Vincent Kibunja is a junior from Nakuru, Kenya. He was the 2017-18 Maple Leaf Male Athlete of the Year, and currently holds the second-fastest 8k time in school history (24:54.6).
How long have you lived in the U.S.?
More than two years.
Have you been able to go back home at all?
I haven’t gone back to Kenya. But I’m going to be going next summer with my fiancé and her family.
You were at Monroe College in New York City before coming to Goshen. How did you find out about Monroe?
It was on Mar. 1 of 2016. I had an issue with my ex-girlfriend. I decided I was going to go visit (my ex-girlfriend) to try to solve what was going on. I didn’t have any fare to get to her house so I had to find another way to get there. I woke up at 5 in the morning and I ran 15 miles to her house but she told me, “I’m done, it’s time for us to move on.” So I was kind of depressed and the same day I said, “Ok, I’m going to go see our home track stadium.” It was my first time stepping in that stadium. I saw one coach training people and I was like, “I’m gonna go start training with these athletes because I want to not be stressed.” You know when you’re stressed, you just want to run? I said, “Let me run, and then see how I’m going to feel.”
How did this lead to you discovering Monroe?
When I was running, the coach asked me, “Who are you? Why are you training with my athletes?” I told him the story and then he was like, “Do you like to run?” He told me, “I’m going to offer you a scholarship to Monroe College.” He’s a coach that goes and finds people and takes them to the U.S.
Have you always been a runner?
I used to play soccer. I hated running so much. I never liked running. I started running because in the year 2015, my mom told me, “You should run this half-marathon. They are paying good money and you might win.” I had confidence, but I didn’t have any training. I remember in the first 50 meters, I ran so hard and then everyone passed me. I finished the half-marathon but I was so exhausted. After that, I was like, “If I try to train, then I can become a better athlete.” I decided to give it a try.
How did you find out about Goshen?
Monroe is a two-year school. They only offered a one-year scholarship. I knew I was not going to go back. I spent my entire summer searching for other schools. Rustin [Goshen cross country coach] replied to my email and said, “We are willing to welcome you to Goshen, and you are welcome.” That email touched me and I was like, “I’m going to go to Goshen.”
Tell me about your arrival to Goshen—I know there were some difficulties?
I was admitted, but I wasn’t enrolled in classes because we were figuring out where I was going to stay. The church I used to go to booked my flight for August 18. I knew I was going to have to come to the school and speak to them so I could be able to study. That was my only option. There was no way I could have cancelled the flight because if I cancelled the flight, I didn’t know when I was going to come here.
What happened when you flew in?
I came on Aug. 18 to South Bend. I took a taxi to come to Goshen. I got here around 6:00 a.m. When I came to Goshen, I saw this security guy—his name is Tom. He showed me everything in Goshen College. [Tom] took me to the Union building and I waited for the admission staff to come in. That’s when I texted Rustin, “God is Great, I’m going to be in Goshen.” I told him, “I’m also in the Union building.” He was surprised but he said, ‘“OK, let me come see you.” From there, everything worked out so well.
This cross country season, you got the second-fastest time in school history. What did that feel like?
It felt good. I remember that week before the race, I went to [Rustin’s] office and asked how to run [the race]. He told me, “Just go there and be competitive. Stick with the group and just run.” I did what he told me. During that entire race I was focused on competing with those people. Looking at the time when I was finishing, I saw 24 and I was just amazed. I can see now I am reaching my goals.
What are those goals?
My goals for track are to qualify for nationals in a couple of races and to get All-American and to break some school records.
Is there a specific school record you want to break? Do you know how close you are?
Long distance events—the mile going up. I’m so close. By a couple of seconds.
What is it that keeps you motivated?
I want to achieve my goals and my goals are higher than ever. I haven’t reached my limit and I’m still growing. I’m still new to running—I don’t know what I’m capable of doing. It’s kind of like when a child is being born, you don’t know what that child is going to be. For me, I’m that child. One of my goals is to be an Olympian. But I have to work from the ground going up. What keeps me coming back is that desire. I want to reach my goals. I want to see where I can go and I want to see my capability.
“Huwezi Kufa” has become the unofficial motto of Goshen College cross country. Where did that phrase come from?
At the beginning when I came here, it was tough for me. The only way I kept motivating myself and motivating others? “You cannot die.” Rustin asked me how to say “you cannot die” in Swahili. I said, “Huwezi Kufa.” That phrase has always motivated me when I’m down, when I’m tired, when I’m feeling pain, when I’m running. It makes me forget about the pain and just achieve it. I’ve seen even my teammates using that phrase. It kind of shows them, “You can achieve this. You’re going to feel pain, but you know yourself. You cannot die.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.