Wilde Lake's Punyua finds talent on track after moving from Kenya

After leaving Kenya, Wildecats junior has flourished on track

  • Kikanae Punyua moved from Kenya last summer and joined the Wilde Lake track team, running competitively for the first time. "I was like, this is unbelievable," Punyua said. "It was a great surprise. So I just realized that I have ability, so I better use this ... to change my life and my family and my community and my country."
Kikanae Punyua moved from Kenya last summer and joined the Wilde… (Baltimore Sun photo by Doug…)
May 26, 2010|By Jeff Seidel | Special to The Baltimore Sun

The walls of the hut were made of mud, topped by a triangular-shaped grass roof. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing. Water was retrieved from a river 20 minutes away.

Nine months ago, these were the realities of Kikanae Punyua's life in Kenya, but much has changed since then. Punyua, 17, left behind his friends, family and country last summer for a chance to study in the United States.

Becoming one of the top distance runners in the state was not something the Wilde Lake junior ever imagined.

"You see a kid like this maybe once every 20 years or so," Oakland Mills assistant coach Sam Singleton said. "He runs very well. He's just a natural. He's gifted."

The culmination of Punyua's season begins Friday at the state championship meet, which he'll enter as a contender for All-State honors. In last week's Class 3A East regional meet, Punyua won the 1,600 (4 minutes, 20.82 seconds) and the 3,200 (9:22.13). He has already earned All-State (for indoor track) and All-American honors this school year, drawing interest from numerous college track programs.

His success as a runner came as a surprise to just about everyone around him, as well as Punyua, who hopes to use his ability as a runner for more than just titles and accolades.

"I was like, this is unbelievable," Punyua said. "It was a great surprise. So I just realized that I have ability, so I better use this … to change my life and my family and my community and my country."

A member of the Maasai tribe, Punyua came from Narok, about two hours south of Nairobi. His father stressed academics, sending Punyua to a boarding school near their home. Success in the classroom helped Punyua — one of 10 children — earn a spot in the AFS Intercultural program, which sent him to the U.S. for a year.

Punyua came to Maryland in July, eventually settling in at the home of Wilde Lake cross country and track coach Whitty Bass. Punyua briefly considered going out for the soccer team, but eventually decided to run for Bass on the Wildecats' cross country team.

At his first practice with the team, Bass placed Punyua with an inexperienced group that was instructed to run three miles. As he approached the point where he was supposed to turn around and come back, Punyua told senior Mike Kroeker that he wanted to keep running. Kroeker's group eventually completed an eight-mile workout that Punyua handled with ease.

"We thought it was something incredible," Kroeker said of Punyua, who took fifth in the Howard County cross country championships, second in the Class 3A East region and sixth in the state. "I really haven't seen anything like it before."

During indoor track season, Punyua went undefeated in the 3,200, sweeping the county, regiona; and state titles. Bass tested Punyua by taking him to the National Scholastic Indoor Championship meet in New York after states, where Punyua ran a personal best of 9:16 — 20 seconds better than he'd ever run before — and finished sixth to earn All-American status.

"It was just remarkable, and all of us were just thinking what a story it was," Bass said.. "This just opens doors for him."

Punyua, 5 feet 8 and 117 pounds, is long and lean, running with the kind of grace that makes other runners envious. He possesses a naturally smooth stride that the best distance runners have, and seems to be almost floating on the track. Punyua is aggressive, preferring to shoot to the front in races — a daring strategy that good runners often won't try.

With dreams of attending an American university to become an engineer and later returning to help his native country, Punyua wants to come back to Wilde Lake for his senior year. Approximately 20 college programs have contacted Bass about having Punyua run for them.

However, Punyua's J-1 visa expires June 30, and if it isn't extended, he must return to Kenya. If that happens, Punyua said securing another visa to come back to the United States for high school or college — even if he gets a scholarship to run — could be a very difficult task.

Punyua said he'll have no problem when it's time to return to his family and their hut, which is roughly the size of Bass' living and dining rooms. In fact, a return to Kenya would be fine with him. But Punyua still holds out hope that his newfound running skills will lead to college, and eventually the ability to make a difference in his country.

"When I go back, I feel like I might get a chance to change the country and the community since most of our community people are illiterate and didn't go to school," Punyua said. "I want to help my family, and I want to make things better for them."

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