Cross Country by David Kiefer

Living in the Moment

From unknown to NCAA champion, Ky Robinson has become the face of Stanford distance running

THE ROUTE FROM Brisbane to Maclean takes about three hours on the M1, the Pacific Highway that passes through the Gold Coast and out of Queensland.

Mark and Susan Robinson were driving south for the 100th birthday of Susan’s grandfather on this winter June afternoon when they pulled off the road and into a gas station parking lot just before 2:55 Australian Eastern Daylight Time.

They hurriedly fished through their cell phone controls to find a livestream of a running race 17 time zones away. A typical humid night had descended upon Mike A. Myers Stadium in Austin, Texas, by 9:55 p.m. Central Time. Stanford’s Ky Robinson was taking the starting line for the 5,000 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.

Earlier in the four-day meet, Robinson won the 10,000 in stunning fashion against a strong field. His bold move and 54-second final lap pulled teammate Charles Hicks to a 1-2 Stanford finish.

Now, two days later, Mark and Susan were in rural New South Wales watching their son intently as he attempted to earn the first NCAA outdoor long-distance sweep since 2016.

“C’mon! Let’s go!”

Customers twisted their necks in surprise as a dark-haired woman with glasses leaped up and down and screamed encouragement that could have been heard from Murwillumbah to Byron Bay as Ky completed the winning double.

“She almost ran the 400 meters with him all the way to the finish,” Mark recalled.

Ky Robinson once was a reluctant runner. He was 16 before he even began to take the sport seriously. But in the few years since, he’s raced for the Australian national team at World Championships and Commonwealth Games, and could become the most decorated Stanford men’s distance runner since five-time NCAA champion Brad Hauser more than 20 years ago.

Stanford teammate Cole Sprout saw the signs in Robinson’s potential in an indoor race last December in Boston. Robinson ran 13:11.53, the third-fastest indoor 5,000 in collegiate history.

“A lot of us knew how talented he was, but it wasn’t until seeing that to make it concrete,” Sprout said. “The whole outdoor season, he just looked so effortless in almost everything he did. By the time he won the first title, I wasn’t surprised. And the second one … it just seemed inevitable.”

Robinson, a senior majoring in management science and engineering, will be among the favorites at the NCAA Cross Country Championships Saturday at Panorama Farms in Earlysville, Virginia. Beyond that, he will seek to defend his NCAA outdoor titles before making a bid for the Paris Olympics while wearing Aussie green and gold.

He’s the reigning Pac-12 Conference and NCAA West Region cross-country champion. He’s a nine-time All-American, an Academic All-American, the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Heck, he was even the National Outdoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year. 

That’s quite a legacy for someone who never wanted to run in the first place.


FOR THOSE WHO were curious about this recruit back in 2019 and found only distant grainy photos and limited information, Robinson’s origin story begins with a few tart comments about the sport.

“It’s boring,” he said.

“Why is it boring?” his mother asked.

“Because it’s running,” he replied.

From his first race, a 1-kilometer school competition as a third-grader, everyone could see there was something there. Except Ky himself.

On family weekend hikes up Mount Gravatt, Ky and older sister Jamie bolted up the mountain to see who could reach the top first. And it wasn’t unusual for Ky to take a 5K jog around the park with his black lab, Levi, as his running companion.  

Through his early teens, Robinson won school and district races and placed among the top in Queensland state. However, the races came as nothing more than a supplement to volleyball or soccer or cricket.

“I wouldn’t necessarily train,” Robinson said. “I’d always make it to the state level, but never any further. And it didn’t really bother me.”

At Anglican Church Grammar School, known as Churchie, Robinson sank deep into his seat during science whenever Michael Simes knocked on his classroom door.

“Can I talk to Ky Robinson?”

“Oh, no,” Robinson uttered under his breath.

Simes was the school’s director of cross country and spent three years trying to convince Robinson to join the team.

“You have talent,” Simes told him. “You should try it.”

And for three years, Robinson refused.

“I would find whatever excuse I could under the sun,” said Robinson, who’s sporting priority was playing soccer with his friends. “I didn’t mind running, but I never wanted to go and train.”

Churchie coaches and former Boise State runners Jack Curran and Louis McAfee joined in the effort.

“We badgered him for quite some time,” said Curran, who first met Ky at age 10. “Eventually something kicked in his head that he could make something of this running thing.”

Robinson remembers his grudging acceptance at age 15 this way:

“They did a sales pitch to my parents,” Ky said. “My dad ate it up.”

“Done!” was Mark Robinson’s response.

Thus began three days a week of 6 a.m. drives to school for early training. Ky barely said a word. 

Mark, a tennis coach, was the proper shortcut. A fine runner himself while growing up in Durban, South Africa, Mark ran six kilometers after school to a park in time to make sure he was picked for the daily pickup soccer match.

When living in Pietermaritzburg, Robinson competed and fared well in weekly races against some of the best runners in the KwaZulu-Natal province, including Black Africans, though competing against them was forbidden under Apartheid, the country’s system of institutionalized racism.

Though there’s no way to prove if the mental toughness that Ky developed in racing can be traced to his father, there is reason to believe that Mark’s experiences helped shape Ky’s outlook.

Two years of military service were mandatory in South Africa and refusal meant a three-year jail sentence. Mark joined the Defence Force and learned that suffering and discomfort was to be accepted and tolerated if it meant a means to an end.

“If you weren’t physically strong or mentally strong, you were going to suffer in the army,” Robinson said. “They didn’t tolerate weaker personalities. It was an Afrikaans-run military. They absolutely had very little tolerance for us English-speaking South Africans. They tried to make it as difficult as possible.

“Unless you gave some back, you were going to have a rough ride the whole time, and it wasn’t in my personality to just take everything that was thrown at me. I gave back where I could and what I could.”

After nine months of training, Robinson was thrust into the South African Border War, a 24-year conflict between the Defence Force and factions in South West Africa (now Namibia), Zambia, and Angola. For four months, Robinson was in combat as part of the 5 South African Infantry Unit, firing mortars. He earned a Pro Patria Medal for enduring more than three continuous months of action.

After his military commitment, Robinson felt there was nothing more for him in South Africa. He packed up at age 20 and embarked on a year of travel while working different jobs along the way.

Susan had the same idea. The strangers met in the Greek islands. It was love at first sight. For the next year, they traveled the world together before getting married and settling in Susan’s native Brisbane.


KY WAS BORN four years after Jamie, a volleyball and basketball star who sometimes taunted Ky by parading in front of him in her Queensland gear when he failed to make the state’s teams. Ky was a name that first came to Mark in a dream. It won out over Tristan, which his mother favored.

As his training under Curran and McAfee ramped up, Ky saw some success as he became more consistent. Though he didn’t make any Queensland teams in 2017, Ky showed potential “even though he was not the most dedicated to training and would miss assigned runs all the time,” Curran said. 

The coaches invited him to train with some older college-level runners on weekends and picked him up at 5:30 a.m. for the hour drive to Gold Coast to train with their group.

“I was basically thrown in there and told, ‘Hang on,’” Robinson said. “I’d basically be at the back of the pack every single workout, just trying to survive as long as I could. But by the end of that year, I was starting to win races.”

A turning point came on one of the most notorious courses in a country known for its brutal cross country. After repeatedly finishing one spot from berths in national championship races, Robinson finally advanced to his first under-18 nationals in cross country, at Maleny, a golf course with a hill that seems to ascend forever, and then get even steeper.

Robinson entered a minor race two weeks before nationals to get a feel for the course and was “smoked by random people,” he said. It was humbling and a huge blow to his newfound confidence.

His coaches advised a different approach for the championship: walk.

“It’s so steep, you won’t be losing that much time,” Ky was told. “Then sprint the downhill. You’ll gain so much time. They’ll all be exhausted.”

Robinson stuck to the plan even as runners passed him up the hill. But on the downhill, Robinson zoomed past so many he found himself finishing as the third Australian. His parents, watching from the hillside, were left in awe. Robinson went from never making the national meet to coming in the top three in one year. 

“We told you that you had talent,” the coaches reminded him. Finally, Ky was able to see it too.

Brisbane native Patrick Thygesen, now a senior runner at Providence, was among Ky’s rivals. Thygesen said he probably raced Robinson as many as 20 times a year.

“At 15 or 16, I was better than him, I trained better than him,” Thygesen said. “But even then, he didn’t back down from anyone. At one point, in a school championship, he just took off. I thought he might come back to me, but he kept getting farther and farther away. I thought, Where’s this coming from? He’s just gone to another level now.”

Robinson began to mature physically and catch up in size to others his age, but it was more than that. 

“Ky just had this massive aerobic engine,” Curran said. “I wouldn’t want to put any pressure on a kid that age and tell them they’re going to be great, but I definitely noticed a big change that year and he began to dominate.”

Since Curran and McAfee had been through the American college system, they encouraged Ky to seek out its opportunities. Running in Australia doesn’t offer much support after high school, Curran said, so they tried to educate him on his options.

The Robinsons, however, had no understanding of the U.S. college system – the best schools, admissions requirements, athletic possibilities. Churchie, however, had a partnership with the Aussie Athletes Agency, a company that seeks to find American college opportunities for Australian athletes. It’s run by David Hodge, a Brisbane native and former Stanford men’s tennis assistant coach known to Mark Robinson through tennis circles.
Ky sent a simple Web site inquiry to Hodge’s agency, leading to a meeting between Hodge and Susan at a café near Churchie and setting in motion a process that led Ky to Stanford. Hodge knew the Stanford recruitment process intimately and provided the boost that allowed Robinson to establish his goals with Stanford in the forefront. 
“It was clear based on Ky’s priorities and goals that Stanford would be a perfect environment for him,” Hodge said.

Robinson said he reached out to the Stanford coaching staff through e-mail and was told he didn’t meet their standards. Robinson was discouraged, but his hopes were renewed when he was alerted to a coaching change at Stanford, and a connection with new men’s distance coach Ricardo Santos.

McAfee had an Aussie friend, Chartt Miller, who ran for Santos at Iona. When McAfee sought to transfer from Boise State, he considered Iona and visited Santos, though McAfee ultimately was not released from Boise State and returned to Australia. But the connection was established and McAfee became an advocate on Ky’s second attempt to reach out to Stanford.

“I remember we were up at Bend, Oregon, for our training camp when Louis emailed me about Ky,” Santos said. “I’m not going to say no to anyone, especially if it’s someone I know who is vouching for a person. Louis has been in the U.S. He knows what it means and what it takes.”

Robinson again was informed he hadn’t reached Stanford’s time standards. However, Santos urged Ky to keep in touch and to alert him to any upcoming races.

Robinson felt he had to do the persuading rather than the other way around with Stanford. The more Robinson and Santos communicated, the more Santos was impressed.

Robinson did indeed reach Stanford standards on the track, though not by much. But the process already was in motion.

“He sent me a video of him running,” Santos said. “He won easily. Even though there was no one else there, he pushed himself. I liked that. He was a really smooth runner and very versatile, with a pretty decent 1,500 all the up to 5,000. I liked that too.”

Curran and McAfee told Santos that Ky was undertrained. Ky’s times were “decent,” Santos said, but it was Robinson’s potential that was most intriguing.

“I liked his personality and I just thought he’d be a good fit,” Santos said. “It got to the point where, in talking to Coach Clark, that this was someone that we should take a chance on.”

J.J. Clark, Stanford’s Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field and Cross Country, agreed.

“I thought we were getting someone who could eventually make it to NCAA’s,” Santos said. But when he finished sixth in the 3,000 steeplechase at the 2021 NCAA Championships in a school-record 8:32.01 as a freshman … “That’s when we knew, there was more there than we thought.”

IT TOOK A while for Robinson to reach Stanford. His freshman year coincided with the first full academic year of COVID. His mother, Susan, didn’t want him to go at all.

“All we kept hearing from our media in Australia was the amount of people dying in America from COVID,” she said. “I was very concerned that I was sending him there to basically get COVID and possibly not make it.”

However, nothing was going to change Ky’s mind.

“I’m going!” he said.

The cross-country season was moved from the fall to the winter. While Sprout and fellow freshman Thomas Boyden spent the fall in a high-altitude camp in Utah while in the midst of remote learning, they hadn’t met the third member of their class of ’24 until the team reported to Stanford in January.

“At first, I thought he was this goofy dude,” Sprout said. “He was so stress free -- that is such a defining characteristic of Ky, the inability to be phased by almost anything. He’s very free form, just kind of living in the moment, taking advantage of what’s right in front of him.”

As students in the same freshman computer science class, Sprout noticed their opposite approaches.

“I would start assignments as soon as I could, just so I could get on top of it,” Sprout said. “I was worried I would get left behind or not finish in time. But Ky doesn’t see the point in taking all that time to do an assignment. He’d rather do other things, and then he’ll procrastinate until the last four hours before it’s due. He needs that pressure to get things done.”

Sprout was different from Robinson in another way. He’d been a national figure in the borderline cult following of high school running since his sophomore year. Robinson was an unknown.

“I don’t think any of us knew what Ky was about,” Sprout said. “I didn’t really think he was that serious about running, because he wasn’t, to be honest. I don’t think he knew how much he wanted to invest in it.

“Things would have played out very differently if he had gone to another school, versus here where it’s rigorous across the board and with very high expectations.”

Charles Hicks and Sprout were two who provided Robinson with a mature approach to running and examples and targets to shoot for. There was no question about their investment or dedication. Hicks, class of ’23, would become Stanford’s first NCAA cross-country champion and a 10-time All-American. Sprout is a five-time All-American.

“My thought is, he saw that and it rubbed off on him,” Sprout said.

In his first race for Stanford, Robinson placed fourth in the ‘B’ race at the Florida State Winter Classic, realizing he could have won if he raced a bit differently. He liked the feeling of winning, it’s what drove him to continue to race back home even when he was reluctant to train.

But this was different. Robinson realized that he was in a privileged position to run for Stanford. With the perspective of hindsight, Robinson understands the meaning even more.

“A lot of it is faith,” Robinson said. “We come here for a reason. We’ve been recruited here for a reason. That’s because somebody has seen something in us that shows we can get to the elite level. A lot of the time, people expect it to happen straightaway, but it doesn’t have to. That’s where the faith comes in.”

Robinson used fellow Australians as inspiration. He researched results from past NCAA Cross Country Championships and made a sticky note for every Aussie name he recognized. He wrote down their places for each year in that race. For instance, Wisconsin’s Morgan McDonald was 75th as a freshman in 2014 and won in 2018. If Robinson could measure his progress positively against the likes of McDonald, he knew he was on the right track, and a 46th place as a freshman proved that.

“That’s better than all these names on my sticky notes,” he observed.

Santos envisioned Robinson as a steeplechaser. That was the race where Robinson showed the most promise, breaking the Queensland championship meet record over a 2,000-meter distance. Initial results went well: A Stanford freshman record in Ky’s first collegiate steeple race and a Big Meet victory against Cal in his second.

On the day of the Pac-12 Championship final, Susan was flying to Brisbane from Adelaide. She saw in the results that Ky finished third in a personal-best time. Her elation, however, was tempered by a curious text she received from Ky upon landing.

“Guess what?”

“Congratulations on your PB!” she texted back.

Ky ignored the message and responded with a cryptic one: “Are you home?”

“I’m just getting off the plane and I’ll be home soon. Do you want to call me?”

“No, I’ll wait until you get home.”

Susan, starting to feel uneasy, felt something must be wrong. He completed the race in a good time, so his legs must be fine.

She tried her daughter, Jamie. “Is Ky OK?” she asked.

“He’s fine.”

Something’s going on here, Susan thought to herself. She sped home, “like I’ve stolen a car,” she said, and pushed through the front door.

“Will someone please tell me what’s going on?!”

Mark showed her a photo of Ky’s face.

“It’s not good,” Mark said.

She tried hard to stay strong and suppress the tears.


ON THE SECOND lap of the race at USC’s Loker Stadium, Robinson was tucked in the middle of a slow-moving pack and failed to get a clean look at the backstretch barrier. Twisting his body while jumping over the hurdle, Robinson banged his trail knee against the barrier and toppled over the other side.

As he hit the ground, another runner couldn’t avoid Robinson and stepped on the left side of Robinson’s face … with his spikes.

It happened so fast that Robinson bounced back up and surged to catch the pack. He felt no pain and had no idea what had happened. The only clue was some blood trickling into his mouth.

“I remember wiping my bottom lip because I could taste blood in my mouth, thinking I cut my lip open,” said Robinson, who nodded to Santos during the race in a gesture that all was fine.

With each lap, Robinson drew greater attention from fans and officials, many pointing at him, aghast at what they were seeing. Robinson didn’t have enough at the end to stay with the leaders, but still finished a strong third.

Robinson crossed the line proudly and turned to embrace teammate D.J. Principe, who was seventh.

“He just shoved me away,” Robinson recalled. “I’m like, ‘What are you doing? I thought we were friends.’ But he kept shoving me and pushing me. The next thing I know, the medic’s there and slaps a towel on my face. I pulled it away and saw so much blood. I remember thinking, yeah, maybe I’m not OK.”

Robinson had raced with blood and slash marks covering nearly the entire side of his face. A gruesome photo quickly found its way around the digital world.

Fortunately, one of the USC medical staff on hand was a former plastic surgeon. Robinson was placed on a table and received 27 stitches.

By the time he appeared on FaceTime with his mom, Ky had gauze on his face and was wearing a mask – it was still COVID, after all. He seemed in a bit of shock, but otherwise was OK.

Robinson never was in love with the steeplechase, and this incident and the trauma that accompanied it soured Robinson on the event. In the midst of the postseason, Robinson knew he must persevere because it was his ticket to nationals.

At the NCAA West Prelims at Texas A&M, Robinson ran cautiously. He stepped on the top of every barrier. Normally, he would hurdle every barrier except the water jump. He stayed to the outside lanes to avoid any contact and somehow squeezed through to nationals as a time qualifier. He followed with a breakthrough first-team All-America performance in the NCAA steeple final at Eugene’s Hayward Field.

Following the team’s return to campus from the NCAA Cross Country Championships the next fall and with training for track season coming soon, Robinson walked to his Mirrielees House residence with teammate Joshua Schumacher, who told him, “You shouldn’t do anymore steeples. You’re good enough to run on the flat.”

PTSD meant Ky dreaded another season of the steeplechase and knew he could compete against the best in a loaded event like the 5,000. But hearing it from a teammate who believed it as well, galvanized him. Robinson felt a surge in confidence.

“Coach, I really don’t want to steeple anymore,” Robinson told Santos. “What do I have to do to not run that again.”

Santos responded immediately: “Run 13:20.”

That 5,000 time had been achieved by only three in Stanford history – two of them Olympians and the other a three-time U.S. cross country champ. Santos was joking, sort of, but Robinson didn’t see it that way. He took it as a challenge.

In the first meet of the indoor season, Robinson ripped off a 13:21.85 to win the Husky Classic – the second-fastest indoor time in school history.

At the NCAA Indoor Championships, Robinson ran even faster, placing second in 13:20.17.

“I don’t know,” Santos pondered. “You didn’t run 13:20, you ran 13:20-point something.”

They laughed. They both knew that Robinson, once an unknown, had proved himself beyond measure.

“Ky has opened himself up to endless opportunities with running and in life and is living a life that many young runners growing up only dream of,” Curran said. “You can’t really ask for more than that. He’s already inspiring the next generation of runners and that’s pretty cool from a 21-year-old. I coach a group of school-age kids right now and he is all they talk about.”

In Stanford annals, there have been great runners – Grant Fisher, Brad Hauser, Chris Derrick, Ryan Hall, Gabe Jennings, Sean McGorty, Charles Hicks … Most came in with high expectations. 

That level of anticipation may not have extended to Robinson upon his arrival. But as he wandered off the track after the second of his two NCAA championships in the sweltering Texas night, he repeated a phrase over and over. 

“I feel like I’m in a dream,” he said. 

The kid who shrunk in his chair in science class at the mere thought of running, now is among the best. 

A dream indeed.