Diane Nukuri Johnson’s Olympic Odyssey

Diane Nukuri Johnson will represent Burundi the Olympic Games for the second time at Sunday's Olympic Marathon. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The Iowa resident and native of Burundi is back at the Olympics 12 years after her first experience.

If you weren’t watching closely, you might have missed the cameras quickly scan over Diane Nukuri Johnson as she proudly carried the flag of Burundi to lead her country’s team of six athletes into the Olympic stadium at the opening ceremonies in London last week. However, Nukuri Johnson is not one to be overlooked at Sunday’s Olympic marathon, and she’s made that quite apparent over her recent string of successes.

In just the past year and a half, the 27-year-old has set personal records in the 10K (32:45 for fourth at last August’s Beach to Beacon 10K in Maine), the half-marathon (11th in 1:10:55 at the New York City Half Marathon in March), and the marathon (2:33:47 for sixth at the Honda LA Marathon in March 2011).

It was at the L.A. Marathon where she qualified to represent Burundi for the second time at the Olympic Games. As a naïve 15-year-old who had little experience traveling outside her rural village of Mukike in Burundi, Nukuri Johnson raced the 5,000 meters at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, placing 14th in 16:38.

A year after Sydney, while competing at the Francophone Games in Toronto, Nukuri Johnson bravely decided to seek asylum in Canada with her cousins. She actually switched races so that she could leave the games earlier, for fear the Burundi sports ministry would take her home, a place that, at the time, was still unstable and crippled by the civil war. The war took the life of her father when Diane was only 10 years old, leaving her mother with eight children to raise. Much to her mother’s dismay, following the Francophone Games, Nukuri Johnson didn’t return home to Burundi for eight years.

“If I had gone back to Burundi, I likely would not have continued running nor have finished school,” says Nukuri Johnson, who now lives and trains in Iowa City, Iowa. She predicts she would have dropped out of school to help her mom raise her younger siblings and cousins while working on the farm. “I’d have married young and would have a couple of kids by now.”

During those three years of high school in Toronto living with her cousins, Nukuri Johnson was recruited by several U.S. coaches. However, one weekend long visit from the University of Iowa’s newly hired track coach, Layne Anderson, made a lasting impression. In fact, if it hadn’t been for Anderson’s predecessor leaving on his desk a slip of paper with Nukuri Johnson’s name and number, the two might have never connected. Before coming to Iowa in 2006, Nukuri Johnson first went to Butler Community College in Kansas where, Anderson says, she blossomed. “It was a good bridge to help Diane gain confidence in herself and improve her academic English.”

When Nukuri Johnson returned home in 2009, after eight years away, she had a high school and college diploma — an education she valued just as much as her running, and one which would’ve been difficult to attain had she remained in Burundi. In addition to earning a degree in communications and racing her way to a successful collegiate career (consistently placing in the top 10 at several NCAA championships), Nukuri Johnson met her now husband, Alex Johnson. While covering the men’s cross country and track teams for the newspaper, Johnson noticed Diane at the track and told himself, “Oh, I want to meet her!” He made sure that happened and last week on July 25, while Diane was settling in at the Olympic Village, they celebrated their third wedding anniversary, albeit a few thousand miles apart.

However, Johnson will be there for her race tomorrow morning which starts and finishes on the iconic Mall outside of Buckingham Palace. His support for and understanding of his wife is apparent. “Her true passion for the sport is not clearly seen because of her composure: she never gets too high or too low.” This, he says, is one of her strengths when racing. “The results take care of themselves. Running is just what she loves to do.”

Anderson, who has continued to work with Nukuri Johnson since she graduated in 2008, will also be cheering for her in London. He credits her resilience and discipline and cites the 2011 New York City Marathon as an example. She finished the race despite stepping in a pothole around mile 13 and seriously hurting her big toe. She took a couple months off at home in Burundi to visit family and let the stress fracture in her sesamoid bone heal. She came back in January well-rested, healed and ready to train. “She’s a worker. She does what she needs to do and never questions what’s asked of her,” Anderson says. To avoid doing long runs in the Iowa heat, Anderson says, she’s often out the door at 4:30 a.m.

“Despite her life story, she’s effervescent. People simply enjoy being around her,” Anderson says. When asked how her Olympic experience in Sydney will compare to London, Anderson suggests her evolution as a runner now with more experience. “Diane is stronger, better prepared and more competitive. She is happy, healthy, fit and fresh.”

Although she has permanent U.S. resident status, Nukuri Johnson is not a U.S. citizen. However, her husband says she would have chosen to race for Burundi anyway. “She wants to do great things for the women of Burundi in sport,” he says.

Nukuri Johnson says she is very proud of where she’s from, “It’s nice to know people there appreciate what I do,” she says.

Thankfully, some people in Burundi didn’t overlook her talent as a blossoming young runner in a small village. Certainly the rest of the world should take notice of this woman at tomorrow’s Olympic Marathon. Appropriate for the race location, the meaning of “Diane” in the Celtic language should be some indication of her visibility: brilliant and divine.

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