Two years ago, Diana Jepchirchir won the Sun Belt Cross Country Individual Championship as a runner for the University of New Orleans. But her quest to the individual title was not as easy as one might imagine.
Jepchirchir arrived on the University of New Orleans’ campus on Aug. 25, 2005. She had plans to get her schedule set and start the fall semester. Then Hurricane Katrina hit.
Considered as one of the five deadliest hurricanes in United States history, Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana on Aug. 29, 2005 as a strong Category 3 hurricane. In the aftermath of Katrina, much of New Orleans was under water.
“I came from home on Aug. 25 and Katrina was on the 29th. It happened just four days after I got to the U.S.,” Jepchirchir remembered. “I didn’t even have my class schedule yet. I was supposed to meet someone to set my schedule, but I didn’t get a chance.”
In the weeks following, Jepchirchir stayed at the University of New Orleans’ basketball arena and a teammate’s house. A month later, she moved to Baton Rouge, La., roughly 80 miles away from New Orleans, and continued her studies at Louisiana State University. However, athletically, she was still competing for the University of New Orleans.
“They let us just be visiting students,” Jepchirchir explained. "We were at LSU with LSU ids and everything, but competing, you were competing as the University of New Orleans."
The time period was stressful for the Kampala, Uganda-native. Yet, it was the stress that pushed her even more.
“It was really a lot of stress, considering I didn’t know many people and I couldn’t even get in touch with my family back home,” she said. “The communication network was cut off. Running was the only way to release some stress. That’s what I do to release a little stress; go for a run.”
Her hard work paid off as she won the Sun Belt Conference women's individual crown with a time of 17:24.98, which set a new school record in the 5K. Then at the NCAA Central Regionals in Waco, Texas, she completed the 6K course in a time of 22:13.35 and garnered All-Region honors. She capped off her first season by collecting Runner of the Year and Newcomer of the Year from the Louisiana Sports Writers Association.
However, as the University of New Orleans was rebuilding its athletic programs, the cross country and track and field programs were cut. Jepchirchir started looking at schools elsewhere. Meanwhile, Coastal Carolina Track and Field Head Coach Alan Connie got informed of Jepchirchir’s availability through a colleague.
"She was a pretty well known athlete because she was the champion in the Sun Belt Conference in cross country and the 3,000 and 5,000 in indoors,” Connie said. "My friend Brian Fetzer told me because I wasn't aware that New Orleans had dropped its program. He said Diana Jepchirchir was looking for a program and he gave me the phone number of her current coach, Brian Neal."
Connie called Neal, who knew of Coastal's program. At that point, Connie was informed that SEC, Big XII and ACC schools were also looking at Jepchirchir.
Connie contacted Jepchirchir and remained in touch with her. He set up an official visit for Jepchirchir, who at the time had 12 full scholarship offers from several major universities.
"Diana came down here when we were hosting the Big South Outdoor Track and Field Championships," Connie remembered. "She came in on a Saturday. It was supposed to be the third day of the meet, but it got rained out and postponed to Sunday. She was here during that whole final day, which was an awesome day because we won the championship. She made the comment to me how impressed she was."
That one visit was all it took for Jepchirchir to know that Coastal Carolina would be where she was headed to next.
“During my visit, I liked the program,” Jepchirchir said. “It was the best option considering the fact that I needed a smaller school and not a real big school.”
When Jepchirchir came to Coastal last year, she had an injury that limited her training. Yet, she saw standout Julia Viellehner's hard training ethic and knew that was the level where she wanted to be.
“Julia really motivated me," Jepchirchir said. "If I was healthy last year, it would have been really nice to train with her. But still, her times and the records she set were the motivation for me to work hard.”
That motivation seemed to do the trick this year as Jepchirchir established herself as one of the top cross country runners in Coastal Carolina women's cross country history. She ran her way to the Big South Conference individual title and Runner of the Year honors, two Big South Cross Country Runner of the Week selections, All-Conference and All-Region honors and a NCAA Cross Country Championship berth. Along the way, Jepchirchir’s set Coastal and the Big South’s 6K record, first setting it at NCAA Pre-Nationals and then breaking it a month later at the NCAA Southeast Regionals with a time of 20:22.50.
“I was so happy,” Jepchirchir said with a smile and a laugh. “We went to Paul Short, and I ran 20:57 and I was really happy because that was my first-time ever breaking 21:00 [in the 6K]. The next race was Pre-Nationals and my aim was to run better than 20:57 at least. Surprisingly, I ran 20:24 and I was so, so excited. At Regionals this year, I was just hoping to get something near 20:24. I’m mostly glad I improved, even if it was by two seconds. It is still something."
"I'm very proud of Diana; she matured a lot” Connie said. "She was unable to train properly last year. This year, she's been able to train. She's hardly missed any training sessions. I think Diana has a lot of pride and she wanted to show everybody the type of runner she is."
Jepchirchir will compete in her final cross country race as a Lady Chanticleer at the NCAA National Championships on Monday, Nov. 19 at LaVern Gibson Championship Cross Country Course in Terre Haute, Ind. The 6K course she’ll be on is the exact same one where she first broke Coastal and the Big South’s 6K record with a time of 20:24.50.
“I’m telling myself that there’s nine regions and that the top person in each of those regions are going to be there," Jepchirchir continued. "I’m counting 45 people who might be better than me. Who knows, someone could have a bad day or someone could have a good day. Having been there and running the course twice, I really hope I have a good day and make it to the top 25.”