24: Nukuri's patience helps her become a star

Aug. 16, 2007

Editor’s note: 24 Hawkeyes to Watch is a feature released Thursday, Aug. 2, highlighting one athlete from each of the 24 intercollegiate sports offered by the University of Iowa. More than 700 talented student-athletes are currently busy preparing for the 2007-08 athletics year at the UI. Hawkeyesports.com will introduce you to 24 Hawkeyes who, for one reason or another, are poised to play a prominent role in the intercollegiate athletics program at the UI in the coming year.

IOWA CITY — Patience seldom holds a prominent seat at the table of major college student-athletes, but for the University of Iowa’s star distance runner Diane Nukuri, patience is certainly a virtue.

UI women’s cross country coach Layne Anderson exercised patience while Nukuri, an athlete he recruited out of high school, who exhausted the first two years of eligibility and became an elite runner at Butler County Community College in Kansas. After transferring to Iowa in Fall 2006, Nukuri eventually discovered that the depth and talent in Division I requires a more patient approach to race-day strategy.

Being patient paid off for both parties. Anderson and the Hawkeyes are preparing for a second season with Nukuri on the roster this fall and because of a more conservative running plan devised by Anderson, Nukuri is an even more decorated runner than she was in junior college. Nukuri followed a 16th-place finish at the Big Ten Championship by winning the NCAA Midwest Regional in Minneapolis, Minn., and earning All-American honors by placing eighth at the NCAA National Championship in Terre Haute, Ind., last November.

“It would have been nice to have Diane here right away, but for her, junior college was probably a better option,” Anderson said. “While she was in junior college she got a better grasp of the English language and became more comfortable with her surroundings so people could see the true side of Diane. We’re really fortunate to have her for two years.”

A native of Kigozi, Mukike in the African country of Burundi, Nukuri relocated to Pickering, Ontario Canada and graduated from St. Charles Garnier High School. She competed in the 5,000-meter run at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia for Burundi. Nukuri enjoyed continued success at Butler County, becoming a nine-time National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national champion and a 17-time NCJAA All-American. Those were shiny accomplishments, but for Nukuri, Division I competition had yet to be tested.

“I’m excited about how we could finish this year. If everybody works hard this might be one of those years where we can place high as a team at nationals. Coach works really hard and we all want to do well for him. That’s the best way I can think of to pay him back for everything he does for us.”
UI’s Diane Nukuri

“I knew when I was in high school and junior college that I could run at this level,” Nukuri said. “I have always told myself that I can do better. Before, I was used to running by myself. When I came here it was a huge difference and an adjustment because I had to learn how to run my own race, but also hold back at first and run in a pack.”

Anderson knew he had a gem in Nukuri, but even then, his jaw dropped a bit during the Hawkeye Open last September on the UI’s Ashton Cross Country Course.

“I told our runners before the race not to be too concerned with leading,” Anderson said. “Then the gun goes off and Diane went out at a full sprint. She was so excited to be at Iowa, to be wearing a Hawkeye uniform, to be competing at the Division I level and to be on her home course. She wanted to go out and perform.”

Nukuri’s winning time of 9-minutes, 47-seconds is a school record at 3-kilometers. She would continue to set the pace — and continue to win — the early meets, but it became evident that the bolt-to-the-lead running style would not serve her best interests at larger meets like conference, regionals and nationals.

“We had to get Diane to recognize and understand that she was running against Division I competition now and running a more patient race was well within her element,” Anderson said. “We encouraged her to hang back a little bit and not go for the gusto right away.”

The strategy paid dividends when Nukuri placed eighth at nationals Nov. 20, becoming Iowa’s seventh cross country All-American and the first since Tracy Dahl in 1992.

“I’m hoping to stay healthy and make my senior year a good one,” Nukuri said, who was also an All-American at 10,000-meters during the 2007 outdoor track season. “I’ve enjoyed every minute at Iowa. My teammates are fun to be around, which makes it a lot of fun to be part of this team.”

The return of every runner from the 2006 squad that finished 17th in the nation is reason for optimism. The Hawkeyes have improved every season during Anderson’s four years at the helm, going from 11th (241 points) in the Big Ten in 2003 to sixth (112 points) last fall.

“I’m excited about how we could finish this year,” said Nukuri, who is pursuing a degree in communication studies. “If everybody works hard this might be one of those years where we can place high as a team at nationals. Coach works really hard and we all want to do well for him. That’s the best way I can think of to pay him back for everything he does for us.”

The highest national placing for Iowa women’s cross country is eighth (249 points) in 1982.

“We’ve spoken a lot about team goals for this season,” Anderson said. “We definitely want to move up and improve.”

It has been 25 years since a group of Hawkeye women harriers cracked the national top 10. A wait like that requires patience. The same type of patience that has helped Iowa and Nukuri become a winning combination.