An Inspiration to All
May 14, 2008
by Jeff Smith
When looking at her Iowa track and field bio online, Diane Nukuri has accomplished a great deal of success in her short time in Iowa City and for that, is very deserving of a feature story. She was a nine-time junior college national champion before coming to Iowa City, breaking all sorts of school records in cross country and track. As a Hawkeye she has been an All-American and a Big Ten champion, but after delving into her life story a little more, you'll find that she is also something else. An inspiration.
Nukuri's life journey across three countries and two states has never been an easy path traveled. Growing up in her war-stricken native country of Burundi, Nukuri was the proud daughter of Niyikundana Calinie and Bangirrcenga Stanley and the caring sibling of two brothers and five sisters. But her homeland ravaged by civil unrest proved to be no place for the aspiring runner, who competed for her country at the age of 15 in the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.
So when the opportunity arose the following year to compete in the Francophone Games in Ottawa, Canada, Nukuri packed her life's possessions in a small backpack and left the country. And she did so knowing full well, if she ever wanted a chance at a career in running, she could not return.
"If I had gone to Canada and then had come back home, that could have been my last chance to compete," she said. "I went there with three girls and they returned home and no longer run anymore. In my country, when you are 18, you marry and have kids."
Knowing she had a cousin, whom she had never met, that lived five hours away in Toronto, Nukuri took off with her belongings hoping that she could compete at the track meet and then breakaway from the group, never having to face the fears and the unknowns that often kept her up at night, hiding under trees when savages would raid her town. The same savages that took her father's life when she was just nine years old.
Once Nukuri reached Canada, she was scheduled to participate in the event's 5K race, however after reaching her cousin and hearing she needed to pick her up sooner rather than later, Nukuri asked to be slotted in the 10K race a day earlier. It was the first time she had ever run at that distance and remarkably finished third.
Following the race she called her cousin and asked her not only to pick her up, but to essentially take her to freedom as well. Looking back on her sudden departure from the travel group, Nukuri was never convinced she was safe.
"I remember being in her car and looking back to see if anyone was following me," she said. "I was young and I just remember shaking the whole time."
Imagine the courage, the bravery, the willingness to take a stand at the age of 16 and start a new life. Nukuri spoke mostly in her native tongue and knew only a little French. It was exactly what Nukuri had sought out for: A whole new world.
Nukuri did not have the typical North American high school career where she was able to star on the prep track squad. In fact she ran unattached most of the time with the University of Toronto and was coached independently.
During that time Layne Anderson was hired as the head women's cross country coach and the late James Grant's track assistant at Iowa. As he organized loose-leaf papers in his new office, he came across a piece of paper that had Nukuri's name and information on it. After inquiring about her with Grant, Anderson pursued the unknown talent and established contact with her. Following a phone call on July 1, one which gauged her interest in attending school in the U.S., Anderson went to Canada to meet Nukuri. It proved to be the beginning of a lifelong relationship.
"I tried to figure out how she was going to pass the SAT, the (NCAA) Clearinghouse and how she was going to survive at Iowa," Anderson said. "I basically told her let's continue the recruiting process and if she couldn't get in at Iowa, I would help her get into a junior college."
The latter was the route Nukuri was forced to take and luckily, Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan., reaped the benefits of her talent from 2004-06. Anderson had known head coach Kirk Hunter for years and told him that he wouldn't believe the prospect that he was sending him.
At Butler County CC, Nukuri was a nine-time NJCAA national champion, winning two titles each in half marathon, mile, 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters, and one title in cross country. She was a 17-time NJCAA All-American and shattered several event records over a two-year span.
College coaches from across the country began to take notice of the talented distance runner, but Nukuri never lost sight of the interest Anderson showed in her first. She rewarded his loyalty and friendship by graduating from Butler and signing on to become a Hawkeye having never once visited the Iowa campus.
"Iowa was always my top choice because of coach Anderson," Nukuri said. "Even when I was at school in Kansas, he was there for me."
Anderson points out that just by Nukuri committing to Iowa, it allowed the Hawkeyes to contend nationally in both cross country and track and field. Since she arrived on campus in the fall of 2006, Nukuri has captured the 2007 Big Ten Cross Country title, was named the Athlete of the Year in the sport, claimed the Midwest Regional crown and finished fourth at the NCAA Championships last November. She is a three-time All-American and has set school cross country records in the 3,000, 4,000, 5,000 and 6,000 meters. Last year in the indoor season she was runner-up in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters at the Big Ten Championships and placed seventh in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Anderson is not the least bit surprised in Nukuri's success as a Hawkeye.
"If you ever had a chance to follow her, you'd see she is a committed and dedicated person," he said. "She puts all of her energy into her academics, relationships and running. She's just an all-around person who makes everyone on the team better and feel good about themselves."
The Hawkeye coach admits almost shamefully that often times he will complain about having a bad day before comparing his struggles to those of Nukuri's.
"I can't help but not think that way when I think about Diane and what she went through," he said. "She hasn't seen her mother in seven years after she took off to the other side of the world, her belongings in a bag, learned a new language and got an education all on her own."
Nukuri has leaned on Anderson and Iowa for help with her future plans. She has considered obtaining Canadian citizenship, but is focused now on finding a way to Beijing for the 2008 Olympic Games. She has already committed to run for Burundi - the country does not have Olympic Trials - but she can't travel to China without assurance that she'll be allowed back in the States. With one semester of school left, Nukuri is hoping she can stay in Iowa City and continue training with Anderson, but first she must be granted a visa to compete in China and be able to return to school.
This summer or possibly as late as Christmas, Nukuri hopes to return to her homeland for the first time in seven years. She admits that it is going to be hard to go back, but it is something she has to do. Just like it was when she had to flee the country in search of a life of opportunity.
"I think Diane is a living and breathing example of overcoming even the toughest times if you want it enough," Anderson said. "She inspires people."
Nukuri says the two years she has spent at Iowa has felt more like six months, but she wouldn't trade them for the world. And she has seen the world.
But you would never know that by reading her bio online. Many would feel she has just been a talented product out of Pickering, Ontario, who has been fortunate enough to find championship success at the University of Iowa.
Yet there is so much more to Nukuri's life journey; so much more to read about and so much more to try and fathom.
Take the time. It's worth it.
Diane Nukuri is truly an inspiration to all.
WRITERS NOTE: This past November, Nick Compton of the Daily Iowan eloquently penned a more detailed version of Nukuri's life story. He shadowed Nukuri for three days and learned more about the civil unrest in Burundi, her escape to Canada, and her path to Iowa. It is a must read and can be accessed by clicking here.