Running for Peace, Racing for Opportunities
For Emily Cheptoo Tangwar, distance running has been part of her daily routine for her entire life. As an elementary school student in Eldoret, Kenya, Emily ran back and forth to school from her home on a farm, an average of eight miles a day. Now, this petite 5-foot-2-inch, 97-pound USC Upstate freshman runs for her school, on USC Upstate’s first cross country team fielded since the Spartans joined NCAA Division I in the Atlantic Sun Conference and on the inaugural track and field team.
Emily competes in the 800 meters, one mile, 3,000 meters and 5K events, but her race of preference is the 5K. In fact, in all of the six cross country meets held last fall, she finished in the top five. For her efforts last season she was named Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year, All-Conference and All-Freshman. But she proves equally versatile in the shorter races. So far into the 2008 track and field season, she is ranked number one in the conference for the 3,000 meters and is in the top three for the mile and 800 meters. At the recent A-Sun Indoor Track & Field Championships, Emily won three individual championships–3,000 meter, 5,000 meter, 1 mile–and was named the Atlantic Sun Most Outstanding Runner and Most Outstanding Freshman.
“Emily is very kind, very humble, but fearless once she steps on the track,” says Ed Schlichter, assistant track and field coach. “She preys on her competition as she patiently waits for the right moment to surge past.”
One of nine children growing up on a farm in the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, Emily knew her chances for a college education would be dependent on her running ability. She had planned to attend college after graduating from Loreto High School, but the death of her father in 2003 derailed those plans for a time. In 2006, another opportunity came along for her, and she briefly attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she realized “it was just too cold.” She was able to transfer to USC Upstate in the fall of 2007 on a full athletic scholarship.
Being so far from home and family has not been easy for Emily, especially since the recent election violence that erupted in Kenya after the December 2007 elections. She now knows that her family, while near areas where violence broke out, is safe. Electric power has been intermittent, making cell phone conversations and e-mail communication erratic.
“I am affected mentally,” says Emily, “and of course I worry about their safety, but Kenya is such a nice country, a peaceful country.” Emily adds that she has “high hopes” for a United Nations brokered peace deal between the tribes of the opposition leader and the sitting president as she sees some normalcy returning to her country.
“What has happened in her homeland has definitely taken a toll on her,” says Schlichter, who, along with the other coaches, teammates, teachers and friends, surrounded her with support during the worst periods. “But with her support system and things starting to calm down a bit in Kenya, Emily has really begun to take off.”
Head coach Jimmy Stephens observed Emily during the months of unrest in Kenya and says that while the uncertainty did affect her training, she has now “turned it into motivation to run and train faster.”
“I will get to go home in December this year,” says Emily who has not seen her family since 2006. When she returns to USC Upstate after the winter break, she will begin courses in the Mary Black School of Nursing. After she graduates, Emily plans to return to her native Kenya to begin a nursing career.
“My focus is on general health issues,” she says. Emily adds that she will be equipped to handle the medical, technical and equipment advances that will come to Kenya in the future because of her education in the United States here at USC Upstate. She also states that she is very thankful to the United States government for allowing her to study in America.
“Emily’s number one strength is her character,” says Coach Stephens. Coach Schlichter echoes Stephens’ comments, adding that Emily “is a tremendous person and athlete, and what she does and how she does it should be an inspiration to everyone.”