Kenyan Kikanae Punyua pursues his dreams in an imperiled Terps program

Kikanae Punyua took a long road to become a college runner, and now his athletic future is as uncertain as ever with Maryland's men's track program in limbo.
Kikanae Punyua took a long road to become a college runner, and now his athletic future is as uncertain as ever with Maryland's men's track program in limbo. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun)

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.

A few years ago, he formed a foundation — he has raised more than $7,000 — to be used for a library to educate the tribe, particularly the women.

Punyua already seems to possess influence in the community, even at a young age. His stature in the village is derived partly from his education here. But, just as important, he is regarded as not having abandoned his roots. He is "a humble boy," said Stephen Punyua, the pastor of a small Christian church who is Kikanae Punyua's cousin. "He came from the normal life of the Maasai," the pastor said in halting English.

David Weeks, who taught Punyua at Glenelg Country Day School in his senior year and visited him in Kenya over the summer, said the Maasai "see him as an individual who has intellect but also the heart of the Maasai."

There is a seriousness to Punyua. It is evident when he says he doesn't run only for "fun," but for his country and his tribe.

Two years ago, somebody snapped a photo of Punyua on the day he left Kenya to return to America for his senior year of high school. Much of the village turned out to see him off.


The well-wishers are standing in front of a tall cornfield beneath a cloudy sky. The women — wearing traditional multicolored Maasai garb — are grouped together on one side. The men are all on the other side — except for Punyua, who is wearing khaki pants and a denim-colored jacket and standing in a row of women. He said he wanted to be pictured with the women as a demonstration of his support.


"When I looked at that picture of all those people standing with him, all I thought was, 'My God, he's the first kid to get out,'" said Whitty Bass, the pastor of St. John United Methodist-Presbyterian Church in Columbia and Punyua's surrogate father when he is in the United States. "And the pressure on him to succeed? I just feel for kids having that kind of pressure."

Arriving in America

When he first arrived in Maryland, Punyua had never run competitively. He was more of a soccer player.

But, eager to please, Punyua immediately surprised Bass, his American host, by logging eight miles with Wilde Lake varsity runners when his assignment had been to run for only a short distance.

"He did it in pretty raggedy shoes," said Bass, Wilde Lake's track coach. "And the next day, his ankles were the size of grapefruits."

Punyua quickly became one of the state's top high school distance runners, attracting Maryland recruiters.

But his transition to the United States did not always feel smooth. Early on, he would forget to carry house keys because he didn't need them back home. He arrived not knowing how to use a computer.

Just when he became settled and had bonded with Bass and his Wilde Lake friends, he had to leave.

His original visa, which permitted him to attend Howard County public schools, was good for only one year and he was forced to return to Kenya. Late in the summer before his senior year, he learned that a benefactor had agreed to pay his tuition — about $25,000 — to attend a private school, Glenelg Country Day, that would accept a type of visa he could secure. The identity of the benefactor remains a mystery. "I just would like to say thank you," Punyua said.

Punyua still has a room on the second floor of the home of Bass and his wife, Gretta Ferrell. There are running shoes stacked high in the closet and a tiny Kenyan flag on a dresser.

On some Sunday afternoons, Punyua will slip on headphones and sit in the living room, balancing his computer on his lap. Then he connects to his family in Kenya via Skype, often speaking to his father about reforming Maasai cultural practices.

"His conversations are very measured," Bass said. "He knows he is up against the leaders of the tribe and that the [genital mutilation] issue goes against their whole background."

A Maryland niche

As his college career began, Punyua was viewed by his coaches as one of the team's most promising young distance runners. Unlike many American distance runners, he is comfortable beginning races in the front of the pack.

"I don't think there's any question about his upside," said Maryland track coach Andrew Valmon, who was also the coach of the American men's Olympic track team in London. "My phrase with him is, 'The sky is the limit.'"

His friends call him by his nickname: Kika (pronounced KEE-kah).

"He is very fascinating," said fellow Maryland distance runner Becky Yep. "He tells all sorts of stories."

By the fall of 2011, there were rumors on campus that men's track might be eliminated. Punyua and his teammates first learned of the decision on a November afternoon when they sat in a semicircle between the starting line and high-jump pit and were told by athletic director Kevin Anderson that a university commission had recommended their team be cut. Some of the hardened athletes — who by necessity have become accustomed to pushing forward when their bodies resist — began to cry.

Anderson — who inherited a dire budget situation when he arrived as athletic director in 2010 — seemed disconsolate, too.

"It's very hard for me," Anderson said. "Every time they look at me, I'm thinking, 'What are they thinking?'"

The cuts were implemented because the university, weathering football and men's basketball revenue declines, could no longer support 27 sports. The other discontinued teams are men's tennis, men's swimming and diving, women's swimming and diving, women's water polo and women's acrobatics and tumbling.

To Punyua and other affected athletes, the moves felt as personal as a breakup with a longtime partner.

Punyua struggled to understand the economics. In order to keep pace for the best coaches, recruits and facilities, large universities such as Maryland have shoveled money into the only teams with the potential to generate profits — usually football and men's basketball. When they falter, the "minor" sports are often casualties because there aren't enough revenues trickling down to support them. As of 2011, there had been a net loss of more than 300 teams in men's Division I sports since 1988-89, according to the NCAA.

The irony is that the disbanded teams are often the ones schools boast about because of their members' performances in the classroom. Maryland men's cross country —eliminated after last season — earned a perfect score in the most recent Academic Progress Rates, a measure of whether athletes are on track to graduate.

The season ends

Valmon and the other coaches didn't completely understand Punyua's fragile state until he pulled out of the Colonial Relays in April. Punyua was so drained he sat out the ACC championships several weeks later.

At the time of the 5K, he was taking vitamin B6 and another prescription medication to try to halt a bacterial infection.

"There was just so much going on," Punyua said. "I'm running [in the 5K], but I'm not running as fast as I usually do. It was a mental thing. It wasn't physical."

Bass remembers watching the 5K on live video from his living room. "It was night and the curves were dark. And then, all of a sudden, he didn't come out of a curve. I sat up and thought I missed something," Bass said.

It was as if the runner had disappeared.

In reality, he was walking by himself across the football field on the inside of the track. He stopped to put on his warmup clothes, looking dazed.

"He had a lot on his plate," Valmon said. "He's not only young in age, but he's young to the sport. There are no Cliffs Notes. There is no cheat sheet for how to handle all this."

Running for Kenya


In the months after the April race, Punyua entertained offers to transfer to other colleges.

He ultimately decided that —after visiting his family in Kenya over the summer — he would return to Maryland, where his friends are, and run in what remains of the program in the spring of 2013.

More than $888,000 was raised by supporters — enough to save outdoor track, but not indoor track and cross country. Men's track now has 15 team members – about half of what it had before.

Maryland's Big Ten announcement provoked conflicting feelings in Punyua. University president Wallace D. Loh said at a news conference that the school is now "absolutely committed to begin the process to reinstate some of the teams we had to terminate."

Maryland is not scheduled to begin in the Big Ten until July 2014. Punyua, now a sophomore, is hopeful that cross country — his favorite sport — might return in time for his senior year.

But he said Loh's statement can't undo the events of the past year, which has somehow left him feeling less secure of where he belongs.

"I tried to really not let it affect me in any way," said Punyua, who shares a cramped dormitory suite with four other track team members.

"But it really did impact everything — my running, even academics a little bit," Punyua said. "I was worried about my scholarship and I didn't know what to do. The team has been my family. It was very hard."

He is already in training for the spring outdoor season, in which he is expected to run the 5K, the mile and perhaps the steeplechase, an event he has never attempted before.

But first, he plans to enter a few college indoor meets this winter. Since the school has no indoor team anymore, he would not be permitted to wear Maryland red and would run unattached.

But that track and field phrase — "unattached" — is a misnomer because Punyua won't ever really be unattached. He will always run for his country.

"I should get like a Kenyan jersey with a Kenyan flag on it," he said, brightening at the thought.