The Register’s Bryce Miller’s Story on Betsy Saina

Betsy Saina-Iowa State Courtesy Micael Scott

Betsy Saina-Iowa State
Courtesy Micael Scott

Bryce Miller, Des Moines Register, visits with ISU NCAA Champion Betsy Saina, and what is next for the former Cyclone star.

As the car motored from the airport along a chilled stretch of road leading to Iowa State’s campus, Betsy Saina experienced a strange feeling as night descended on central Iowa.

“I was very scared,” Saina said. “All I knew, it was just so cold.”

Ames, though, became the place where running and dreams intersected and warmed, a street corner on the road to what’s possible.

Saina, a three-time NCAA champion for the Cyclones, has returned to what used to be her only familiar climate. This weekend, she’ll try to overcome one of the biggest challenges a distance runner could face — contending for a spot on Kenya’s world championship team.

“It’s huge,” said Saina, 25. “I’m not saying the American team (for the world championships) is very easy. But with the time that I have, it would be way easier to make it (in the U.S.).

“But at the same time, two of the three spots in Kenya are wide open, I think.”

Saina will do what she’s done successfully so many times before — put one foot in front of the other in a test of legs, lungs and mind during a bid to qualify in the 10,000-meter run. The top three Saturday will travel to Moscow for next month’s world championships.

The chance to make the team appears as strong as Saina’s stride is steady. Saina won her third NCAA crown at this season’s outdoor championship in the 10,000, just months after becoming Iowa State’s first national cross country winner since Dorthe Rasmussen in 1981.

In addition to the recent success of Saina, two top Kenyan contenders also are likely to be sidelined.

Vivian Cheruiyot, a world champion at the distance who won a bronze at the 2012 Olympics to pair with a silver in the 5,000, is taking maternity leave. The status of Sally Kipyego, the 2012 Olympic silver medalist, is uncertain because of a heel injury.

Kipyego proved how tough making Kenya’s 10,000-meter team can be. In 2011, she became the first woman in her country’s history to live and compete in the United States (Texas Tech) and qualify for the elite event.

One family and one foot — affecting two of the three medalists at last year’s Olympics — means opportunity’s door has been kicked open even more widely for the Iowa State star.

“I pray about it all the time,” Saina said. “It makes me feel excited to have a shot to face the world.”

A major reason Saina is in position to compete for a shot on the world stage is because of that cold, dark ride to Ames.

Recruiters from NCAA programs routinely visit an elite training camp in Kenya to evaluate distance runners. A few began to approach Saina, who eventually was swayed by a former Iowa State runner from Kenya with a convincing argument that the friendly people in Ames outweighed the other sales pitches.

Saina grew up in Kenya’s middle class — “not poor, or rich,” she says — with a father who worked as an elementary-school teacher and mother who operated a small business. Still, the decision to sprint across the globe and into a world filled with unknowns caused nerves to flutter.

The first morning Saina awoke in Ames, after that chilly nighttime drive, she was welcomed to a place so astoundingly far away — in lifestyles as much as miles — by something stunning.

What was that white stuff covering the ground?

“I looked out the window, and I didn’t know what was going on,” said Saina, who plans to use a college degree to become a social worker. “I talked to friends from Kenya and said, ‘Oh my gawd, can you tell me what’s going on?’ Oh, that’s snow.

“I was so afraid. ‘Oh my gosh, is this going to be a bad thing?’ But you get used to it.”

For Saina, Iowa — snow and all — has been a very, very good thing.

“In the summer, when it gets too hot, I can’t wait for the winter sometimes,” she said. “That’s a little bit crazy, huh?”

For full story and accompanying video interview with Betsy CLICK HERE!

Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller

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