Iowa Alumni Magazine | February 2008 | People

Running Free: Diane Nukuri

By Kathryn Howe
Photo: University of Iowa - CMP Photo Service For one Hawkeye athlete, running is more than sport. It represents the freedom to live her own way.

Safe in peaceful Iowa City, far away from the poverty and war of her childhood, Diane Nukuri still runs for her life.

It's been 13 years since her father's murder, but she'll never forget the gunshots, the screams, or the blood. One year after civil war erupted in 1993 between Hutu and Tutsi tribes in her African homeland of Burundi, a Hutu death squad killed her father.

"I never knew what would happen," says Nukuri, now a decorated UI runner and the Big Ten Cross-Country Athlete of the Year, of the fear in her war-torn village. "We always had to be ready for anything."

To flee the crippling loss and devastation, she did what came naturally. She ran away.

A gifted runner, Nukuri discovered that her endurance was her redemption. Faced with a cultural attitude that suggests women are only good for cooking and child-bearing, she knew her only shot at a bright future was outside Africa. After representing Burundi at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, she gained the confidence and courage to take her life in a new direction.

Nukuri — whose radiant smile offers no hint of her pain — moved to Canada in 2001, leaving behind all that was familiar to pursue a running career.

She soon blazed a trail and gained a reputation as a talented athlete. College coaches across the U.S. tried to recruit her, but UI women's cross-country coach Layne Anderson impressed her beyond measure. Nukuri joined the Hawkeyes in 2006, and in just two seasons, she's shattered nearly every school and conference distance-running record. Not only did she claim a 2007 Big Ten title, she's the UI's first-ever regional conference champion. She also placed fourth in nationals this past fall.

Nukuri hasn't seen her family since she waved good-bye in 2001, her mother standing on a hill and watching her daughter's bus slowly disappear in the distance. She only talks to her mother and seven siblings every few years by phone — if lucky, she'll receive an e-mail every few months. Leaving her loved ones was the hardest decision she's ever made, but she has no regrets.

In Burundi, many little girls don't get clothes and books, much less the encouragement to pursue a dream. No one believes women can succeed at sports like men. Nukuri wants to show these girls what's possible, hoping one day to financially support their access to education and athletics.

"I think about what my life would be if I were not running," says Nukuri. "It means everything. It's the reason why I'm here."