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Running for her life

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Alumna’s passion takes her from war-torn homeland to 2012 Olympics
UI alumna and Olympic athlete Diana Nukuri-Johnson poses for a portrait in Iowa CityCompeting for her home country of Burundi, UI alumna Diana Nukuri-Johnson will run the marathon Aug. 5 at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Little known fact: the Iowa City area serves as an ideal training ground for long-distance running.

That’s according to former Hawkeye athlete and three-time All-American runner Diane Nukuri-Johnson, who on Aug. 5 will be competing in the marathon at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

“People think Iowa is flat, but it’s not. It’s hilly, it’s quiet—it’s everything you want,” notes Nukuri-Johnson, who lives and trains in Iowa City and enjoys navigating local roads, golf courses, and park trails for her twice-daily runs. “Plus, it’s safe.”

Running and safety are two things Nukuri-Johnson does not take for granted—pursuing both has led her to a better life, she says. She discovered a love for running when she was growing up in Burundi, a small country in Eastern Africa that has been marred by civil strife for the past five decades.

At 15, she was the fastest girl in Burundi, a distinction that propelled her to the 2000 Olympics. But facing increased violence in her homeland, which had claimed the life of her father, she decided not to go back after competing at the Francophone Games in Canada a year later. Instead, she stayed with a cousin in Ontario and finished high school, while continuing to run. Her athletic skills earned her a scholarship to the University of Iowa—and a return ticket to the Olympics.

Other Olympians with Hawkeye ties

Several additional current and former Hawkeye athletes will be competing this year's Olympic Games in London:

• Former UI swimmer Dragos Agache will compete July 28 for his home country of Romania in the men's 100 breaststroke. He competed for Iowa from 2005 to 2007, and is the school record holder in the 100 breaststroke.

• Current UI sophomore Heather Arseth, of Plymouth, Minn., will swim July 30 in the women's 200 freestyle for the country of Mauritius. Mauritius is her mother's native land, and Arseth has dual citizenship. She ranks eighth on Iowa's all-time top performers list, and was a member of the 200 free relay that set a school record at the 2012 Big Ten Championships.

• Five-time Big Ten track and field champion Kineke Alexander, representing St. Vincent and the Grenadines, will run in her second Olympic Games, having made her debut in 2008 in Beijing. She will compete in the women's 400-meter on Aug. 3. She ran sprints for Iowa from 2005 to 2008, and is an eight-time All-American, the most in school history.

For more details about the Olympics, visit www.london2012.com.

“I run because I enjoy it. It clears my head and I love the feeling I get when I’m done,” she says. “And I feel so lucky to be able to do something I am passionate about.”

Since graduating from Iowa in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in communication studies, Nukuri-Johnson has made running her career. She has an agent as well as a contract with Asics, and participates in a variety of competitions, including marathons, half-marathons, and 5K and 10K races. She qualified for the 2012 Olympics with her fourth-place finish at the 2011 Los Angeles Marathon, with a personal best time of 2:33:47.

Nukuri-Johnson has continued to train with her mentor, Iowa’s head cross-country coach Layne Anderson, and runs up to 120 miles a week. Qualifying for the Olympic marathon, he says, is a significant accomplishment.

“This is our version of the Super Bowl or the World Series,” he says. “Within track and field, long-distance running is a highly participated sport—there are races all over the country. At last May’s 12K Zazzle Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco, for example, there were 50,000 runners, and Diane finished second among women. So, it’s an exclusive group that makes it to the Olympics.”

Nukuri-Johnson says she is excited to visit London for the first time, but what she is most looking forward to is the race itself. She broke her toe after stepping into a pothole halfway through the New York City Marathon in November, and figured it can’t be much worse than that. She also says that’s she’s much more prepared than she was in 2000.

“Back then, I was only training three or four times a week. I wasn’t serious at all,” she says. “But now I’m more competitive, stronger, more confident, and more mature.”

Despite having been back to Burundi just once since leaving more than 10 years ago, she insists there was never a doubt about which country she’d represent at the Olympics.

“Canada gave me the protection I needed as a refugee, and I met my husband in the U.S. and live here now, but I’m 100 percent Burundian,” she says. “My whole family’s there, and I love my country.”

Although her Burundi family members will be unable to join her in London—they’ll instead follow her progress on TV and through the Internet—Nukuri-Johnson will be cheered on in person by Anderson, who says he “wouldn’t miss it,” and by her husband, Alex, a UI law student whom she met when they both were undergraduates at Iowa. She then plans to spend a couple of months relaxing in Burundi (“I might do another marathon in the fall,” she says, “but after the intense training of the past month, I just want a break.”)

If the going gets tough as she makes her way toward the Olympic finish line on Aug. 5, Nukuri-Johnson says she will concentrate on the hard work that got her there—and she will picture herself traversing the peaceful, rolling hills of Johnson County.

Diane Nukuri-Johnson's running shoes

To read more about Nukuri-Johnson’s journey to London, check out her Big Ten Network blog at btn.com/tag/diane-nukuri-johnson.

Contacts

Sara Epstein Moninger, University Communication and Marketing, 319-384-0045

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