Running to the future
Nick Compton – The Daily Iowan
It is 6:30 a.m. in the heart of the Midwest, and Diane Nukuri is running. With a stride almost poetic in its consistency, she flows up and down the rolling hills of Iowa City as the cozy college town yawns around her. She glides down narrow, freshly swept streets, past coffeehouses, book shops, and apartment complexes, all with just-bundled newspapers resting on their doormats. She runs alone, embracing the quiet solitude of the early morning and savoring the fresh, raw air. It’s a ritual she repeats nearly every day. The 22-year-old Olympian doesn’t venture far; once she’s cleared her head and broken a light sweat, she stops.
“Distance runners need quiet,” says Nukuri, the record-shattering Iowa cross-country and track standout with a past as calm as a nuclear blast.
Here’s is the story that Hollywood script writers would drool over. A life defined by soaring accomplishments, treacherous villains, and harrowing plot twists. From the blood-soaked, war-torn hills of Burundi to the well-mowed lawns and smiling neighbors of the Corn Belt, her story is Oscar material. And just like a fairy-tale plot line, Nukuri’s tumultuous life, streaked with conflict, includes an unflinching savior: her stride. It earned her a spot in the 2000 Olympics, bought her a plane ticket to America, and very well could have saved her life.
Every inch of Nukuri’s 6-foot frame radiates a refined, elegant beauty. Long-limbed, rail-thin, and twitching with muscle, she’s built with the bionic proportions shared only by superheroes and Barbie dolls. She’s equipped with never-ending legs, capable of gulping whole miles in a single stride and arms that could span continents. Her torso is lean and narrow, her face long and delicate. She wears her hair short and tight, showcasing her slim lips, thin nose, and sharp cheek bones.
When she laughs, as she often does, her whole body radiates warmth. It’s a smile that could melt icebergs – and it has earned Nukuri the nickname “Lady Di,” for the ease at which she entrances males. But for her, beauty truly is a double-edged sword. The same features that make her beautiful in America were a death stamp in her native Burundi.
Burundi is a desperately poor, landlocked country about the size of Maryland in east-central Africa. Its population is composed mostly of two distinct ethnic groups, Hutus and Tutsis. A great majority of the 8 million people who live there, nearly 80 percent, are Hutu. Nukuri is a Tutsi.
Tutsis are supposedly taller and thinner and have sharper, narrower faces than do their Hutu counterparts – all traits embodied by Nukuri. After the colonial occupiers left in July 1962, the Tutsis and Hutus engaged in on-again, off-again struggle for power for more than 20 years. In 1993, under its first-ever democratic elections, Burundi elected a Hutu president. Not long after he was elected, he was assassinated, and the country plummeted into a gory civil war that pitted Hutus against Tutsis.
Up until the war, Nukuri’s childhood was filled with fresh milk and frequent smiles. Her family farmed a small plot of land 30 miles outside of Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, and it was her responsibility to make sure the family’s five cows were hand-milked and fed. Her father, a “gentle, honest” man, was a member of the military, and when Nukuri was young, he broke his leg. The injury wasn’t life-threatening, but it was a debilitating and painful burden, limiting the amount of work he could perform on the family’s plots of corn, tea, potatoes, and peas. The family coped, however, and harvests were bountiful.
Inside their humble house, Nukuri’s mother prepared meals and tried to tame a circus of young children, including eight of her own and an even deeper pool composed of the kids of close, distant, and indeterminate relatives. Nukuri thrived and grew.
“Although we were poor, we had fun,” she says.
It was during these early years that she started running, to and from school. In a country where only 59 percent of the population is literate, an education is a privilege. To be on time, Nukuri woke up at dawn and jogged barefoot down the three-mile dirt path leading to her one-room school. When the day was over, she ran home. The rustic pleasantness of her childhood faded, however, when Nukuri was 8 and the country exploded into chaos.
Nukuri’s village was almost entirely Tutsi, and when civil war erupted in 1993, all capable men were expected to fight for the Tutsi cause. Her father, who still moved with a steady limp and painful grimace, would have surely been singled out in the ferocious fighting that gripped the area. After some deliberation, it was decided he should remain in the village to protect possessions from pillaging and guard the women and children. As the fighting raged in the capital, Nukuri could smell the smoke and hear gunshots coming nearer and nearer to her hillside village. Luckily, before the conflict could touch her, an ostensible peace was achieved and within a year, the village’s fighting men returned home. All was not well, however, as nightly raids by barbaric bandits continued unabated.
Nukuri, usually bubbly and full of life, becomes a shadow when she recalls her past. She’s furtive and fleeting, she fidgets, her gaze locked on the ground. Her voice, usually flavored only with a slight accent, becomes thick and dense. She talks slowly, her words oozing out as if she must tap into some deep, hidden chamber to retrieve them.
“Them men,” she says, shaking her head, a streak of anger in her face. “They were vicious.”
She is referring to the Hutu death squads that continue to plague Burundi. Officially, the civil war raged up until 2003, when peace was signed in ink. Unofficially, however, Hutu death squads, blood-drunk and thirsty for chaos, continued to raid Tutsi towns and villages, pillaging, raping, and murdering anything and anyone that was rumored to be tied to a Tutsi.
The gunshots came mostly at night, Nukuri recalls, and her mother would gently wake her, as her father picked up his rifle, intent on protecting his family and farm. They would hide under a tree, waiting for the death squads to pass. Nukuri’s 3-year-old sister would cry and Nukuri did everything an 8-year-old could do to soothe her uncertainty. Made-to-move plastic bags were stuffed with essential clothing, snacks, and a few family keepsakes, just in case the situation necessitated a desperate escape.
“It was awful,” Nukuri mumbles, her gaze still focused on the floor, seemingly trying to make sense of the inexplicable madness. “They just killed …”
And when Nukuri was 9, ratcheting violence took its direct toll on the family. The death squads, possibly hearing that Nukuri’s father was a military officer supportive of the Tutsi cause, singled him out.
When she speaks of his death, Nukuri’s armor becomes impenetrable, and her eyes obtain a depth that betrays deeply hidden knowledge. She reveals little, the memories too painful to bear.
“He was killed,” she says, softly. “But,” she’s quick to change the subject, to leave the bloody past in its tomb, “we don’t talk about it.”
Speaking softly, however, is a trait not shared by those asked to describe Nukuri. Friends, coaches, and teammates all light up at the mention of her name, a burst of superlatives inevitably follows -“amazing,” “incredible,” and “phenomenal” are only a few. And, after her father’s death, Nukuri embarked on a journey that would justify these descriptions.
Growing up, everyone knew she was fast. The only untested question was “just how fast?” Although foot races were popular in her rural village, there were no organized running clubs, and formal competition was absent. To run competitively, when she entered her teen years, Nukuri had to venture into Bujumbura. While her mother, with the help of a large network of brothers, sisters, and cousins, struggled to raise eight fatherless children, Nukuri was earning a name for herself in the ranks of Burundi’s junior runners. With a P.E. teacher from a local school acting as her coach, at only 14, she had cemented her name as one of the top-three female runners in all of Burundi.
At 15, in a windfall of excitement, Nukuri was selected by a committee composed of Burundi’s top running coaches to compete at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia. Bright-eyed, unpolished, and inexperienced, Nukuri competed in the 5,000 meters against the best athletes on the planet. She didn’t place, but she ran well, and the top dogs of the running world noticed.
“It was amazing,” she says, voice quickening with excitement, “The lights were so bright, there were so many people, I will never forget it.” She pauses for a second, then iterates, “Never.”
Her impressive performance at the Olympics earned her an invitation to run a 10K at the Francophone Games, held in Ottawa, Canada. Nukuri, at 16, knew her life was about to change. Burundi was still a boiling cauldron of discontent, saturated with death, destruction, and mayhem. Her future, she determined, lay outside of Africa. This was her opportunity to escape, and she had a decision to make.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she remembers. “I tried to explain to my mom, but she didn’t understand. I have so many brothers and sisters, I couldn’t succeed. There’s no education in Burundi, either; my future wasn’t there.”
Arriving in Ottawa to compete in the games, her mind was set. She was not going back to Burundi. She had told no one but her closest family members, and there was little room for error in her plan. After competing, she would get in touch with a cousin she had never talked to, but who, an uncle told her, lived near Toronto. By a stroke of luck, she was able to contact the mysterious cousin and plead her case.
“I told her, ‘I want to live with you,’ ” Nukuri says. “She had a 1-year-old son and a small house, so she was uncertain, but she agreed anyway.”
And with that, Nukuri started a new life, one built on the foundation of her god-given ability to run. Her cousin lived in Pickering, a midsized city not far from Toronto, and Nukuri felt as if she was living on the Moon. She spoke only a little French and her native tongue, had no contacts, and knew very little of the customs and traditions unique to the West.
“It was very difficult,” she smiles. “I was like a baby.”
Fortunately, Nukuri was able to enroll in a Catholic high school and through contacts with school administrators, was set up with an independent running coach. She knew that running was her lifeline, and she worked harder than she ever had in her life.
“Of course, it’s No. 1,” she says, speaking about running’s importance. “Without it, I would be nowhere.”
Despite not competing for an official high-school team her senior year, Nukuri made waves in the running community, posting impressive times and flashing brilliant potential. Through her high school, her English skills progressed drastically, and her understanding of Western culture became firm. Soon, she began being courted by America’s most prestigious running colleges.
“Everyone wanted her,” Iowa’s head cross-country coach Layne Anderson recalls. “She had that potential, you could just see it.”
And, while coaches from Nebraska, Maryland, Kentucky, Kansas, and every place in between drooled over Nukuri’s natural ability, Anderson earned her respect.
Anderson’s visit to Canada to see her, an unusual trip for a Division-I head coach, impressed her so much, that she blindly decided she’d attend Iowa.
“Right away, I liked him,” she says. “He just seemed to care about me. He helped me through a rough time, the immigration process, obtaining college papers, those things.”
But before Nukuri ventured to a huge, impersonal university such as Iowa on the promise of a full scholarship, she decided she would need a stint at a community college to help ease the transition. Anderson knew the perfect place.
In Butler County, Kan., 30 miles outside Wichita, is a community college that has developed the prestigious reputation as one of the best runners’ colleges in the nation. Anderson is good friends with head coach Kirk Hunter at Butler County Communty College, and after pulling some strings, Nukuri was enrolled. Hunter recognizes dynamite when he sees it, and Nukuri, upon arrival to Kansas, blew him away.
“I knew immediately she was a superstar,” Hunter says. From a man who has won 10 National Junior College Athletics Association coach of the year awards and has fielded winning teams in the last five Juco championship meets, this was no inexperienced observation.
At Butler College, Nukuri flourished. For two years, she put up legendary stats, the likes of which are usually relegated to video games. She was a nine-time Juco national champion, winning two titles each in the half-marathon, mile, 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, and one title in cross-country. Through it all, Hunter said, she “embraced everyone.” For Nukuri, weekend trips to dance clubs in Wichita, late-night movies with love-struck college boys, and half-hearted bowling adventures with more gossip than pin cracking, served as a form of catharsis, purging the brutal memories of her past, while thrusting into focus her promising future as a Hawkeye.
Nukuri first set foot on the Iowa campus in November 2005 and was immediately struck by its pastoral beauty. She likes the gentle flow of the Iowa River, the well-manicured gardens, and the grandeur of the gold-domed Old Capitol that glitters in the heart of campus.
Her first season as a Hawkeye, in 2006, was, as Layne Anderson puts it, “a bombshell.”
She stormed to a first-place finish at the Midwest Regional meet, becoming the school’s first ever regional champion, and went on to place eighth at the NCAA Division-I championship meet. Her transition from Butler County to Iowa, Anderson says, was “flawless.”
The transition may have been impeccable, but now six years removed from the last time she tasted her mom’s cooking, Nukuri misses her family. She misses her cows. She misses the way the sun shines on the lush jungle vegetation in her backyard. She also misses the laugh of her older brother and misses dozens of friends she has left behind. What she doesn’t miss is the blood or the fear that her next breath might be her last. The senseless division between Tutsi and Hutu still haunts Burundi, and Nukuri isn’t sure when she will get back. On the phone, she reassures her mom.
“Next year, I tell her, next year I will come back home,” she says, slouching in an overstuffed love seat at a comfortable coffee-house in Iowa City. In more ways than one, she is thousands of miles from the continent she once called home.
And the “next year” that she has insisted upon, reassuring her worried mother that a warm embrace is just around the corner, seems impossibly far removed. The here and the now is what matters to Diane Nukuri. And embarking on another meditative, early morning run, things pull into focus. Not running from her past, she’ll tell you, but striding into her future.