HU Cross Country All American Makes Journey From War Torn Burundi
New Mexico Highlands University cross country standout Laurent Ngirakamaro made a remarkable personal journey from genocide in civil war-torn Burundi in east Africa to become a three-time NCCA All American.
Ngirakamaro ran for the Cowboys in the November 2008 NCCA Division II National Cross Country Championships, placing 25th out of a field of 184 runners during a snowy, 20 degree race in Slippery Rock, Penn. He finished 11th in 2007, leading his NMHU team to a top ten national finish.
Ngirakamaro was in the national spotlight when CBS College Sports featured him in a piece that aired in late December.
Ngirakamaro, who is 25, started running as a teenager because it helped him sleep better, giving him respite from the painful memories of hearing his father being killed while he hid under the bed with his younger siblings. He was only 11 at the time. When he was 14, his mother died of AIDS.
“Every night I couldn’t sleep because of the terrible memories and worrying about my younger brother and sister,” Ngirakamaro said. “At first I would run from what happened. When I would go run, I would come home sweaty, tired and finally get some sleep and rest for my body and mind. Then I would go to school the next morning and focus on my classes. Always, I try to overcome what happened to my family and look to the future. I don’t feel hate.”
Coaches at Ngirakamaro’s high school spotted his running talent and put him on the cross country team. He went on to run for a year at the University of Burundi. He came to the United States in 2004, when the cross country powerhouse Abilene Christian College recruited him. While there, he met and married his wife Jeanne, a fellow student and political refugee from Burundi.
“It’s unusual for an athlete to get married before they finish college, and coaches don’t always like the idea that you have a family. We also had a baby on the way,” Ngirakamaro said. “So in 2007 I started talking to coaches at other universities. Most coaches focused only on my running, but when I talked to Bob, he focused on my running, my family, my education, and my wife’s education. I said to myself, ‘that’s the coach I want.’ Then he helped me get a scholarship to Highlands and into married student housing.”
Bob is Bob DeVries, Highlands’ head cross country coach since 1992 and two-time RMAC coach of the year. DeVries has added insight with his runners because he also ran cross country for Highlands and was named Rocky Mountain Conference Scholar Athlete in 1980. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Highlands. DeVries has also coached the HU women’s track team since 2006.
“When I first saw Laurent run I turned to assistant coach Joe Quintanta and said, wow, that kid can run,” DeVries said. “His running style is beautiful – very smooth, light and efficient. He’s definitely one of the two best runners I’ve ever coached. The other is Matt Gonzales, another All American who ran for us and was in the 2004 Olympic trials.
“When you have someone with Laurent’s high level of talent, dedication and motivation, it rubs off on the rest of the team,” DeVries said. “He’s a great role model and team leader, and pulls the other runners along who want to strive to achieve at the same level. Success breeds success. At the same time, Laurent is very humble and is one of the most positive people you could ever meet.”
Ngirakamaro is a runner who enjoys the challenge of hills, flashing a smile when saying his coach knows this about him. Matana, his village in Burundi, has plenty of hills and is slightly lower in elevation than Las Vegas’ 6,424 feet.
“When I run, I feel healthy, strong and focused,” Ngirakamaro said. “If I’m tired during a race, I tell my mind I’m not tired and it tells my body it’s not tired. If your mind gives up, your body gives up.”
Ngirakamaro likes to talk about his family and his powerful commitment to them comes through clearly in every word. He and Jeanne have two sons, Derek, two, and Ethan, three months.
“We want a beautiful life for our kids,” Ngirakamaro said. “I feel very lucky. Jeanne and I can talk about the future for our children. Here we have a better life for them and we don’t have to worry someone will come in the night and kill us and leave them orphans. I grew up as an orphan and I know what that’s like.”
In my native language of Kirundi my name Ngirakamaro means “you are very important.” I’m proud of my family name and am glad I can share it with my sons. It honors my father.”
DeVries said, “Laurent is always smiling and happy when he’s with his family. He’s a very loving, devoted father and husband.”
DeVries added that Ngirakamaro brings the same extraordinary discipline and dedication he has for running to his college studies. He will graduate in May with a double major in math and finance.
“On long bus rides to meets I’d often see him crack open his accounting or computer science books to study,” DeVries said, noting that Ngirakamaro speaks French and Kirundi, and only learned English after coming to the United States.
Ngirakamaro said he plans to take his actuary exam this summer and attend graduate school in computer science at Highlands in the fall. He’ll also keep running.
“I’m addicted to running and can’t stop,” Ngirakamaro said. “I will keep running long distances, maybe half and full marathons. I hope to find a business sponsor.”
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