Saina ready to take next step for Cyclones

Kevin Shay

When Betsy Saina first stepped foot on the ISU campus in the winter of 2008, she was like most wide-eyed freshman students — unaware of what the future would hold. But, unlike most incoming students, she was not used to the fierce Midwestern winters capable of canceling classes — like on Wednesday.

After all, she was from Eldoret, Kenya, a west-Kenya city located in the African Rift Valley northeast of Lake Victoria with an average high of 79 degrees and low of 48.

“My freshman year it was a little bit hard [to transition],” Saina said. “Because of the winter and all the snow. It was different.”

Assistant coach Travis Hartke, who helps coach the distance runners, agrees with Saina’s sentiments.

“It was a tough adjustment for her because when she first came in it was in the winter term and it was all snowy and everything,” Hartke said. “You know she comes from a warm-weather climate, and we would tell her that there was grass underneath the snow and I don’t think that she really ever believed us.”

Most of all, Saina struggled with cultural differences, such as language.

“It was a [cultural] shock, especially at the beginning,” Saina said. “With people speaking English all over. In my country we have different languages, with more than 40 tribes … it’s just different. It was kind of weird at first, but I am getting it.”

And while Saina was adjusting culturally, she continued to develop her distance-running skills, and has a legitimate shot at becoming a national champion this year.

“She finished second in the 10K last year in outdoors,” Hartke said. “And she should be able to compete in indoors and is definitely one of the top girls in the nation.”

In her three years at Iowa State, Saina has put up some impressive accomplishments. She was named 2009 Big 12 Outdoor Track & Field Freshman of the year and placed seventh in the 5,000-meter run at the Outdoor Championships that same year.

Last year she finished third in the 5,000-meter run at the Big 12 Indoor and Outdoor Championships, as well as second in the 10,000-meter run at the NCAA Track and Field Championships. Assistant coach Kristy Popp has seen an improvement from Saina the past two years.

“I wasn’t here for her first season, she came in the spring before I came on,” Popp said. “But even just from last fall to this year she just seems a lot more confident when she is out racing, in workouts and as an all-around athlete. I think she’s right there where she needs to be in the 3K, and will be in the 5K as well [by the end of the season].”

But once again, Saina will have to adjust after her good friend Aliphine Tuliamuk — also from Kenya — decided to transfer before the spring semester to Kansas in order to pursue a nursing degree.

“At first we didn’t know she was leaving, and we [the women distance runners] were beginning to get along as a group and it was no fun [when she first decided to leave],” Saina said. “And it was hard at first, but it’s alright. I’m happy for her.”

Saina won’t let Tuliamuk’s departure or any other obstacles get in her way as she attempts to compete at nationals.

“I feel like the past few years I’ve progressed, and last weekend was really good for me,” Saina said, as she finished first last weekend in the 3,000-meter run at the Bill Bergan Invitational. “So hopefully I can push to qualify [for nationals] in the 5K and continue to trim time on my 3K.”

While it is likely Saina will qualify for nationals in both races — barring any outlying circumstances — she is not going to take anything for granted.

And as she said, just take things “step-by-step to get there.”