By Steve Holt, Sports Writer
Bernard Manirakiza remembers his earliest competitive races. He recalls winning his first five-, eight-, 10- and 13- kilometer races in his home country of Burundi-races that would pave the way for an already decorated career as a distance runner.
But Manirakiza won’t forget the burden he had to carry on those runs-the weight of a standard-issue machine gun over his shoulder for the entirety of each race.
Then 19 years old and a new high school graduate from Lyccee of Rubanga, Manirakiza found himself enlisted in the military, as did most high school graduates. But Manirakiza, now a junior on the cross country team, didn’t enlist during peacetime-he quickly found himself on the front lines of the worst civil war his country had ever seen.
“Back home, sometimes you feel like you don’t know where you are going,” he said. “You think that if they don’t get you today, they’ll get you tomorrow.”
Manirakiza’s family is part of the Tutsi tribe, which has fought bitterly with the Hutu tribe for half of a century. Participating in a war of revenge killings and guerilla warfare, many on each side ironically have forgotten how the whole mess began.
As with other Burundian distance runners at ACU, however, Manirakiza will forever remember its consequences.
“I lost many members of my family-my parents are gone, I lost all my uncles, cousins-many people,” he said.
But Manirakiza has been given a fresh start-a new race to run-as an ACU cross country and track and field athlete. The dark, skinny, 5-9 middle distance star collected individual track and field titles in the 800-meter run indoors and outdoors and the 1,500-meter run outdoors in 2003. He has been named an all-American five times in three seasons for ACU and has been a key part of consecutive runner-up finishes at the Division II National Cross Country Championships in 2001 and 2002.
This cross country season has been no different, as Manirakiza has been ACU’s top runner at all four meets, including top-five overall finishes at three Division I meets. Saturday, he is expected to lead the ACU men to their 13th straight Lone Star Conference title.
Head coach Jon Murray said Manirakiza and the three other athletes from Burundi bring something special to a cross country team.
“It helps in that you know they’re very motivated to achieve their goals,” Murray said. “They have a lot of sacrifice. If they don’t make it, then they’ll get thrown back into that, and they’re trying to get out of it. So you know they’re highly motivated. That definitely makes them someone you want to get.”
Manirakiza’s course has been an adventurous one to this point, however.
The friendly, quiet 23-year-old credits cousin and former ACU all-American Gilbert Tuhabonye for introducing him to running. Manirakiza said he started out as a long jumper in junior high school and into high school before Tuhabonye confronted the little guy.
“He said, ‘Bernard, you need to change,'” Manirakiza said.
Tuhabonye invited his young friend on a distance run, which Manirakiza said turned him off of the sport.
“I could not keep up with him-he was too fast for me,” Manirakiza said, cracking a million-dollar grin. “Then I was scared of running.”
Fear turned to dishonesty when Tuhabonye traveled to the United States to compete for a small Church of Christ university with a “track record” a mile long.
“He kept calling me and asking me, ‘Where are you with your running?’ Then I would tell him I was training, but I was not training because I was scared of running,” Manirakiza recalled.
Eventually, when Manirakiza found success in the middle distance events as a newly enlisted member of the military, the Burundian began to take his talent seriously. Two years later, in the fall of 2001, Manirakiza was sitting in the office of head ACU cross country and track and field coach Jon Murray, staring at the decorated coach as he was asked questions about the overseas trip in English.
Two years after that, Manirakiza’s running-as well as his English-has reached a new level. In fact, the junior is drawing comparisons to Tuhabonye and more recent all-Americans Alfred Rugema and John Kemboi.
But Rugema and Kemboi, two of the most decorated ACU distance runners ever, are not gone from the team completely, Manirakiza said.
“I think I have a goal in my heart, that we also carry Alfred and Kemboi on our team,” he said. “To be there seems like they are there. Some other teams would start saying, ‘No more Kemboi, no more Alfred-the team is gone.’ I’m trying to carry on the tradition.”
Manirakiza has not only taken the place of Rugema as the Wildcats’ top runner, but he has taken his bedroom as well. When the 2002 cross country national champion moved out of the small apartment he shared with teammate Arthemon Sindayigaya, Manirakiza moved in last February.
After all, Manirakiza and Sindayigaya come from the same town and tribe in Burundi and are even distantly related.
Sindayigaya, a senior runner who will graduate in December, said the pair has gotten along great.
“He would still be able to replace Alfred because he practiced hard, he was a nice person, he respected me and I respected him,” Sindayigaya said. “We hung out together, and we made sure he knew my schedule and I know his schedule, and we make sure everything works very well.”
As Sindayigaya attests, Manirakiza is about as amiable and soft-spoken as they make them. But if anyone has an excuse to be bitter or immoral, it would be those who have seen the atrocities Manirakiza saw for 20 years. But Manirakiza and his fellow Burundian athletes are great people along with being great athletes.
“Of however many Burundi athletes we’ve had, we’ve never had a problem with the character issues or being good role models,” Murray said. “It’s probably their upbringing, where they’re from and what they’ve been through. Even though they can run really fast, they’re also just good people.”
Manirakiza’s family back home, what’s left of it, has never seen him run while he’s been in the best shape of his life at ACU. The competitive runner hopes to change that in 2004, either via television or in person, as he will try to represent Burundi in his favorite event, the 1,500-meter run, at the Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
While Murray admits Manirakiza will have to improve his time significantly in the event, he knows the runner is attempting to do what many athletes dream of doing.
“It’s one of the highest honors to be able to represent your country in that kind of competition,” Murray said. “The standards are very high, so just to be there is an honor.”
If his tumultuous past and three years at ACU are any indication, he will do just that.
Like many Burundian athletes, both at ACU and elsewhere, he tries each day to escape the memories of a war that has killed almost a million of his fellow Tutsis. And like his countrymen at ACU with similar stories, the average student wouldn’t know it.
He’s in a new race now. A free race, with no hidden stipulations or threats. A race in which he can finally determine his own results, not a corrupt government or meager lifestyle. Without fear of death for a transgression of his forefathers or the weight of an automatic weapon on his shoulder, Manirakiza is now running a race for which he never thought he’d qualify.
And as though the American flag emblazoned on his living room doesn’t scream it, Manirakiza says it anyway.
“I do like America-it’s a nice place.”