“Carrying my country’s flag at the London Olympics has been the highlight of my running career so far. I loved dressing up in our traditional clothes. I got to hang out with people from all over the world, not just other athletes from Burundi, although that was the best part. It was a great night and there is nothing better than showing off your country, especially through international sports and culture”. Diane Nukuri Johnson
A wise man once said : “Any challenges or difficulty in your life is a GIFT”; these are words upon which to meditate. Anyone, who has conquered the chaos of the region of the great lakes in the heart of Afrika, embodies the results of a self-determined individual who follows such sayings. Diane Nukuri is an athlete who at a very young age, understood that challenges and difficulties surrounding her did not necessarily represent who she is, and who she intended to become. An Olympian in her own right, hers is a story full of inspiration, and golden examples of how one’s determination and self-awareness can keep you ahead on life’s many meandering tracks.
TAP presents you……a strong, beautiful and proud Burundian ambassador:
TAP gives you……a proud Burundian ambassador:
Introduce yourself to TAP. Name, where were you born/grew up, favorite moment as a child?
My name is Diane Nukuri-Johnson. I was born and raised in a small village in Burundi about 25 miles from Bujumbura called Kigozi-Mukike. I’ve been married to Alex Johnson for four years now, my dad passed away when I was 10 years old, but my mom, two older brothers, two older sisters, and three younger sisters are all still back home.
My favorite moments as a child were simple things like running around the village and playing soccer with my friends while watching the cows we had on our farm. I did a lot of fun stuff as a kid but nothing beats the times I had between 10-16 years old with my two brothers, Innocent and Emery — our family had a little house where we would grill corn, tell stories and joke about our other siblings for hours. Usually my other sisters would join if they heard a good story or some juicy gossip.
How did you get into the sport? How old were you when you found love for track?
I got into running when I was 13 years old. My gym teacher asked if we wanted to go and represent our School. I got interested quickly because that meant I had an opportunity to go to another city. I fell in love with running right away — I mean I ran pretty much everywhere since I was about three. That’s what we did in the village; doing chores, carrying a bucket of water, everything. We didn’t have a car so we either walked or ran. I still remember anybody who ever gave me a ride before I left for Canada, and of course I remember who didn’t. Right around that time, I met a coach named Jean Pierre Sinzinkayo who pretty much took care of me. I quickly realized I had a chance to do other things through running beyond the chores and running around without a purpose. He made me believe I was good enough to run and he encouraged me the same way he did with the boys.
What was it like being a track athlete in Burundi during your time?
Being an athlete in Burundi was hard especially being a female. A lot of women used to come to my mom’s house to tell her it was embarrassing to see me running around in my short shorts and saying discouraging words. I mean I have a lot of support from Burundians in general but I have people sending me Facebook messages saying I don’t dress like a Burundian. That blows my mind how people think. I should be able to wear anything I want. I see a lot of men walking shirtless. I also had a lot of people telling me to quit school because they thought I was making money through running.
How did Diane end up in IOWA? Take us through the whole journey?
I left Burundi when I was 16 and headed for Ottawa Canada for the Francophone games back in 2001. I decided to stay in Canada because my country was not safe and most importantly I wanted to go to school and continue running because I knew I couldn’t keep doing both if I stayed in Burundi.
I went to finish my high school while living in Pickering (a suburb of Toronto) with my cousin Betty and her family. I was fortunate enough to have that kind of support from her and I do appreciate that even more today. The high school was in French because I didn’t want to take a year or two to learn English. I believe there is a rule in Canada that you have to finish high school before the age of 20, so I didn’t have a lot of time. During my senior year, I got a call from few universities from the US but the problem was that I couldn’t communicate with them that well. I took the SAT, but my score wasn’t good enough to get me into a division 1 school. Coach Layne Anderson — the Women’s head cross country coach and assistant coach for track and field back at Iowa at the time — was helping me find another option. He knew a junior college coach at Butler County Community College named Kirk Hunter who would help me get to the states, and it worked. The paperwork was very difficult — I got my Canadian resident card in time to come to the US and started at Butler in 2004. After I got my AA in Liberal Arts and learned enough English to get my grades up, I transferred to The University of Iowa in 2006. It was probably the longest process for coach Anderson, but in the end it was worth it and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere else but Iowa after Butler because he was there for me every step of the way.
How was life in college? Was it challenging combining academics and track and what was your best moments of being a student athlete?
Life in college for me was very challenging. I didn’t party; I was all about studying and training. I had to work extra hard because I didn’t fully understand English and that made my classes and everything hard. I used to see a lot of college students going out on weekends and I found out after I graduated they have college nights and stuff. We traveled a lot. I would say I didn’t even go out during summer unless it was just to dance for a little bit with my friends, which is where I met Alex; but summer for me was about staying focused on training and being ready for the fall. The best moment for me was not a conference title or earning all-American, it was getting that diploma because I worked so hard for four years and it was something I never dreamed of. I knew I could make it in running but academics were something I struggled with throughout school.
How did you end up representing Burundi at the Olympics? How does it feel to carry out your nations flag during the Olympics Opening Ceremony? Take us through your emotions at the time.
Originally when I went to Canada, I knew I was not going to be able to represent Burundi because I started there as a refugee and things were complicated. I loved Canada but I always wanted to represent my country, not because it is easy to qualify for the Olympics for Burundi, but because I love my country and not a lot of things make me happier than representing Burundi. I contacted people from home in 2009 and told them I wanted to run for Burundi and they were actually surprised, and they took me in again, which was nice.
Carrying the flag was the highlight of my running career so far. I loved dressing up in our traditional clothes. I got to hang out with people from all over the world, not just the other athletes from Burundi, although that was the best part. It was a great night and there is nothing better than showing off your country, especially through international sports and culture.
You were second in New York half marathon this year, was that one of your best performances?
New York was my breakthrough performance, and I can’t think of a better place to run well because they are always so supportive — that finish made me believe I could compete with the best in the world, and Alex has told me he hears a noticeably different type of focus and goal-talk from me since that race, and that’s probably why.
Take us through that day in Boston, where were you at the time of the bombing? Will you be on the Boston circuit next year?
Boston was a sad and heartbreaking day. Luckily I had already finished and in my hotel when the bombs went off. I heard it when I was eating lunch before we all got ready for our award ceremony. When we found out what it was, we were all so shocked, and it was hard for us to understand what had happened. It’s something I will never forget and I can only hope that it will never happen again.
What three words would your friends use to describe you?
Silly, crazy and random because I say random things and they don’t make sense sometimes.
How do you deal with injuries and disappointing races?
I used to be so down for days but now I just try to move on by hanging out with friends and family. Having a couple of drinks, especially Blue Moon, usually makes me relax. The next day I try to move on and just refocus or talk to somebody about it to kind of vent it out.
What is the greatest goal you’ve ever achieved?
The greatest goal I ever achieved was to graduate from college. I never thought it would happen.
According to your definition of success, how successful have you been so far?
I think I’ve been successful because I was able to leave Burundi at such a young age. I was able to keep fighting even when things were hard. I went to school and I finished which is something I never thought was possible for me. I never stopped running. I became a professional runner which is what I wanted since I started the sport. Success to me is not about becoming rich. It’s about doing what you love and loving life. That’s what I am doing at this moment.
What do you hope to achieve in the future?
I hope to become the best runner I can be and become one of the best in the world. If I reach my potential, that’s all I care about. I want to do a lot of projects back home to help runners and just help people see the ways they can be successful with hard work. I know how hard it is to live in Burundi and if I can help in any way that will make me happy.
Describe a life-changing experience you went through and how you grew from it?
I think a life changing experience I went through was when I was on a bus from Bujumbura back to my mom’s house in Kigozi. Some of the civil war violence was still going on, and someone shot at our oversize van, and the bullet struck and killed a soldier who had his head out of the window. At that moment I was 15 and quickly realized how short life is, and how dangerous it would be to stay — that’s what made me make the decision to stay in Canada. That made me think about what I wanted to do and that I needed to leave in order to succeed, and more importantly to be safe.
How do you deal with being a role model?
I always try to lead by a good example but at the same time I have to live my life because I can’t always make everyone happy or like me. The most important thing to me is to have a real life besides running. It’s what I love, and it’s the most important thing for me right now, but for me to succeed in running, I have to live a normal life, too.
What advice would you give to young girls and boys in Burundi and all over Africa who want to be successful in your sport?
Work hard and never give up. But always prioritize your life activities. Running has always been so important to me, but I had to go to school because I knew if something would happen to me and I was not able to run again, I would have other options. The number one thing for me, though, is to choose to spend time with people who are a positive influence — those who want you to succeed and want to succeed themselves.
If you had to live your life over again, would you change anything?
I would not change anything at all. No regrets.
Who do you look up too in your sport and in life?
In sports, I look up to a lot people, but my favorite runner is Venuste Niyongabo, Burundi’s only Olympic Gold Medalist — he won the 5,000 meters at Atlanta in 1996. In life, my mom is my hero. She has raised eight kids and did an amazing job. Without her I wouldn’t be here.
What will Diane take on once her career is done? Will you consider coaching?
At this moment I don’t know what I will do, but I can see myself coaching a small school or a club team. I also really liked organizing races, like the one I put together in Burundi.
If you had to change something about your native country what would it be? What are three major challenges facing Burundi?
If I had to change anything it would be to stop the fighting that has gone on since the war and work together to build the country, because it’s a beautiful place. The three major challenges facing Burundi are the lack of education, corruption and lack of jobs/resources.
What do you love more about Burundian culture?
I love the hospitality you get when you are in Burundi. No matter how poor some people are they still offer you food and drinks. For example, when Alex and I visited Burundi, they made him drink either a beer (Primus) or soda (Fanta) at every house we visited, and he couldn’t say no because it would offend them. I think one time he said no like 5 or 6 times before they made him have one.
We hear you are a big Kidum fan, how did that happen and which one of his songs do you like the most?
I love Kidum and I hope to meet him one day. My mom is a huge fan too. I used to listen to him when I was young and the older I get the more I love his music. I have so many favorite songs but my utmost favorite is “Impanuro.”
Majority of your family is still back home, how often do you see them?
All my sisters and brothers are all back home. I went back home in 2009, eight years after I left, and that was so hard. I’ve been back three times now and I am hoping to go home this year.
Tell us about your team, who are your supporting cast?
I have a lot of people behind me. First, my husband who takes care of me especially by making dinner when I am tired from training, which is pretty much every day. He gets to listen to me complain about everything. Coach Anderson who has now worked with me for seven years, and my family here in the USA, Burundi, and Canada. There are also a lot of friends I have met over the years who have become my family and many of them help me as training partners. My agent, Brendan Reilly, who believed in me and continues to help me achieve my professional goals. A lot of people from Burundi have reached out to me, and they have been so nice and encouraging. I would also like to add my cousin Betty and her husband Louis and their family in Toronto who took care of me for 3 years. Without them I wouldn’t be here.
Interview by @RasMutabaruka
Images by David Greedy www.davidgreedy.com
Diane’s interview was one of the main feature in our first issue.
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