By Steve Holt, Opinion Editor
Great athletes go out on top. They cap their illustrious careers with championships, records and defining moments. And they often do it despite adverse conditions.
Alfred Rugema is a great athlete.
The senior claimed his second individual title at the NCAA Division II Cross Country National Champion-ship on Nov. 23 in Ashland, Ohio, despite four inches of snow on the ground and temperatures in the 30s. Rugema’s performance was the highlight of the day for ACU, which placed second overall in the team competition to Western State College (Colo.).
“It means a whole lot to me,” Rugema said. “Coming from injury last year, being a senior and the adverse conditions-put that all together and it was a sweet win.”
“I was real proud of him,” said head cross country coach Jon Murray. “He overcame the adversity of the conditions of the meet and the crowd. He performed like a real champion.”
Rugema commanded the race pretty steadily from the starting gun after finishing third in voting for the Division II Runner of the Year award at a banquet the night before. His time of 30:43.7 in the 10-kilometer race edged out second place finisher Nick Cordes from Ashland University, who received the honor.
Rugema became the first ACU cross country national champion in 2000, leading the Wildcats to a second place finish behind Western. He placed seventh at last year’s championship in his first race of an injury-riddled season. This season’s win continued to establish Rugema’s position as one of best cross country runners ever to put on purple and white.
He has never been named Runner of the Year, however.
“You almost come to expect it at ACU,” Murray said. “It is difficult for any ACU athlete to get any kind of recognition because of our past dominance in track and field. It was not a reflection on Rugema as an athlete or a person, but of the bias of the coaches who vote.”
The Wildcats scored 81 points to Western’s 35. Bernard Manirakiza placed seventh for ACU with a time of 31:33, followed by John Kemboi in 12th (31:56.1), Martin O’Kello in 25th (32:13.5) and Jean-Marie Ndikumana in 36th (32:31.7). Arthemon Sindayigaya and Nick Branen placed 38th and 51st, respectively. Rugema, Manirakiza, Kemboi and O’Kello all earned all-America status for their races.
However, despite Rugema’s win and four Wildcats in the top 25 finishers, ACU was unable to overcome the suffocating Mountaineers of Wes-tern State. The Mountaineers dominated the top ten, placing runners in the third, fifth, sixth and eighth positions. The final three Western finishers placed 13th, 14th and 16th, respectively. The national championship resulted in Western’s fourth consecutive win and ACU’s third straight runner-up finish.
Murray said the reason was simple.
“We didn’t run fast enough,” he said. “We didn’t handle the weather well at all after Alfred. [Western] trains in it all the time. If you are able to see it and train in it all the time, last Saturday was just another day at the office.”
The weather affected the races of the two women who represented ACU individually at nationals, resulting in disappointing places. Junior Justine Nahimana placed 81st in the six-kilometer race, barely finishing ahead of senior Angie Waters, who placed 82nd.
But a senior from Burundi, who has officially changed his last name to Rugema-Gibson after his Abilene adoptive parents, overcame frigid weather and underrecognition to write his name into the ACU record books.
And reinforce his status as a great, great athlete.