Eric Safai can forget about resting this summer.
After a school year in which he played three sports – cross-country, soccer and track and field – Los Altos High’s Senior Male Athlete of the Year has been told to ramp up his running for college.
“The MIT coach wants me to get up to 65 miles a week,” Safai said of a request by Halston Taylor, who runs the cross-country and track and field teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It’s not going to be easy – the most I’ve done is 30 miles in a week – but I do enjoy challenges.”
When it comes to his studies and sports, Safai has a knack for conquering challenges. He leaves Los Altos High with grade-A grades (4.6 GPA) and multiple MVP awards for athletics.
The secret to Safai’s all-around success? Time management.
“I would go to practice, go home and do work – I wouldn’t fiddle around or anything,” he said. “It was pretty easy for me. Schoolwork would always come first, and I actually enjoyed doing some of it – especially math and science.”
Safai approaches sports with the same vigor.
“I put a lot of work into sports,” he said. “When I first joined my club soccer team, I wasn’t good and I trained over the summer and got better. I like to prove that I can play a sport well.”
Safai proved that early and often at Los Altos. He was good enough to make varsity as a freshman in all of his sports. As a senior, he was voted MVP of his cross-country, soccer and track teams.
“Eric is an extraordinary athlete,” Los Altos athletic director Kim Cave said. “He demonstrates poise, confidence and determination every time he competes.”
Safai acknowledged he’s had some help along the way, much of it from his high school coaches – PattiSue Plumer in track and cross-country and Vava Marques in soccer.
“They’re both good coaches, and I feel lucky I had them,” the Los Altos resident said. “PattiSue is great – she instilled good ethics and a work-hard mentality. She’s done a lot for me. Vava yelled at me a lot my freshman year and definitely helped me improve. He taught me to play a different style of soccer than I was used to playing.”
Making varsity soccer as a fresh-faced ninth-grader “was a little freaky,” Safai said, “but by the end of the season, I was playing a lot and was fine with it.”
After playing sweeper his first three seasons, he saw action as a defensive midfielder as a senior.
“I enjoyed playing in the midfield,” said Safai, named to the SCVAL De Anza Division First Team this year. “It’s a lot faster-paced than being last man.”
Safai said the highlight of the season was beating Palo Alto in the third division game.
“We beat them 4-0, and they were league champions and undefeated in league the year before,” he said. “That was exciting.”
The Eagles didn’t make the playoffs – as they did Safai’s first three seasons – but he still considers it one of his best years.
“We did better than everyone expected,” Safai said. “We were fourth in league and were expected to finish last.”
The most memorable moment of Safai’s soccer career happened his sophomore year. While he can’t recall which team Los Altos was facing in the Homestead Christmas Cup game, Safai clearly remembers the unfortunate outcome of a play he was involved in.
“I accidentally broke a kid’s leg,” he said. “It was a slide tackle, but it was clean. I won’t forget it.”
The risks that come with playing soccer have convinced Safai to give up the sport – at least competitively. He intends to play soccer recreationally at MIT, but his focus will be on running cross-country and track.
“I still love to play soccer – it’s something I’ve always enjoyed,” said Safai, who’s played the game since age 4. “But if I want to run in college, soccer is too injury-prone to play.”
Safai hopes to run the 800 meters and mile at MIT under Taylor, who he hears is a demanding coach (see the 65-miles-per-week request, above).
Safai didn’t take up running until he got to Los Altos High. Safia said he went out for cross-country to get in better shape for soccer “and I did well and kept going.”
He made it to the Central Coast Section meet all four years, twice won the Central Park Invitational in Santa Clara and set a record for juniors in winning last year’s Lynbrook Invitational.
“The races are sort of painful – they’re not a light endeavor,” said Safai, interested in studying biology or bioengineering at MIT. “But when you get in a rhythm, it feels good.”
In track, Safai ran the 1,600 and 800 races for Los Altos and was part of the Eagles’ 4x400 relay team. He qualified for the CCS semifinals in both individual events this season and the finals of the 1,600 last year. Safai’s personal-best times are 4:24 in the 1,600 and 1:57 in the 800, and he is most proud of the former.
“My first two years I hated the 800, but it’s grown on me,” Safai said. “But I still like the (1,600) a little better.”
Safai, who set personal records in winning two events last year in a meet at Los Gatos, likes to save his best for last.
“I have a decent kick and catch people in the last 100 (meters),” he said. “It’s one of the thrills I get from racing in track.”
Safai hopes the thrills keep on coming at MIT. If not, Halston just might want him to run more miles next summer.