Betsy Saina’s ISU career is over, but impact on the team remains

Betsy Saina is a three-time National Champion in cross-country, the 10,000 meter run and the 5,000 meter run. She is also an 11 time All-American and a nine time Big 12 Champion. Saina plans to run in the Olympics and run for Nike. 

Ryan Young

Action shots, awards, plaques and a giant Kenyan flag hang on the wall of Betsy Saina’s West Ames apartment.

And while they all mean something different to her, Saina has switched her focus to something she feels is more important — competing at the next level.

“When I first came here, I had no idea that I would be pursuing running as a career someday,” Saina said. “I look back sometimes, and I just think, ‘Wow, that’s great.'”

Saina came to the United States from Eldoret, Kenya. After high school, she found a program that allowed students-athletes to go to college in the United States as long as they met certain qualifications. Saina knew that coming to the states was something she wanted to do, but she had no idea where to go.

Several different schools had approached Saina about running for them. But there was one man, she said, who made all the difference: former Cyclone runner Barnabas Korir.

“He came up to me and said: ‘I’m going to help you go to Iowa State. They have great coaches, great programs and the people are really friendly,’” Saina said. “He knew more about it than I did and was really convincing. So I made my decision and came.”

Former ISU coach Corey Ihmels knew he had something special in Saina. When she first arrived, he knew she could make a huge impact on the team. Saina, however, wasn’t so sure.

“He wrote me a letter early on, saying he thought I could be in the top 10 at nationals. I remember thinking: ‘I don’t think this makes sense,’” Saina said. “But then I finished ninth, and I realized that he was right. I was really able to trust him after that.”

That was about the halfway point in Saina’s career at Iowa State and about the same time Ihmels said he saw a big change in her. She started going on extra runs and doing extra workouts.

“She reached a point where she decided that she wanted to be great,” Ihmels said of Saina. “After that, she really picked it up and did the little things. She went on those extra runs and did those extra workouts. She gave everything she had and was really second to none.”

And Saina was a powerhouse while at Iowa State. She was a three-time national champion during her career, winning the 5,000-meter run her junior season, and then the 10,000-meter run and the cross-country national championships her senior season.

Saina was also a nine-time Big 12 Champion and an 11-time All-American runner. She was also named Athlete of the Year by the Track and Field/Cross-Country Coaches Association her senior season.

But Saina’s personality and determination are what her teammates think was the biggest difference.

“With her being one of the fastest runners in the country, you would think that she was all business, all the time,” said ISU junior Maggie Gannon. “But Saina was truly what kept the team light. She was so up-beat and was just a joy to be around”

Teammates also noted how much she really cared about every runner on the team, no matter their skill level. Senior Sam Bluske said Saina is one of the main reasons running was so enjoyable for her.

“Betsy would take the younger girls under her wing and help them with homework or cook them dinner. She truly cared about you, no matter how good of a runner you were,” Bluske said. “There is no doubt in my mind that she will be running in the Olympics some day. She is going to accomplish so much, whether in running or in coaching.”

But all good things come to an end eventually. Saina graduated from Iowa State last spring with a degree in agriculture and life sciences. Instead of pursuing something in that field, Saina is still running and trying to make a career out of it.

Saina has several career goals she wants to accomplish. But in her mind, two stand out above the rest.

“If everything works out, I want to run in the World Championships and the Olympics,” Saina said. “I really want to represent Kenya and be able compete with some of the best in the world.”

Saina, a new member of the Nike running team, started training again last Monday. She is also preparing to move from Ames in the coming months to train either with Ihmels in Boise, Idaho, or with a team in Eugene, Ore.

“She is going to do crazy awesome things wherever she goes,” Gannon said. “She improved so much throughout her time here and really made a tremendous impact on all of us. I know that she can do that again and really succeed at a professional level.”

But Saina is still unsure of where her career will take her. Ihmels is confident, though, that she has what it takes to succeed at the next level.

“At the end of the day, she is already almost at that world-class level. Some would argue that she’s even at that level now,” Ihmels said. “But there is a difference between being at that level, and winning at that level. She is very close to being where she needs to be; she just needs to take that next step.

“I think that she can definitely do it.”