Running to America

By Esther Gitahi

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I’ve always been a big dreamer.

There’d be nights when I’d look up to the stars and wonder what it would be like to travel to America and compete as a runner one day. I didn’t really know much about America, but in my mind, I’ve always had that dream.

Running was all I knew at the time. My mother was an athlete, and my sister was an Olympic hopeful. It was in my blood.

The sport took me through boarding school and competing for my home country in Kenya to a plane ride for an opportunity to compete in the United States.

Seeing my dream become a reality was an amazing feeling and accomplishment.

But it didn’t come without struggles.

The challenge of living away from your family on a completely different continent was very hard at first. 

But I also knew I couldn’t just give in to the early struggles. I needed to see things through to make the best of my future.

Esther Gitahi Alabama Cross Country 2

A New World

When the opportunity to run cross country in the United States came up, I was originally supposed to go to Texas Tech.

But that fell through because of timing.

And when it did, I connected with Coach Jeff Becker at the New Mexico Junior College.

He didn’t even know me or how well I ran, but he still insisted on helping me get into the program. He sent all of the necessary paperwork the next day, and I went to the embassy and got my visa.

This was a life-changing moment for me. Now, nothing stood between me and my dream of running for a school in America.

But as I had mentioned above, the first couple of weeks and months were tough.

Keep in mind, when I showed up in Hobbs, New Mexico, I didn’t even know what a mile or an indoor track was. Those concepts didn’t exist in Kenya.

I remember the school not even having my shoe size number. The only shoes I had were the ones I used for training back at home.

So, I simply went on the track and ran as fast as I could without knowing if the times were actually good.

That’s when Coach Becker said I was the student they were hoping to find, and they were happy to have me.

Not only did he embrace me as a coach, but he also embraced me as a father figure.

It’s hard to explain the feeling I had in my heart at that time of not knowing anybody and not having my family around.

I found myself wanting to go back home at times. Even when I was away at boarding school, I’d go and visit my family at least once a month.

But now, I sometimes wouldn’t see my family until the summer. It was really hard.

I mean, I didn’t even have a phone when I arrived in New Mexico, it all went so quickly.

Coach Becker always told me I wasn’t alone because a lot of athletes had gone through the same thing. He assured me that I was like a daughter to him and he’d always be there if I ever needed to call back home. It was really difficult for me, but those assurances allowed me to feel like everything was going to be alright.

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Honestly, I don't think there is greater motivation than having someone beat you. It pushes you to evolve almost instantly.

Another Shot at a University

Being at peace with my new surroundings helped me go on to win six NJCAA national titles and 13 NJCAA All-America selections.

That’s when Coach Dan Waters from The University of Alabama came into the picture.

He told me he’d been watching me compete ever since I was a freshman and even pointed out the previous issue with my shoes during my first run. He said he was impressed that I was still able to get in there and do my thing.

Coach Becker always told me how tough running in the SEC would be if I eventually joined a school there. He wasn’t trying to scare me, but he was trying to tell me it wasn’t going to be a joke in that conference.

I didn’t think I’d be able to do it at first, but I was also competitive enough to know I’d get better if I got to train with more experienced runners.

Honestly, I don’t think there is greater motivation than having someone beat you. It pushes you to evolve almost instantly. 

I had a lot of questions before my transfer to Alabama, but I knew God had a plan for me.

When I first moved to Alabama, I experienced similar frustrations to the early ones at the junior college.

Although I was more experienced now, the mounting responsibilities left me a bit “hopeless”. I just I didn’t have much faith in myself. My coaches were all new, and I had only made a couple of friends at the time. 

But when I expressed my concerns to my parents, my mom reminded me of why I came to the United States in the first place. 

It’s funny how you sometimes lose track of what really matters.

And also my dad, who usually doesn’t talk much, made me realize that the people on campus weren’t going to bite, and that I just had to give it some time and be myself.

And once I manifested this in my mind, everything else fell back into place. I started making an effort and created new friendships almost instantly.

Race for a National Title

My belief in my coaches at Alabama has taken me to new heights. After qualifying for nationals last year, they asked me to go out there and compete at the best of my ability.

The jump from junior college to the SEC is probably as big as it gets. So, qualifying in itself was a big accomplishment.

But, to everyone’s surprise, I finished third.

If I can be No. 3, then what’s going to stop me from being No. 1?

I know I have to train really hard for it, and do well in class, but I’m now aiming for a national title, and believe me, it’s going to happen.

Coaches keep telling me that you can accomplish anything you set your heart and mind on.

And that’s exactly what I’m planning to do.

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