EUGENE, ORE., JUNE 5 -- Paul Ereng, 20, a freshman from the University of Virginia, was not supposed to win the men's 800 meters at the NCAA track and field championships that ended here Saturday. In fact, he didn't even run the 800 last year.

When Ereng arrived at Virginia from Kenya last fall, Virginia's assistant head coach Fred Hardy, who coaches middle distance runners, took a good look at him and told him that he was a good quarter-miler, but he would make a great 800-meter runner because of his speed. As an incentive, Hardy who has scouted, coached and recruited Kenyan athletes for the last 22 years, told him that if he worked hard enough at his 800-meter run he could make the Kenyan Olympic team.

"It sounded like a crazy idea and I didn't believe him, because how could I make the team where the great guys are running?" Ereng recalled. "The guy who won the world championship is from Kenya, the guy who was second is from Kenya, and the guy who is holding the current African record is a Kenyan also."

Ereng was 6 years old when his father died. He was raised by his uncle and his mother, a small landholder who grows vegetables, maize and beans in Kitale, about 250 miles northwest of Nairobi in mountains near the Ugandan border. He belongs to a minority Turkana tribe that comprises about 5 percent of Kenya's 22 million people. He is the first member of his tribe to come to the United States and compete athletically.

Running came late to Ereng. He had never been outside Kenya before he arrived at JFK Airport in New York in September 1987.

"After I went to high school, I didn't run till I was about 15 years old," he said. "I used to play volleyball, because I was a little bit taller than the other boys and I could reach over the net and smack the ball a little bit."

But he quit volleyball "because it was not much fun and I decided to run because I thought I could run better."

He tried the 400 meters and ran it in about 54 seconds. "I was running at a speed slower than even some girls in Kenya," he said. "But that didn't bother me that much. I thought, since I am a boy, I should be stronger than girls and I should run at least faster than girls."

By last year he was running the 400 meters in 45 seconds, but Hardy convinced him that he has a great future in the 800 meters because he has speed and good strides. What he needed was strength, so as part of his regimen he lifts weights and does 100 pushups a day.

He won the 800-meter Atlantic Coast Championship in 1:46:61 at Knoxville last month, but not many coaches expected him to win here. He did, in 1:46:76, after trailing the lead runner by about 30 meters with 250 meters to go. But from that point on, he used his sprinter's speed to come from last place and win.

"I wasn't as exhausted as I was in the heat," he said. "I wanted to stay back and then come back at the end. It was the first time I have run in a big meet and only my eighth 800 meters."

Ado Maude of Nigeria, who runs for Texas Southern, finished second. "I thought I was going to win but he came from nowhere," Maude said.

The Kenyan Olympic qualifying trials are scheduled the last week of July and early August, according to Hardy, and he expects Ereng to do well.

Of his long-range goals, Ereng said, "I just want to get my degree {he is undecided on a major} and go back to work in Kenya. That's all I want." What about running? "I don't know," he said. "I could be injured tomorrow and never run again. I cannot predict anything."