Surprising African arrival saves, then stars on, cross country team

Less than two months ago, Jeffersonville (Ind.) High School didn't have enough runners to field a boys cross country team. With precious little time to find new recruits, Jeffersonville coach Mark Felix needed a miracle. He got something even better: An enthusiastic Rwandan novice in search of something to smooth the transition from his home country.

According to Matt Koesters of the Jeffersonville (Ind.) Evening News and Tribune, Felix was introduced to Jeffersonville freshman Leonard Kwitonda by Amy Austin, the school's girls cross country coach and a physical education teacher. Austin saw Kwitonda in a handful of different athletic activities in her class and asked him if he had ever run competitively.

It turns out Kwitonda was new to running, but he was hardly new to competition. An emigrant to the U.S. granted asylum because of Rwanda's ever perilous security, Kwitonda first visited the U.S. with the Rwandan National Junior Basketball team. With an uncle living in Jeffersonville, the 15-year-old was allowed to take asylum in Indiana, and eventually enrolled at Jeffersonville High.

By the time Austin discovered Kwitonda, he had already taken a spot in fall basketball practices. Still, he was eager to give cross country a try, so after being granted permission from the school's basketball coach to meet Felix, Kwitonda showed up at a practice on the track.

Since Kwitonda speaks little English, Felix spoke to him in French, Rwanda's co-official language. Kwitonda smiled. A day later, the Rwandan strolled back on to the track wearing a pair of basketball shoes, because he didn't own any running shoes. Felix jogged to the track locker room and dug up a pair of old running shoes that had been left behind. Then the coach sat back, watched Kwitonda run, and before long he was the one left smiling.

"He came out here the first day and just smoked everybody in all the sprints and all the workouts," Austin told the News and Tribune. "The first couple of weeks, he was kind of raw. He didn't know how to pace himself. But once we got him settled in, he did great."

In fact, Kwitonda has become a one-man crew for the Jeffersonville boys cross country team. Though the first four meets of his career, the freshman has earned a top-four place twice, then earned a spot in Saturday's Brown County Semistate meet after an impressive 12th place finish at the Crawford County Regional Meet.

While those early results have been good, Kwitonda's coach feels the Rwandan is just starting to scratch the surface of his potential.

"He's starting to see what great potential he has as a runner," Felix told the News and Tribune. "I can't wait to see him on the track, either. ...

"I really think he's going to go far in track and field and cross country, whatever he decides to do. If he decides to do both or if he decides to do basketball, whatever he decides to do he's going to be good at it."

For his part, Kwitonda sees cross country as just part of a gradual assimilation to life in the U.S., and to competitive running.

"Now I'm learning English," Kwitonda told the News and Tribune. "It helped me to know other languages, because here, I have my coach. He explains to me something I don't understand in French. That helps me out.

"I grow each day, every day. I just try to do better at everything."

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