Born to run

Maxime Chevee arrived in coach Tony Sandoval's office four years ago with no guarantees. Now, he leads the cross country team.

Jan Flatley-Feldman/Staff

Maxime Chevee was nervous. Beads of sweat rolled down his face as he slowly took his place at the starting line on the track at Edwards Stadium. With a second to look around at his surroundings, he saw equally anxious runners next to him on the track, those trying to make the Cal cross country team and those on the team who were close to being cut. Beyond the stadium he could see the Campanile and the UC Berkeley campus. Beyond the Berkeley hills, thousands of miles away was his little town of St. Julien-en-Jenoviois, France.

Here he was in America, beginning life at Berkeley like any other student. He was living in Unit 2, suffering through class registration and adjusting to students wearing pajamas to Crossroads, a phenomenon not seen in French schools.

Chevee was not a Cal athlete yet. His summer email to Bears’ cross country coach Tony Sandoval was lost in an inbox filled with 200 other emails asking for a tryout. Despite not hearing back from Sandoval, Chevee remained determined and decided to make a visit to Sandoval in his office.

“He shows up the first week of school and says, ‘I want to run cross country,’” Sandoval says. “He wasn’t a walk-on, he was a walk- in. He just walked in the door.”

Sandoval had informed Chevee of an open tryout coming up but was very straight with him — his chances of making the team were slim. Chevee had also not been running competitively since his time back in France, yet he still laced up hoping to fulfill his dream of running at the collegiate level.
All his life Chevee faced obstacles obscuring his path to becoming a collegiate runner. With every new hill or branch in his way, Chevee just kept running.

Back in France, Chevee ran around beautiful lakes near the France-Switzerland border. He ran short distances to the beach in the south of France near the Mediterranean. He ran in the fields surrounded by mountains covered in abundant snow in the other small French villages of his life. He ran and ran, and was good at it.

However, the academic culture in France put a strain on his ability to run. In America, sports and high school happily coexist. France, on the other hand, forces students to choose: school or sports.

“You can’t run and go to a good school at the same time,” Chevee says. “You have to make a choice and it’s very narrow. Once you’re in to a school, it is hard to change.”

In France, the last two years of high school are spent studying for entrance exams, leaving little time for athletics. For those students brave enough to try to balance sports and academics, there were clubs but no high school teams. Chevee was one of these bold students, joining a cross country club.

However, Chevee was the only member of his age group and was forced to train with older members, leaving him without runners his age. If academics didn’t act as enough of a deterrent, accessibility to mountainous trails in the area was limited, forcing to Chevee to run on flat, boring terrain. Yet despite all these obstacles, Chevee developed a passion for running greater than any deterrent.

He was faced with one of his most important life decisions at the time for college applications. He could continue along the path with many of his French peers and become an engineer or doctor at some high end college, or he could follow his running passion and come to the U.S. where universities couple sports and academics.

“I really didn’t want to give up running, and I didn’t want to go to a private school,” Chevee says. “It was hard to say, ‘Alright, let’s do it,’ but I made the decision.”

Without a recruiting network, Chevee made the decision to risk arriving at Cal and not even making a college team. On top of the risks, Chevee had to leave his family and old life behind. But here Chevee was, on the yellow Edward’s Stadium track facing one of the most important races of his life.

“I was a little nervous,” Chevee says. “If I didn’t make it, there were plenty of other things to do around Cal, but I really wanted to run.”

With one last look at the mountains, Chevee focused in. The whistle blew and only 12 ½ laps and 15:12 later, Chevee was back at the line, this time alone, in first place. Chevee put on a show under pressure and was invited to join the team. For many, 15:12 would be an amazing accomplishment, but it wasn’t in Chevee’s nature to settle so he began to push himself harder to be the best that he could be.

“It was a fine time at that point, but it’s not that fast,” Chevee says.

At the start of his first year, Chevee was 14th on the depth chart out of 20 and had a lot of ground to make up. As a non-scholarship athlete, Chevee pushed himself on and off the track, majoring in molecular cell biology.

Eventually Chevee’s determination paid off. He was placed in the starting seven for NCAA Regionals that year at Oregon, cashing in his best performance of the season. Over the years Chevee continued to improve, earning all-Regional honors twice. Chevee became such an important factor on the cross country squad that he was rewarded with a scholarship after his second regional honor, but more importantly he finally had a team and a cross country family.

“Its great to have a team, it’s so much better,especially since cross country is about the team,” he says. “We all help and push each other.”

As Chevee bolts through the red wood trees up in the Oakland hills, he reflects on his Cal career and realizes how happy he was that he decided to brave the journey and make the transition to a university that speaks a different language.

“The first year was kind of difficult because he never got any of my jokes,” Sandoval says.  “It took him a while to realize my sarcasm. Now he laughs at my jokes. They may not be funny but at least he acts like they are.”

The English language was once foreign to him, but running never was.