room, finishing a half-second behind the defending champion. But his time of 29:59 made him the top American runner in the race and was the best finish by an Ancient Eight runner in NCAA Championships history.
Korolev claims that a large reason for his success this year was his new perspective and approach to the races.
“Last year it was a little too stressful, and I let the pressure get the best of me,” Korolev said. “[This year] I was more relaxed. I just had more fun with it.”
—Staff writer Julio Fierro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.