Kenyan Kikanae Punyua pursues his dreams in an imperiled Terps program

Kikanae Punyua

COLLEGE PARK — The college 5K race was ending too soon for University of Maryland freshman Kikanae Punyua. He summoned his legs to stride faster but felt instead an unnerving sense of fatigue — a vulnerability unfamiliar to a 20-year-old who had rarely confronted limits to his athletic promise.

Punyua’s loping stride was giving way to strain and resignation. Two-thirds of the way through his early-evening heat, the Kenyan-born runner veered off William and Mary’s red track at April’s Colonial Relays. Hands on hips, he walked away from the 18 other runners who continued to circle him, and stared off toward the stadium lights.

It all seemed to catch up to Punyua as he staggered off the track. He was trying to finish the race, the spring season and, ultimately, a promising Maryland athletic career. But it was being jeopardized by the school’s decision to discontinue much of men’s track.

Already emotionally taxed, Punyua couldn’t have known that he was nowhere near the end of a jarring, unpredictable route. In a yearlong period beginning in November 2011, Maryland made the decision to drop men’s track, then preserve a portion of it. The latest twist came in Monday’s announcement that the school will reconsider the elimination of two of the three men’s track teams (cross country and indoor) — and other discontinued sports — because of the financial windfall expected from its move to the Big Ten Conference. It’s not yet known which teams will be restored.

The announcement, while holding promise for the teams’ futures, intensified the feeling of Punyua and dozens of other affected athletes that they are being swept along uncontrollably by a powerful tide. “When you’re running, you just think about the future,” Punyua said. “And you think: ‘Where are we going to be next year?'”

All Punyua knew in April was that he was beginning a stretch of important races in the first year of a college career he hoped would change not only his own life, but help position him to change the way of life of his tribe in Kenya. His sinewy, 5-foot-8, 130-pound body was already signaling that he was completely spent — the accumulated toll, he believed, of the first wave of uncertainty over the Terps’ running programs and of the weight of his own lofty ambitions for himself and his tribe.

Maryland’s original proposal to cut eight sports by July because of a multimillion-dollar budget deficit left team members facing difficult choices: stay in College Park at the university they had chosen or transfer to another school. Private supporters were trying to raise enough funds to save at least some of the teams. The Big Ten move wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Punyua’s decision was especially complicated because his running was linked to his vision for trying to culturally and economically reform his tribe.

He had traveled so far — and come through so much — to make it in the United States after arriving from Kenya, where his family lives in a mud hut with no indoor plumbing or electricity.

As he put on his spikes, dark shorts and a red top with “Maryland” in white lettering across the front, Punyua was uncertain what portion — if any — of men’s track would be preserved.

Punyua is a cross-country specialist and didn’t know if he could continue at Maryland with a limited track program remaining. He was a runner with an uncertain course, one who was desperately trying to make sure his dreams survived intact.

Life in Kenya

More than 7,500 miles away from College Park, Punyua’s family and friends, members of the Maasai — a nomadic people who traditionally raise goats and sheep — could hardly fathom that a university athletics program in the prosperous United States would have found itself in such dire financial straits before the Big Ten’s invitation came along. The Big Ten’s payout to its member schools is expected to far exceed the average of $17 million that Maryland and other Atlantic Coast Conference schools receive annually in shared television money.

Earlier this year, Punyua tried to explain what he knew of college athletics finances to his father, stepmother, seven brothers and three sisters in the Narok District, about three hours from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. But it was no use. “They see America as a great place that never runs out of money,” Punyua says.

Punyua — who used to run about three miles to school with his brothers — first came to the United States as an exchange student, attending Wilde Lake in Howard County as a junior. Coming to America was always a means to an end. “I feel like what is pushing me more than anything else is my people back home. I am really needed there,” said Punyua, who speaks English and Swahili, as well as his tribal language.

From an early age, he had a vision of trying to uplift his tribe, particularly the women, many of whom are married off before they turn 16, often to men selected by their fathers.

Punyua was influenced by the distant but powerful memory of tribal elders arriving at his home when he was 5 to deliver the news that his mother had died. “I think it was a disease [she had] but I’m still not sure. I would like to honor her in one way or another,” he said.

Finding a mission

His cultural agenda includes an item that could hardly be more contentious in the Maasai’s deeply patriarchal society — ending ritual genital mutilation of young girls. Punyua grew up around the outlawed rite of passage in which some or all of the external female genitalia are removed. Punyua and many others say the practice continues today. He has told his father that his family needs to set an example by sparing his own sisters (the eldest is 13) the ordeal.

His Maryland education and track career was to be the base on which to prop up his goal of aiding Maasai women. He wants to make a name for himself in one country so he can gain enough authority to help another.

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