Betsy Saina traveled 8,122 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to get to Ames, Iowa. She filled her story with laughter and tears; thoughtfulness and humor.
The story of Saina, who won the 2012 NCAA individual cross-country title in November, starts off in a small training camp in Eldoret, Kenya, where she was training for long-distance running for fun.
During one of her training sessions, she noticed something out of the ordinary.
“When you are in Kenya and you go to [train] and you find a white person doing recruitment, it’s kind of exciting,” Saina said. “I ended up running a good race, and he started off saying: ‘Do you want to come to Alabama?’”
Saina described her journey to the United States as almost a “crapshoot.” She could have ended up at an array of schools from as big as Alabama or TCU to small schools such as Wayland Baptist or Abilene Christian.
“The thing was, I had no idea where to go,” Saina said. “It’s just the United States. I had no idea which school was which or what was Division I or Division II. I just wanted to go.
“Those people never told us that. They just tell us: ‘Oh, you want to go to school [in the United States].’”
A crapshoot is exactly how ISU coach Corey Ihmels described it.
“That’s the process in recruiting: It’s a crapshoot,” Ihmels said. “Obviously you try to get kids that fit what I do. You’ve got to find the athletes that fit with what you do, and Betsy is a good fit with what I do.”
The decision to come to Iowa State for Saina was strongly influenced by former ISU athlete Barnabas Korir.
“He told me I would love it here, and people in Ames were like ‘this,’” Saina said. “That’s when I said: ‘I’m coming to this school.’”
Now that she is at Iowa State, Saina had to leave family back home. Saina said she gets reactions from her friends because she keeps in contact with her family more than some of her friends do, and their families live in the same country.
“I can’t sustain myself without communicating,” Saina said. “I call my parents all the time. When everything is going really well, that’s when I do well.”
Saina has been sure to tell her family about all that she has accomplished at Iowa State, including her most recent feat — the 2012 NCAA individual cross-country national title.
“My parents are those people who are not into sports very much,” Saina said. “I remember when I won the title for the indoor [last year] and calling my parents, and I said: ‘Yeah, I won the title for the indoor,’ and they were just like, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ They have no idea, except how important it is to me.”
Saina had to explain the national title a little more in depth for her father to understand.
“I call my dad, and I explain to him how it went,” Saina said. “And he said: ‘Oh, good job. So what are you going to get back with it?’ I had to explain if I keep running the way I am running, then I’m going to get to run with some company sometime next year.”
As the news spreads back home, Saina said a realization has come over her friends. At first, Saina’s friends were happy for her; now, they’re understanding and have become proud.
‘The little things’
When Saina came to Iowa State in January 2009, there was already a rising star on the team. At the time, her name was Lisa Koll.
Now married, former teammate Lisa (Koll) Uhl helps with assistant coaching at Iowa State under Ihmels. When thinking back, Saina said she had the fondest of memories with Uhl.
“Once she started running and doing really, really [well], I needed to see what she was doing,” Saina said. “I started with small things. ... I remember she would come in, change her spikes and [do strides] right there around that corner.”
Saina was pointing to the southeast corner of the 300-meter track, where she remembers as if it was yesterday that she was observing her teammate.
Fellow All-American Meaghan Nelson weighed in on her thoughts of Saina’s somewhat unusual premeet routine before big races.
“When you room with Betsy, she spends 90 percent of her time sleeping,” Nelson said. “For a meet day, we’ll wake up and go to breakfast, but when we come back, she’ll take a nap. ... Maybe, that’s why she’s so fast.”
Ihmels found it almost funny how much Saina loves her sleeping schedule.
“Whoever rooms with her on the road has to know that she’s going to sleep 14 hours out of the day,” Ihmels said.
Saina’s sleeping patterns are exactly what Ihmels wants members of his team to buy into — a theory of “to be a good athlete, you have to be good at doing nothing.”
Nelson said there aren’t any memories that stick out as her favorites with Saina. The past four years runs together for Nelson, and in the end, the little moments created something special.
“We go for runs together, talking ... and cooking dinners with her,” Nelson said. “She’s a pretty good cook.
“It’s nothing big, just the little things.”